August 14, 2004

dying young is overrated


More thoughts on "How To Be Creative":

14. Dying young is overrated.

I've seen so many young people take the "Gotta do the drugs & booze thing to make me a better artist" route over the years. A choice that wasn't smart, original, effective, healthy, or ended happily.

It's a familiar story: a kid reads about Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix or Charles Bukowski and somehow decides that their tragic example somehow gives him permission and/or absolution to spend the next decade or two drowning in his own metaphorical vomit.

Of course, the older you get, the more casualties of this foolishness you meet. The more time has had to ravage their lives. The more pathetic they seem. And the less remarkable work they seem to have to show for it, for all their "amazing experiences" and "special insights".

The smarter and more talented the artist is, the less likely he will choose this route. Sure, he might screw around a wee bit while he's young and stupid, but he will move on quicker than most.

But the kid thinks it's all about talent; he thinks it's all about 'potential'. He underestimates how much time, discipline and stamina also play their part. Sure, there are exceptions. But that is why we like their stories when we're young. Because they are exceptional stories. And every kid with a guitar or a pen or a paintbrush or an idea for a new business wants to be exceptional. Every kid underestimates his competition, and overestimates his chances. Every kid is a sucker for the idea that there's a way to make it without having to do the actual hard work.

So the bars of West Hollywood and New York are awash with people throwing their lives away in the desperate hope of finding a shortcut, any shortcut. And a lot of them aren't even young anymore; their B-plans having been washed away by Vodka & Tonics years ago.

Meanwhile their competition is at home, working their asses off.

Posted by hugh macleod at August 14, 2004 10:24 AM | TrackBack

Very true. Add to that an addiction to drama/sex/destructive relationships in general.

I've met a handful of aspiring artists, mostly boys (wouldn't call that a man), mostly writers, who believe that true art comes out of "new experiences" "rejecting conventional lifestyles", you get the idea. I find that tends to take up too much energy, and self-absorption doesn't write very good poetry.

Posted by: Nia at August 14, 2004 10:40 AM

I used to live in Hoxton, when Hoxton was still full of artists, rather than bankers. Studios, workshops, warehouses. We used to operate rooftop cinemas, the pubs stayed open all night. The 'Blue Note' had just opened on Hoxton Square. It was cool, it was creative, it was happening. It was awash with coke, speed and pills.
Taking drugs was the normal thing to do, not the exception.

Now, ten years later, there are two kind of people who were part of that circle: The ones who jumped off that train. They now run hotels, live in France, own start-ups, work for MTV, do interesting stuff.

And there's the other ones. The ones that are still alive, and many are not, are busy drooling in a forgotten pub in the East End. Dreaming of better days. Royalty payments have dried up, so has the talent. Anyone remembers the rabbit scene from 'Snatch'? Like that, 'proper fucked'.

Drugs don't give you consciousness expansion. Drugs turn you into a self obsessed ranter, full of conviction on the outside and full of hot air on the inside.

Posted by: Andreas Duess at August 14, 2004 10:59 AM

Since when was Charles Bukowski a "tragic example"? He didn't die young either.

It would be a pity if there was no-one to write about drinking a lot, or express the effects of taking a lot of drugs, or generally give voice to what it feels like to go through periods of life that don't fit the stereotype of conventional happiness and sensibleness.

You say the "competition is at home, working their asses off". This seems a strange comment from you, given what you have written about self-sovereignty. None of these examples of "tragic lives" could give a shit about what the competition was doing.

Posted by: Joel at August 14, 2004 4:31 PM

"The bars of West Hollywood and New York" are also awash with people saying things very similar to what you just said, Joel.

Coincidence? ;-)

Posted by: hugh at August 14, 2004 4:49 PM

Ha ha. You ribtickler you.

And I expect I could find people on the 12-step programme saying very similar things to what you have been saying.

There's nothing worse than a reformed character Hugh...

Posted by: Joel at August 14, 2004 5:07 PM

Actually, there's nothing worse than some random loser in a big-city bar warbling on about how drugs and booze are necessary to their "heroic art quest" yak yak yak...

But we obviously disagree on that one.

Posted by: hugh at August 14, 2004 5:58 PM

Hemingway had a great article he wrote for the Toronto star on the same subject...He admonished American tourists not to bother making trips to Montparnasse to drink with the great artists of the day, because they would all be in the studio painting, rather than wasting their time at the bar. He went on to say that the tourist would not lack the company of plenty of B list wannabes if he was thirsty, with whom he could sit elbow to elbow and bitch endlessly about how famous he wasn't and how unfair it all was. The article was funny, mean and true (like some other people we know, eh, Hugh?).

I tried the heavy drinking route as a young writer. My theory was that if I lived an interesting life and wrote it all down, I'd be golden. Two problems arose: I never had time to write while living an interesting life, and later I found that I had trouble remembering most of it. But it was sure a lot of fun...

So now I live in the middle of nowhere and the only fun to be had is in doing my work. Sure I miss the high times, but damn do I get a lot done!

There was one really good takeaway from the old reckless abandon of my youth-- since it turned out to be so much more difficult to kill myself than I anticipated, I found that the risks involved in getting an arts career off the ground seem pretty minimal in comparison. "Oh, the bills are late? Big deal, wait till some pissed off cabbie holds a gun to your head, and then tell me what's scary!" that kinda thing. It was actually good practice for getting out of the tight spot.

Anyway, thanks for this one Hugh. The little ones need to hear it nw and then from someone other than their parents.

Posted by: john t unger at August 14, 2004 6:48 PM

Stephen King observes that alcoholic snowplow drivers drink to silence the demons, too.

Posted by: Katherine at August 14, 2004 8:58 PM

Joel said:

"There's nothing worse than a reformed character Hugh..."

I respectfully disagree.

Worse is finding a mate, a talented mate, somebody who was going places, dead in his studio. Drowned on his own vomit because the fuckwit had mixed drink and pills.

Worse is bumping into another old mate in the pub, who I last saw the day he received a 25 grand royalty cheque from his label, broke, dribbling and utterly, totally fucked. Trying to bum a fiver of me.

That's worse, mate. A hell of a lot worse. Actually, I still have the occasional nightmare about it. But maybe you need to make that experience for yourself.

Personally I prefer to learn from other people's mistakes. Maybe that makes me boring. But like John said above, I sure get a lot of stuff done.

Posted by: Andreas at August 14, 2004 9:52 PM

Maybe part of the problem here is the "business plan" mindset. People who consciously try to channel their actual lives, i.e. their temperaments, their behaviour, through some sort of decadent route as a "career choice" will very rarely succeed. They're trying to live up to an abstract image, not live a reality, and in the end they're fighting their own nature.

That's not to say there aren't people who are decadent by nature, and may or may not create amazing things - much as less intoxicated people may or may not create amazing things.

William Burroughs may be the exception that proves the rule about excess as a "career choice". Though he was a reformed character, too - many times! ;-)

As part of a checklist for any old aspiring creative who can't work out for themselves how to go about their business, this "Dying young is overrated" may be worthwhile. If they've not found their own way yet, they're probably not the type to do well from taking fistfuls of drugs.

But as some universal law, there's always exceptions. Blake said, "One law for lion and ox is oppression" - or in this case, it's just inaccurate. I've no special preference for the "lions" of drink 'n' drugs, but it's kind of pointless pretending we're all oxen.

Posted by: Gyrus at August 15, 2004 7:25 PM