Towards the end of his life, the novelist George Orwell wrote a short, reflective essay on Why I Write. This is a question that is with me on a daily basis. I can’t imagine that this question is not the primary question of any creative or performing artist, at least at some point in their life. Why do we write, draw, paint, compose… make?
Orwell deals immediately, almost dismissively, with the obvious need to write for livelihood. I can relate to his dismissive mentioning of the “need to earn a living” from one’s art. This idea that we must make money and sustain ourselves from our art, make our profession, like that of a lawyer or a physician, is common amongst Americans. I think this is more of an artifact of growing up with a specific worldview. It is not a common feature of artists in every society, and certainly not universal in our society. However, it does seem to be a predominately attitude and is often more of a bane than an enrichment of our creative lives. It is not the reason to create that Orwell is after, and I agree. I think it is worth explaining this, for the benefit of those who are still embroiled in this confusion between the need to create, and the need to make a living. My advice to younger artists is to leave this concern behind immediately. Even if that means making your living in a way that is entirely separate from your art.
When I was younger I struggled to make a living with my creative endeavors. I enjoyed both music and writing, so I took up professional training in both of these, at conservatory and at university. It seemed to be obvious that we were learning our trade so that we could one day practice it as a profession. Captivated-in-an-acceptedness of this notion, I did not question it until later in life. When I was a conservatory student, I would encounter the odd house painter, or postal employee who, I would later discover, was also a master artist or pianist. Caught-up in an adolescent worldview of the way I thought things were, I surmised they had somehow failed in their art. That was the ideology of our project; to go to conservatory to become working professionals. The professional musician makes his living with music, it was assumed, or he is not a professional. Yet here we encountered competent musicians, making their living doing something other than music. At this point it is probably important to rethink the assumptions between an economic-based term like professional, and its relevance to the deep impetus to create. It is not a long journey down that thought path before one realizes they are not necessarily, but only conventionally, related concepts.
I think it is important to consider why Orwell mentions making a living in such a dismissive way. I do not make my living as a musician, but I am a musician. If the young conservatory student version of myself, met my present manifestation, he would probably feel a little sorry for me. Wondering how I could have settled for such a mediocre career. On the other hand I would be wanting to free the young me from the burdensome confusion between making art and making a living.
As recently as last week someone approached me to tell me how much they enjoyed listening to music I had composed and performed. “I listen to your CD every morning in my car!” I was very touched and thanked her. She then paused, looked at me with an awkward realization, and said, “Well, good luck with it”. I think I understood where her words were coming from. I smiled and told her, “Thank you, it has already achieved its goal; you enjoyed it!” The music was composed and shared and that was the extent of my intention. Anything beyond that is out of my hands and my expectation. Orwell doesn’t discuss this Eastern notion of Wu wei, or inaction without expectation, but I think he hints at it. In an old Chinese expression of this idea, it is said, “Without appointment there can be no disappointment.”
I know which books I would turn the younger me on to: Fromm’s essays on Marx, Rollo May’s thoughts on creating, and Otto Rank’s exploration of the artist, to mention only a few. But it would make no difference. Realizing the liberation that one has, in fact the enhancement to one’s art that is experienced by clearly separating how one makes a living from how one make his art, is something that has to be lived-through and arrived at through experience, rather than learned in a book. Maybe this elaboration on why I think Orwell glossed-over this reason as a non-reason will give pause to those for whom it has not occurred to; that those seeming failures in our professional career are actually the greatest successes towards our liberation to create? The fact stands that one can do their art, but no one is obligated to appreciate, engage with, encourage, or offer money for it. These are all issues that have to do with business and social moods, not doing one’s art.
Before mentioning the need to make a living, Orwell touches on his earliest, childhood impulse to write. He describes his childhood need to narrate, understanding this as some sort of answer to loneliness. I think Orwell is on to something here. There are many psychological investigations and theories on where creative impulse comes from, and each, in their own way, makes a very convincing explanation of things. I can relate to Orwell’s idea of childhood fantasy as the first creative impulse. For me it was teaching. As an only child, I grew up entertaining myself. I still do entertain myself and have a very low need for social interaction.
As a child I recall spending hours teaching an imaginary student whatever it was that I was working on. If I was drawing, in my mind I would be teaching some class how to draw. When I was taking guitar lessons as a child, I would place my fingers on the strings, while silently correcting mistakes and congratulating successes to my imaginary student self. I see now that I was playing simultaneous roles of teacher and student. This interests me because it reveals that within me there has always been a desire to teach, and to me teaching, like any trade, is a creative act. The psychologist Alfred Adler would ask his patients to describe their earliest childhood memory, and then understand their adult lifestyle (chosen style-of-living) within the context of their childhood worldview. This is, I believe, is what Orwell was doing here, and I think he was on to something.
