My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Pound of Flesh

This is a story only a few people in my life ever knew until today. It had a limited share on Livejournal many years ago, but was only ever shown to a few.

This is a story about Art. Not about art with a little a, but about the proper noun. The Biggest of Dills. The real McCoy.


People think Art is an abstract concept, with a little "a," but artists know that's completely bullshit. Art is real. She lives. She breathes. She devours souls and shits effervescent beauty. Her merest gaze can strike one down with ecstatic paroxysms of inspiration. And she watches her followers like the capricious gods of old demanding sacrifices and proof of loyalty.  She's all kinds of ragingly jealous.

And if she only asks for your first born son, you got off light.

Art might allow some to casually worship her for fun or enjoyment. She may extract no price for this. Go ahead and write for fun once or twice a month. Go ahead and draw with no ambition. Go ahead and join a community theater troupe or your local church's choir. She will allow this. She can be cool and detached and aloofly benevolent to her dilettantes.

But from her high priests and priestesses, she will always come eventually, approach with sinuous steps, stretch her glorious wings across the sky and ask, "Just how much do you love me?"

This is the story of the first time Art came to me, and how I failed her.

When I was in college (the first time), I was a music major with emphasis in voice going to one of the better colleges in the state for music instruction. I stood in front of stodgy white men with lips curled into moues of pre-rejection, sang my heart out, and they nodded--clearly unimpressed--and yet welcomed me into the Bachelor of Arts in Music anyway. There I learned about musical theory, listened to chords and intervals, practiced piano, and sang so much, so often that my throat burned.

It wasn't just hyperbole--I had a developing cyst on my vocal chords. A pisser of a diagnosis for a voice major. That is when Art came and gave me a choice.

However, this story is not how I overcame adversity. This is the story of my failure.

When the ENT diagnosed me, I was actually relieved. I remember running out of the office and jumping into the air with one fist raised high, Flash Gordon style. I had been going nuts trying to keep up with that degree. Theory lab, personal training, choir, and keyboard training were all one unit classes, mandatory to the major, but required four or five hours a week each to keep up with.  Theory itself was three units and easily took 10-15 hours to keep from floundering. I had a GE class too. I think it was critical thinking. I started out okay, but my music kicked my ass so hard, I didn't have much left over.

But the huge one was The Northridge Singers. Singers was a terrible freshman-savaging monster that knew no mercy or remorse. It was the Grendel's Mother of my schedule.

My first semester a guy named Ax ran the class. We sang a Magnificat and a half a dozen other songs. It was beautiful. It was everything I ever wanted out of a choir. The time commitment ran about 10-12 hours a week. It was intense for a one unit course, but we focused on parts training, and I had the time to learn each piece. Our performances were spectacular and they ranged from Palms Springs to Santa Barbara. My step-father looked at me after my first college concert with the first look I could describe as something other than I-am-obligated-by-faux-fatherhood-to-be-here pride and said, "I'm sort of glad you stuck with this singing thing. It gives me an excuse to hear some actually good music."

But Art was watching. Art didn't want me getting too cocky.

Art had not yet asked me to pay the toll.

John Alexander came back from sabbatical my second semester. He turned that class into a nightmare. Perhaps, in truth, Ax turned the class into an idyllic fairy tale. Either way, the class that I had fallen into bed with and told that I was starting to have "very real feelings," grew cold and slipped a hand around my throat.

Here I was, a freshman voice major, with masters students in music who were admitting that things were "way too fucking intense." I spent hours a week trying to parse the music he handed to us. Not one piece or two or three, but half a dozen every time we met. He just kept giving us more and more. He kept telling us we'd be put on the spot to sing our parts in front of the class. I was sight reading pieces levels more advanced than I'd previously ever performed with extensive rehearsal, and he wanted the songs all but memorized by our next meeting.

I tried desperately to keep up with the pace of the choir, but I didn't have enough piano skill to practice on my own, and I needed more time to assimilate pieces than a single run through. By the time it came to a head I was spending 20+ hours working on that one unit class every week. That in addition to a full fourteen other units, a forty-five minute commute, a girlfriend and a weekend job.

