Or, A Portrait of a Young Artist in Old Capitalism
The math gets weird when you turn twenty, and the five years before twenty-five are in reality a decade. In that decade, you have the angst of a teenager but you’re supposed to be an adult. Everything is poignant and sad or else you are drunk a lot, or both. I spent a good amount of time crying on public transportation.
I don’t want this to be a story about my personal travails, though I often tell my students that I could make them feel better about their own lives by just handing out my resume, so here you go: trash collector, nude model, nanny, interviewer for the Minnesota Department of agriculture, waitress, coffee jerk (now called barista I hear), custodian, receptionist, proofreader, teen counselor, overnight counselor. I am what happens when someone reasonably talented and with white privilege gets zero career advice and does not have family connections or the internet. Well, to be fair, I did have family connections, but these were limited to the field of radiation safety, which did not draw my attention because I could not keep straight the various parts of the atom. My brother stayed in Midwest and worked at the family business, scraping up nuclear waste in a full-body disposable protective suit, while I got to leave. So I moved to Boston because it was not the Midwest, and I arrived with a phone number of someone who worked at a publishing house given to me by the father of the couple I nannied for in Minnesota. Needless to say, that went nowhere, as did the internship application I sent to the mom of a young woman I was in love with. After those two attempts at what I thought I wanted to do in some sort of official post-college life, I gave up and did what I could.
What I want to zoom in on, first, is me on my twenty-fifth birthday. It’s cold and gray, and I am walking with a gaggle of friends from college down Mass Ave. in Allston. We should have moved to New York, I know that now, because that would have been “cool” in some globally recognized artistic sense, but it’s okay. It’s all okay. And then I could have written a dramatic essay about leaving New York. Instead, we were in Allston, which still was compared to New Lenox, Illinois, quite amazing. And things would happen there, and I’d finally get luck in a round-about way through very slow on-ramps, but that had not happened yet.
Anyway, this is not that time. I am shattered with the knowledge that I am suddenly 25, 25 and one minute, 25 and two minutes, and I am on the crest of a downward slope that I don’t even understand, because 22 is a time to be barely born while 25 is older than when my mom gave birth to me. So I was walking in a CVS parking lot and I went in and bought myself some pink nail polish as a birthday treat, and I was crying. We went to a Mexican restaurant near our various apartments and bought drinks and chips at like 3 p.m., and I didn’t even know why I was crying but I was bereft. At that time I think I was once again on Zoloft, as various clinicians had strongly recommended that me plus sertraline was much safer than me without.
The problem was that, before the Affordable Care Act and yet still, always, in the healthcare hellscape of the United States, you might want and need something and then be denied it or be in horrible debt over it. I had to apply over and over to various aid programs to get my prescription. I paid $85 a week for therapy at a time when that was an incredible amount of money. I was too depressed to do an exhaustive search for a cheaper therapist. I also had to see a PhD once every few months for $125 to confirm that, yes, I did still need sertraline. Getting money for therapy and meds precluded the addition of any fun things in my life that might have eased me out of a depression. Still, the main thing I learned was to be extremely economical and to live on practically nothing. I cried a lot because, it turns out, I was on a dose that was much too low, but anyway.
More to the point: I had moved out to Boston with the express goal of making myself stop writing. Writing—unless it was for a revolutionary zine or a flyer or the script for street theater—was not going to help the world change and so it was a waste of my energy. But then I kept completely vacillating and devolving into torrents of collage making and poem-writing and so on. It turned out, I discovered after my cold-turkey breakup with creativity, that making things was literally the only thing to live for, in a real and urgent day-to-day way. So after about a year I reasoned that I could allow myself to make things as a mechanism like sertraline to keep my machine functioning so that I could do useful things to hasten revolution.
This is the thing I want to say: make your machine.
I had always known this. When I was depressed, starting in around fourth grade, I had also known that I could look forward through an iced-over school bus window and through the gray to the part that came next, which was me sitting down at a typewriter and writing weird stories about trolls. That was the quickening thing.
