When Ralph Waldo Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he started a series of biography lectures where he began to examine the lives of others with increased interest and scrutiny. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, the author Robert D. Richardson writes that in Michelangelo Emerson
saw “the perfect image of the artist,” one who was born to see and express the beauty of the world… He loved the disinterestedness and spirit of the deal Michelangelo offered the Pope for his work rebuilding St. Peter’s in Rome: “no fee and no interference.” Emerson emphasized the sculptor’s interest in ideal beauty, how “he sought through the eye to reach the soul,” but he knew that the test of the artist and writer alike is not in intent but in execution.
For the longest time, this is how I’ve tried to work on my craft, by trying to express and execute “what the mind has conceived” and without outside interference. “Happy is he,” writes Emerson,
who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who always writes to the unknown friend.
I was reminded of these quotes—these passages that I very happily transcribed in my notebook—when this morning I read this very sobering article in Ted Gioia’s newsletter:
How creative can you really be if you need to please an enormous mass-market audience? When you go down that path, you need to stick close to all the familiar formulas—and that’s exactly what you see in much of our culture nowadays.
Earlier in the article he wrote that “only 19% [of survey respondents] made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.”
What really struck me was that “only 10% devoted 40 hours per week or more to their art.” I’m surprised at both how high I think 10% is and how much 40 hours a week spent on working on one’s art is, too. Both of my reactions tell me how unbelievably sad and disappointed I am at how the modern world works.
Just yesterday I started to wake up at 4am in order to fit an extra hour of writing time into my day. And even then, I’m maybe working 15-20 hours a week on my art. I would do whatever it takes to double this workload if at all possible, but I need to go to work in order to to pay my bills and buy food to eat. And Ted Gioia understands this, too:
So my advice to students interested in the arts is based on my own practice: namely, that they should pursue their craft but also develop at least one money-earning skill before they reach the age of 30. It doesn’t need to be an elite career, merely something that will pay the bills in a pinch.
I wish I could be like Michelangelo and tell the Pope not to pay me as long he doesn’t interfere with my art, but I can’t. I wish I could look upon my “work to know if it will succeed,” to be one “who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale,” but I can’t. This is the 21st century, and the best I can do is to wake up hours before the sun rises so I can fit a bit more time in my day to work on my art, and to go to bed when the sun is still shining brightly in the sky so I can wake up early and with enough energy to be able to work on my craft to the best of my ability.
I wish things were different, but I have to admit, I love what I’m doing, and that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To feel the joy of simply being alive to experience this? This world, this universe, this moment?
The above quote comes from this New Yorker article by Julian Lucas. In it, he writes about distraction-free writing tools like iA Writer, my personal app of choice. The entire article is worth a read, especially the section on iA Writer. I especially found this section where Oliver Reichenstein, the creator of iA Writer, details how he came up with the custom monospace font used in the app:
He drew inspiration from mechanical typewriters, especially for the app’s focus mode and signature font. While most books are typeset using proportionate typography, allotting each character space in accordance with its width, monospaced fonts give each character, whether a lowly period or an initial capital, an equal span. “When you write in a monospaced font, you get a feeling of moving forward,” Reichenstein said. “Even if you don’t click away like crazy, you feel that your text is growing.”
“When you write in a monospaced font, you get a feeling of moving forward.” I find that so beautiful and so true. Sometimes at work, I find myself having to write something in Google Docs, and I always felt this background hum that made me feel uneasy whenever I did so, and I wasn’t sure why. Was it all the extra chrome? The distracting buttons? The font?
“A minor literary doctrine holds that great writing should be platform-independent,” writes Julian in his closing paragraph.
Let amateurs mess around with gadgets and gizmos; Wole Soyinka wrote “The Man Died” in a Nigerian prison with Nescafé for ink and a chicken bone for a stylus. Yet the ability to write with anything and the drive to experiment with everything likewise reflect the fact that the means, no less than the matter of writing, should adapt to our selves and to our circumstances. The quest to match writer and machine may be as necessary, in its way, as literature’s unending effort to reconcile experience and expression.
“Experience and expression.” Is that not what all art is? This attempt by us to let the universe know we existed once and that our life mattered?