Art asked me, in a voice I could almost hear, how much I really wanted to be a musician. "Demonstrate to me how much you love me," she demanded. "I desire to know your dedication."

I hemmed. I hawed. Art would have none of it. She pinned me under her merciless talon and repeated her demand: "Show me how bad you want it!" She leaned in that I might smell the fetid wind of rotting artists' souls on her breath

I got my cyst diagnosed without my parents knowing. They still don't know (well, I suppose they do now).  They just thought I dropped out of school. I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my girlfriend. I didn't tell my friends. I didn't tell my teachers. I didn't tell John I-am-the-antichrist-before-a-concert Alexander. I didn't tell a counselor or the school.

I just stopped going.

I didn't have a plan. At first I just stopped going to my music classes. What would have been the point? I didn't want to look John or my voice trainer in the eye. About a week after that, the full weight of all those wasted units hit me. I'd been at school for an entire year and had two G.E. classes to show for it. Utterly dejected, feeling like a failure, and with no vision about the future, I stopped going. I wouldn't be back for over a decade.

Art gave me a choice when I had the diagnosis, though at the time she was wearing the skin of a young Ear Nose and Throat specialist named Dr. Peterson.

It was a developing cyst. I was lucky to have felt it right away, and come in. If I stopped overusing my voice it would diminish on its own. But that meant no singing. If I wanted, they could perform a minor surgery and remove it. In either case it would come back if I overused my voice again.

I had to chose a life of only singing or a life with almost none. If I chose to sing, I had to treat speaking like a rare gift--the doctor told me to imagine each word cost me a quarter. I would have had to be virtually a mime except for singing and training. If I chose not to, I had to be careful to even reign it in when singing along with the radio. To this day, I can feel it bubble up if I've been really belting out Javert in Les Miz or something.

I let go.

But the fact was, I wanted to let go.

When I quit, I just stopped going. I drove off every morning in my boxy Suzuki Samurai like I was going to school, drove down the road, and played Super Metroid with my friend Shawn. It was strange because I could have walked in, head held high, and handed them my doctor's note without another word. They would have grumbled and nodded and signed all those units into Incompletes and let my G.P.A. survive the hit. I could have walked away with honor.

At the time I convinced myself that maybe they would pressure me to have the surgery, and I didn't want it. But that was fucking bullshit. It was also a clue. But it was definitely fucking bullshit.

I wasn't afraid that they might try to talk me into sticking with this art–this art I was signing onto a lifelong commitment for. God forbid they wonder if I wouldn't have a minor procedure in order to keep going with something I professed floridly to want a career doing.

Art had set the price, and I couldn't pay.

That cyst was just fortuitous timing. It was a metaphor burning at the back of my throat. I got what most artists never get--one clear, unambiguous choice. Most artists face a long road of tiny choices day in and day out in which their priorities become painfully obvious only over time and often despite their passionate declarations to the contrary. I had no ambiguity to hide behind.

I did not want to be a musician badly enough to inconvenience my life. It wasn't them I couldn't face; it was me.

My parents found out I wasn't going to class when my voice trainer called my house to see where I was. My friends found out when my mom let it slip in front of them. My girlfriend didn't find out until after we'd broken up. I lied to all of them in a way that made myself look worse, and part of me liked that. When my parents yelled at me or my friends shook their head and rolled their eyes it felt right. I deserved it. It hurt good.

Because I had failed. Truly. Spectacularly.

I ruined that hobby for myself by pursuing it that way. I loved singing. I loved music. But Art doesn't want to know if you love something like chocolate ice cream. She wants to know what you'll give up for it when she leans you over the volcano. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But eventually she'll want to know.