No one has to know your secret, which is that you are a flagrant collagist or a profligate poem-maker or a journaling fool. I got a series of awful jobs, and as I rode the MTBA to one or another of them, I often thought about how great it would be if the train crashed and did not impale me but maybe broke my leg in a complex way that would necessitate a few weeks off of my feet and out of work. This is one thing I did learn in those years: if you are hoping for a car wreck or an externally caused catastrophe to avoid doing something, you need to get that thing out of your life, even if you don’t have a plan, because wishing for injury is—as I didn’t understand it then—a kind of passive self-harm that leads to poor choices in which self-harm is not that big of a deal. I made those mistakes because this is subtle, and I believe I got into abusive relationships partly because in my waking life I was regularly abused and demeaned at work, and over time that all started to seem normal. Anyway.
I had a conversation the other day with two wonderful undergraduate women who are about to graduate, and they talked about the feeling of the future rising up, not as some bounty, but as a sort of abyss, and the bridge over the abyss as laid with single boards, each a decision. Which decisions are right? Which are wrong?
What I want to say is that you need to stop, right there on the bridge, and take pictures. You need to stop—if you have any mind to do so at all—and decorate one of the boards with pink nail polish. You need to do your secret things that make you happy. You need to not wait to do them for some professional window or official permission or recognition. You need to go buy the cheapest art supplies at the clearance bins. It is okay. You are allowed.
There is such a bias in decrepit capitalism against making things. There is such scorn. And the way it’s set up is that making—the essence of being productive—is framed as “wasted time.”
It is not wasted time. It is your time and it doesn’t matter what you do with it. Make your things.
In these years, I also worked for a time in a bookstore. It is like this—I had so many jobs that I forget them on my lists. So I regularly went to the basement and bought all the used writing guides, a big fat stack of them, and one was a book by Annie Dillard and I copied a quote out that was incredibly meaningful to me: “A schedule is a net for catching days.” What I loved about that, in combination with the beautiful book entitled The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, is that you could MECHANIZE time for art.
That’s right. The machine wants to eat you, and so in response you have to make your own machine.
I don’t think it’s bragging too much to say that I became a genius of structure. There are many things I am so-so at, but I am good at understanding time, and you can be too. Basically what Julia Cameron says is to do things every day to feed your creativity but be systematic about it. You can even keep track on a little calendar to show yourself that this is the kind of machine you are now: an art machine.
I began to know myself as an art machine. I began to see that everything I did that fed my dreams of being a writer or maker helped my mental health so enormously that I had to do them. Depression is handy in this way; it makes things super-obvious for the stubborn. So if I paid $1.35 for a small perfect spiral notebook, that was one of my nuts or bolts in my machine. If I stopped on the way home at a park to fill up my tank of beauty, that was another. If I went to a museum, if I took the T to a stop at the end of the line, if I took a poetry class from a community education center or went to the library, I was accumulating tiny steps in the only armor that has ever protected me.
I began to also get subtle at understanding when in my day was a good time for writing, for revising, for wandering. I wrote scraps of a novel on public transportation with my seatmates reading over my shoulder because it was the only thing that prevented me from thinking about how much I hated my job.
I began to build a sense of self-esteem in my hearty and springy art machine. I felt better about myself in the world because I knew, in my heart, what I had begun to accumulate and what I would continue to make every day until I die.
Even if the world is telling you that you are nothing, you can move toward this. Even if during the day you go to a stupid job where you are a receptionist at a shingle company where the salesmen around you are literally throwing VCR porno tapes to each other over your head like a weird porn aerial library—another job I hope you never have to experience, forgot that one too—and yet on the way home you can open your notebook and vent about these fuckers so you never forget them and always remember how brave you are.
I have often longed for a shield to hide behind, something that would stop the horrors of the workday or prevent me from being haunted by someone grabbing my ass or yelling at me at a job, to make me impervious. But my machine is really for the opposite reason: it destroys my shield and gives me something better: telescopes and microscopes and memory banks, a calliope of ways to absorb and savor the world.
I am 51 today, with three decades behind me of rigorous exhilarating daily practice in making. It is the chief pleasure and sanity in my life. It has steered me toward good people and helped my brain and given me beauty. It hasn’t made my life perfect or erased troubles or protected me from difficulty, but it has made me what I needed to become. I have made myself into a machine for collecting joy, and you can do this too. Make your machine.