The genius of the blog was not in the note-taking, it was in the publishing. The act of making your log-file public requires a rigor that keeping personal notes does not. Writing for a notional audience — particularly an audience of strangers — demands a comprehensive account that I rarely muster when I’m taking notes for myself. I am much better at kidding myself my ability to interpret my notes at a later date than I am at convincing myself that anyone else will be able to make heads or tails of them.
Blogging isn’t just a way to organize your research — it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet. It’s a way to discover what your future books and essays and stories and speeches will be about.
When I wrote my post about my blog acting as my second brain a few days ago, these were some of the feelings I had behind it. I looked at my list of tags, at the potential all this self-knowledge was and could be, and I felt relief. I felt like I finally found my place online, a place for myself so I can be myself. But unlike Cory, I’ve felt the most comfortable when I write for myself rather than, as Cory writes at the end of his essay, “to attract, rather than serve, an audience.”
All forms of social media, from Facebook to Twitter and, yes, even Micro.blog, has felt like a place to show off, to write something that would get reactions, with each new post feeling like it only existed to elicit even more reactions, to get even more hits from the drug of self-validation by friends or strangers. This is a big reason I don’t have Webmentions or adhere to any of the IndieWeb standards. I’m glad they exist, but they’re not for me. I want my home to stand on its own, with my own rules and idiosyncrasies. This, in all honesty, reflects who I am in real life and not just online.
I was that person, that student, that friend, that teammate, who had no backbone, who melded into every group just to be liked, who never built a personality because of how afraid he was to be disliked by anyone. I said yes to anyone who ever asked me to do something, from doing my friend’s homework to letting them cheat off my tests just because they asked. I let everyone walk over me because I wanted to be liked. I never allowed myself to question any of it because I just wanted to fit in, and that was my way of doing so. It wasn’t until after college when I felt like I finally found myself. And that self was and is kind of an asshole.
My friends now who know me have told me that I’m not an asshole whenever I’ve brought this up, but part of me feels like an asshole when I stand up for myself and tell people “no.” I feel like an asshole when I refuse food from people because I’m vegan and everyone around me eats meat, and I feel like an asshole when I turn down an invitation for anything if it interferes with my workout time. I feel like an asshole when I express myself honestly and say exactly what’s on my mind, whether it’s to my friends or family or my bosses, even. I feel like an asshole whenever I try to do things that are good for me but not for them. I feel like an asshole right now because I wrote earlier how I’m not supporting Webmentions or any IndieWeb stuff on my site. But I feel happier as a human being this way, whatever the cost.
A few months ago, I cancelled my Micro.blog yearly subscription and decided to build my own blog on my own terms. I downloaded Hugo onto my computer and built my own blog from scratch. I taught myself everything I needed to know to do this—from the obtuseness of programming in Hugo to the complexities of CSS—and all that work has been some of the most fulfilling of my life. And because of this, I don’t feel held back by anything or anyone. I have the freedom to do what I want, to explore more, to try things out, to produce for my own sake rather than trying to fit in with someone else’s rules. And you know what? Because I’m doing this for myself and not for anyone else, I’m happier, and I’m simply just eager to see what comes of this, if anything.
I know not everyone feels this way, but I don’t care if I have an audience. I don’t care about being liked or disliked. I’m just going to do what I want to do and see where that takes me, because again, life is too short to not live by your own rules. And to be honest, this is not what I thought I’d write about when I wanted to link to this post, but that’s kinda the beauty of doing your own thing, and that makes me happy, asshole or not.
Toward the end of his essay, Cory writes:
Cringing at your own memories does no one any good. On the other hand, systematically reviewing your older work to find the patterns in where you got it wrong (and right!) is hugely beneficial — it’s a useful process of introspection that makes it easier to spot and avoid your own pitfalls.
On my archive page, I have posts going back 7 years. Unlike Cory, I have and still do cringe when I go back and re-read some of them. I’m disappointed that I’m still trying to find answers to questions I asked back then, but I’m also proud at the progress I’ve made in other areas of my life. Will I look back at this post in the future and cringe? I hope I do! That’s the point. I cringe at the person I used to be all the time, and that’s because I’m always pushing forward, trying and thinking and doing new things, all in an effort to squeeze as much juice out of the short time I have to live. And why hide behind fear? Just take that step and see what happens, and that’s how I want to live my life, fuck what anyone else thinks. If that makes me an asshole, then I’m an asshole.