I didn't love music in the way that I love writing. I didn't need to be as good as I could. I didn't wake up singing and think about singing all day and get kind of depressed if I wasn't singing an hour or two a day at least. I didn't tear off on singing benders that could last hours. There wasn't passion. There wasn't fire. I wasn't pursuing music because I yearned and burned; I was pursuing music because it was fun enough and I wanted to have a paycheck while I wrote. I wanted to teach high school choir as a meal ticket and stumble home each night and weekend to my word processor. (You know, cause teachers have all that free time.)

But Art doesn't play those half assed games. You have to want more than anything else in the world to placate her.  She'll demand work and toil and so much sweat you feel like your pores are fountains. And that is your minimum. Then she comes and asks you for things....

.....like your speaking voice.

Art will allow you your garage band or your habit of doodling or your finished NaNo draft.  Art will let you strum a guitar or keep up with the chord progression of a song on piano. You may keep your hobbies. Art has no qualms with her casual followers.

But speak of careers and passion and "making it," and Art yanks her head towards you with a sniff like a predator who has seen movement in the corner of her eye, and she fixes her gaze upon you, and she thinks of what she will demand from you as tribute.

Sometimes people ask me about my writing time or ability to struggle on even though I'm making only $100 dollars a month, and they are a little indignant that they don't have that time or ability. "Well of course YOU can dedicate your life to writing. YOU don't have a career or kids. You don't have all these bills. You are Mr. Luckypants McAdvantageface!"

That's true.  And I have a lot of unearned privilege too. But some of those unfettered places of my life are true, in part, because I did not always fail Art. There are certainly parts of my life that I owe to unearned advantages and parts that were very lucky breaks (like being a househusband for room and board during the years when writers typically make no money) but I have also made difficult choices to get here as well.

When Art returned, I was no longer a musician. I was a writer, and I wanted to be a writer.

"You know I shall not be kind," she said. "You of all people know."

"Yes," I replied. "But writing is different. This one I do want." I swallowed.

Her pupils dilated.

"Ask." I said.

"Oh I shall," she said, a gleam in her eye brightening into a twinkle. "I shall."

She asked me to leave a career. I did. She asked me to go back to school to improve my ability. I did. She asked me to work less as a teacher. I did. She corrupted the files of all the writing I'd ever done in 20 years and told me to start over if I really loved it that much. I did. She asked me to be a nearly forty thirty-two year old man with no car who technically rents a room. I did. She asked me to have a deplorable financial situation when it comes to retirement. I did. She asked me to give up on dating folks all but some mythical close friends who loved to bang, but would not take up too much of my time and energy. I did. She asked me to give up my social life. I did. In a way--in a very round about way that I will perhaps write about some other time--she asked me to give up my marriage for her. I did. She even asked me to give up on being a father--I didn't have to take an existing child to an altar to sacrifice it, but she let me know by showing me young families around me that I would have so much more time and energy if I gave up on having a family.

And I did.

Heaven help me–for I do have some regrets–I did.

Art forces us to tell her what's important to us. Sometimes she asks in a series of a thousand choices that end up with us working 30 hours a week from home and having the rest of the time to write, and sometimes she uses an Ear Nose and Throat doctor as a meat puppet to give us one climatic decision.

But she always comes eventually.

You don't find artists of any measure of success who don't have a story of giving something up for the Art. They all have a path they couldn't take. Whether they deny themselves a family or just have trouble emotionally connecting to those they did or whether they gave up a social life or just chewed through friends because of their mercurial nature or whether they gave up a career or advancement or something. They all had choice they hated to make. A sacrifice. Art came eventually for all of them.

All of them.

The question isn't if you love Art. The question is what will you give up to be with her.  And the worst part is, and there's no getting around this (at least not for artists):

She's worth it.

There's a kinda, sorta, follow up/sequel article here: An Ounce Returned


  1. Wow...

    I know... not much of a comment... but ellipses speak volumes.


    1. If I could just figure out if they're saying good or bad things. :-p

  2. I like this. Makes me kind of happy not to be an artist, though. :-)
    btw fairy tail --> tale and sweat from pours --> pores

  3. This is beautiful Chris. And oh, how do I EXACTLY know what you are talking about..