Friday, June 02, 2006

So, what do you do for money?

Following the spirit road, wherever you are led. It’s a job without a portfolio, resume, or job description. Don’t bother mentioning it to most people, who simply don’t get it.

Scenario: Somebody asks a group of poets: So, what do you do for money?

For me, the most interesting part of this question is not the list of jobs and careers I've had, which is an extensive one—I seem to collect skills and experiences the way some people collect books—but that through it all, nothing has been able to keep me from being creative. Most of the "wrong" decisions I've made in life, from the viewpoint of livelihood, social and family expectations, and cultural attitudes, have been because I felt I had no choice: I had to make the decisions I made, because the alternative was to sell my soul, and die inside. This took no innate courage; it seemed plainly necessary, no more. The choices I've stumbled into have led me towards mostly not making a living, or at least not in any coherent, consistent, stabilized manner. I have the perfect "writer's resume," from the era when you used to read about all the odd jobs that writers would do to collect experience, before publishing their award-winning novels, plays, or poetry. Pfah. Whatever. That and a slice of bread will give you an open-faced sandwich. There's no question that all the "wrong" decisions I've made have had their consequences, mostly negative, with regard to having a stable career, regular promotion or advancement, or any other form of normative social expectations, not excluding familial incomprehension and occasional estrangement. All through this, a process of learning to keep my word and live in integrity with my spiritual callings and my creative daimons, I have steered a manageable if occasionally obscure path; but the truth is, I have no clear idea where I'm going, or what to do next, only where I've been and what I've recorded.

But all along, the real job has been one that's never fit comfortably on a resume, a job description, or an answer to that perennial cocktail-party question, "So, what do you do to make a living?" I attend few cocktail parties, although I'm comfortable traveling in many social circles. Are you a gentleman of leisure? a gentleman of poverty? living in a cave, monk-like, ne'er-do-well, adrift on the winds of change? a monk or a bum, and is there a difference? Was the difference between Merton and Kerouac merely the locus of monastery grounds? The difficulty is that "What do you do for a living?" is a question that most people equate with "Who are you?" Here, meet my friend—who are you?—I'm a doctor. No, really, who are you?

Every artist knows those are differing answers, and lives within the double-tension of that difference between lives and callings, work and soul, job and necessity—price enough to pay for following one's calling, perhaps. That tension between questions and answers leads me to ignore the question, most of the time, as simply the wrong question to ask. Far more interesting questions are, where have you compromised? where have you prostituted yourself? where been an ungrown child? where have you sabotaged your own excellence? where felt the victim? and where, if at all, incorporated and integrated these into yourself, the unfinished person? There are expected answers to the question, which I cannot give, because they don't matter; they're the fictions of a lifetime. The unexpected answers are far more alive.

What is the real work, then, if it’s not some job that you do to support your art and just pay the bills?

Let's try a re-phrase of an earlier statement another poet somewhere made, which was "every poem comes at a price," or something close to that in meaning. The meaning that that poet was going for was a Romantic idea of suffering for the sake of your art; which I objected to, and still do. Let's think about it this way, because I see this emerging from many of the personal stories of artists who work various odd jobs, and skip college or grad school, to pursue the art of living and gathering experience. I re-phrase the statement as:

It is not a price one pays. It is, rather, a sacrifice one chooses to make.

Some might pay a higher cost, in their given sacrifice, than others; but who is to say which cost is more dear, to the soul of an artist? And the element of choosing to follow one's muse, to follow one's path, which is in itself no determinant of ultimate success or failure, is a common enough thread that it's noteworthy. As is the element of not-choosing, in the same way. You cannot be a victim of circumstance as long as you retain choice in these matters.

The element of sacrfice herein is the choice an artist makes to pursue their art, regardless of other costs. And if there are other responsibilities, such as to family or children or other long-time companions, than there is a balance to be found, in life, between living and Making. Where the choices fall is what I think is interesting. There are also some choices that we accede to, rather than setting out to follow: choices that time and happenstance lay onto us, that we might or might not have deliberately chosen for our lives; in which case, choice lies in the arena of how we respond to those situations and events. Choices that we have to face because of, for lack of a better word, fate. But we still have a choice in how we respond to circumstances, and what we do with what has been given to us.

I have lived both sides of that choice, at various times in my life: making big bucks in the corporate design, marketing and advertising worlds—and not miserable while doing so. I may have lacked full time attention for art-making, but I still somehow managed to make art, survive as an artist. Occasionally I ran headlong into the conflict around selling my talents while trying to maintain my personal integrity, but I was usually able to find a balance I could live with; and there were a few occasions where I had to choose my integrity over the job, and move on. At other times, such as now, I have lived a very monk-like existence, and have to deal with both the anxieties and freedoms of being destitute and impoverished financially. As an old samurai saying goes, When you know you're about to die, you can do anything. There is a freedom to having nothing, even while there are limits to what you can do, in other ways. But again, finding one's place along that continuum can be a matter of choice, and what we choose to sacrifice, in order to follow our path.

But I can say, heretical and misunderstood for a poet to say, as it often is: the path I chose which led me to where I am, was ultimately a spiritual path. It was not in service to poetry, or music, or even creativity as a whole—although all of those are manifestations of the path. Those are both tools and products of the spiritual path. But my compass is Spirit, rather than Art, although Art is sure way of expressing Spirit. Perhaps they are not really distinguishable.

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