When I was in conservatory in New York there was a saying, “those who can do, those who can’t teach.” We were young, proud, and somewhat naive. Somehow it never occurred to some of us that the masters with whom we were studying, those musicians from The Metropolitan Opera and The New York Philharmonic, whom we admired so much were both doing and teaching. I don’t recall the students at the Belgian conservatory having the same notion. At least it was never a topic that came up in conversation around the café table.
A little later in his essay, Orwell touches on another significant something, sheer egoism. “The desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc.” For me there is something to this last point about getting our own back with grown-ups from childhood. This is important.
When we are children and adolescents, we are not the author of our own chapters. We are cowriting with others. Some of the cowriters that teach us are nurturers whose memory sustain us through adulthood. These are the teachers we return to in our darkest moments, whose words help us through the struggles, long after they have left us. There are other adults who, having been damaged themselves by some adult in their own childhood, attempt to pass-on that damage to others. I am speaking here of the teacher who humiliates or puts-down a young student’s creative impulse in an effort to build-up their own broken sense of self. I can only imagine that we all have adult teachers whom come to mind from our childhood, that said, gazed, or did damaging things which have remained with us through adulthood. This is grist for the mill for creativity. The only insight I can offer to anyone, younger or older, regarding the poisonous words of troubled teachers, is that the game was a mismatch.
A teacher who does not respect the power imbalance with a student in childhood can only expect, one day, to have to encounter that student as an adult. The power structure between adults is much different than that between adult and child. When the history between and adult teacher and child student folds into that of two adults, the younger often finds that the misstep was that of the teacher, not the student. In childhood we tend to believe the adult knows better. Because of this assumption, we often carry the burden of responsibility on our adult shoulders. It turns out that many of the negative feelings we carry from our childhood teachers have more to do with the disposition of the teacher than with the student.
It has been my experience that great insight can be gained from knowing these teachers from our childhood, as an adult. I have encountered some which it becomes clear that the person remains troubled. I have also encountered others with whom a new friendship has evolved. It seems to me that as teachers we should be willing to explore, as adults, any difficulties that remain with former students. I believe it is important to be willing to receive that conversation and make ourselves available to our former students who are now adults. Orwell’s idea of this being a part of egoism teaches us that all egoism is not narcissism, but can also be self-preservation.
In the documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke tells the story of the inspirational Seymour Bernstein who walked away from a career as a concert pianist to follow his calling as private piano teacher. There is an important lesson here for both master musicians and students looking for a teacher. There are people who are great performers and also great teachers. There are people who are virtuosic performers and horrible teachers, and there are people who are great teachers and have no interest in performing.
Although I have enormous pleasure making music with my friends, the most joyous times I have spent with music have been alone. While in conservatory, I craved to be alone with my instrument for hours. I take pleasure in playing technical scales, arpeggios, and patterns on my instruments. The practice room is still a place of bliss for me, very similar to a mediation hall. I recall asking my classmate, who at the time had just won a chair in The Metropolitan Opera (he is still there!) how much he practiced. “As little as possible,” he shot back with a smile. As a young man I was baffled by this. It started me off on an exploration of why I loved to practice, yet dreaded performing. I enjoyed rehearsals, but had no need to perform the music for an audience. For years I had thought there was something wrong with me, that somehow I had to perform to be a real musician. This is nonsense. Being a musician, the need to create, can have nothing to do with performing. Like Seymour Bernstein, who found being a musician as a teacher, or Donald Fagan and Walter Becker, who, for nearly twenty years, chose studio creating rather than performing; being a musician does not require being a live public performer.
At the end of his essay, Orwell writes,
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can either resist nor understand. For all one know that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”
This demon, this instinct that drives a baby to squall, is the phenomenology of the creative impulse. When we sit down to create, as Orwell tells us, we do not say to ourselves “I am going to produce a work of art.” We write because there is some lie we want to expose, some fact we wish to draw attention to. And that is exactly what I have done here, and I hope that my experience, as expressed here, starts some other person off on their path towards liberation through creation. In my view the act of creation is the ultimate act of free-will. It is an expression of existence on our own terms, an act that defies necessity for survival, but rather celebrates an elevation beyond mere survival. It has to be the one quality that separates us from animals who do not create for the sake of creation. Somehow the deterministic-dualist explanations of genetics and biological sex drives, or environment social context leave me unsatisfied. For Orwell, the drive to write often reduces down to a political act; a desire to change the world in some way. It seems to me that the creative impulse something more personal, more self-concerned. Ultimately it is the impulse towards autonomy and volition; an ultimate act of free-will.