“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof in the end come despondency and madness.”
When I was in 4th grade, this kid Greg was going to go sign up to learn the trumpet. For whatever reason I said, hey, alright, I’ll do that. So we both went down to the music room at Belle Sherman Elementary and got permission slips for our parents to sign — something about the financial liability of loaning a trumpet to a ten-year-old. I went home that night, threw my backpack on the floor and I guess went and played video games or read a book or something. Whatever it was, for whatever reason, that permission slip just never made it to my parents. Greg’s did. So now Greg can play the trumpet. In my later, wiser years, that shit has always killed me.
When I decided politics was making me unhappy, that I couldn’t handle the weight of all the world’s un-fixable problems, that studying the misery machine upon which our civilization runs had destroyed my faith in people, I pulled my head inside my shell and shrank my world down to a tiny circle of things, one that could fit on the fingers of one hand: Literature, film, music, maybe a beautiful companion. Beauty, basically. And if I could make some of my own? Well, that would be the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajama’s; that would be a world I could live in, a world where I could be happy. I decided to be an artist. I know, right? Horrifying.
Bless your little fantasy-world heart, baby Joshua. And actually, for a while, it was good. Really good. I was a poet, that was my self-image, the basis of my self-worth, and more than anything, my armor. I could go to a club in Taipei, and sit at the bar, and feel horridly out of place, but what did it matter? I had a secret life, my insides were full of blooming flowers, sparkling champagne fountains, skipping, light, and beauty. What did I care, whether I felt naturally comfortable in the world — I did not — because my place was now beyond all that. Shit, I had a place! An artist is an observer, a describer, a translator, a journalist on the front lines of the human condition. For me, as an eternal outsider anyways, it was bliss. A poet is a world apart.
When you think you are Shakespeare incarnate, that every handful of words you scatter across a page re-arrange themselves in golden patterns, you will find you are incredibly prolific. Shocking, right? And the more prolific you are, the more shit you throw at the wall, the more that sound-to-noise ratio produces something artistically viable, something worthy and wise, something beautiful. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of the best kind. Just make sure nobody tells you that your vast quilt of golden patterns are the skin on a hollow balloon. Because once that thing pops, it’s gone forever. The hand that holds the pin is always lurking: people love tearing people down. What hurts for real is when they’re right.
You begin to realize all those words were just practice. Your golden patterns were just putting in work, doing due diligence, making the same mistakes and having the same epiphanic moments as the thousand thousand deluded Shakespeare-avatars that came before you. In writing you can’t sit down and practice Chopin to get in your hours, you have to write the symphony yourself every time. And now you know: you’re not a special snow-flake after at all; you weren’t touched at birth by the hand of god; your writing is actually sort of rubbish. I don’t really have the words for the physicality of that sensation, the weight of that wrecking ball as it smashes into your face. You’ll find yourself suddenly on your back, gasping, bloody, missing teeth. Even this isn’t special — it happens to everyone who dares to want. There are no child prodigy writers.
But there is hope, here, on your back. You learn that talent isn’t the be-all you thought it was. You learn that talent is even sometimes a hindrance, a handicap, something to rest on instead of continuing the struggle. Because here, like everything, the struggle is what matters. Nothing worth doing is easy, and nothing worth having comes without effort. It’s the delay of gratification that makes the pay-off, and there is no cheating that formula. Nobody wants to watch a romantic comedy where everything starts good, stays good, and ends with a happy, laughing brunch. When things come to us without work, without pain, we take them for granted. It’s the struggle that makes it sweet.
The corollary to this idea, the idea that talent is a hindrance, is that what really matters is work. You have to put in the time. If you want to be a master basket weaver, great. I salute you. Anything can be art, and anything done beautifully can be beautiful. So get yourself some reeds, sit down on the floor, and start weaving. Do it for an hour, two hours, three hours each day, more if you can manage. A teacher will help, good materials will help, a conducive environment to work will help, but none of that is necessary. What is necessary is that you show the fuck up. Talent is irrelevant. I don’t care who you are or think you are, sit down and weave those reeds together, sit there and fucking fail, hard, every day, for years and years, and in time you will become an excellent basket-maker. I promise you this.
There is a great freedom here, in this knowledge that you can do anything. And truly you can, if you are willing to suck at it, if you are willing to sit on the floor and be ugly and fail for long enough, you can do anything. It’s not a reflection on you, that failure, it’s a reflection on how much time you’ve put in. So put in more. Do anything, just do it well. You want to weave baskets? Sit the fuck down and start weaving. It doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, whether you think you’re an idiot, or a genius, or a nothing nobody in between — put in the work, and in ten years I’ll be first in line to buy your banging new art.
So I took that permission slip home, in 4th grade, and I guess I just left it somewhere. Greg learned the trumpet, I did not. Until I was 30 years old, I felt I had just missed the moment on that fated day, and I would forever be a lover of music and not a player. Until I came home last year and, suddenly sober and bored, looked at my dad’s old Martin guitar and realized that was fucking stupid. I picked it up and just started. Like an addict I came back to it every day, put in an obsessive amount of time, and eventually went from nothing to something. It was amateurish, and embarrassing, and awful, but I gripped that fret-board with burning fingertips, strummed a bunch of half-muted strings, and made music with my god damn hands.
These days, as I continue to suck, the impossible distance between me here, a beginner at 30, and the Stevie Ray Vaughn’s of the world is starting to come into focus. I mean, let’s back off from Stevie and just say the gulf between me and that kid who started taking lessons when he was ten, the accountant in your office who picked it up as a kid and can, casually, shred. Stevie and his ilk are gods, that’s fine; it’s comparing yourself to the all-too-human accountants of this world that’ll kill you. Really, it’s comparing yourself to anyone at all.
The better you get, at anything, the more aware you become of your mistakes, and the more you notice your missed notes and buzzing strings. There’s power in this, and nobody was ever great without it, but it’s an instinct that flirts with insanity. Nothing human will ever be perfect, any great musician will tell you they struggle with this, and the real madness comes on the day you sit down to play and hear only missed notes. Start to finish, you find yourself playing a song of mistakes. What you’re really missing, of course, is the music.
When I decided to give up the rage-induced unhappiness of politics, when I decided instead to be an artist, I went scanning back through my past looking for a form to practice, a means to take the esoteric ethereal beauty of this world around us and make it tangible, give it form. A background in trumpet would have been super welcome right about then. What I had instead was a lifetime of reading and thinking, a childhood spent claiming I had one great american novel in me, a dream sandcastle I had never touched for fear it would crumble and wash away. So I swallowed hard and started writing. And like I said, at first it was good. So, so good.
Then I started eating rejection. That was not so good. I took my first rejection to the face, pushed myself swaying back up to my feet, then immediately took another. Then another. That, also, was not so good. When I was lucky, instead of getting rejection-punched in the face, I instead drank critical feedback medicine from a trusted source, and even that tasted like shit. Being an artist, in hindsight, is just as awful as I was told it would be. What’s surprising is the gritty harshness of it, the reality of unrelenting rejection, the struggle to keep faith with yourself when everything outside you is pity, or scorn, or indifference, when your voice is the only voice saying, “don’t quit, it’s good, get up.”
So I got up. And I keep getting up, and I keep taking my punches, and drinking my medicine, and smiling my toothless smile, and weaving my stupid baskets. I gathered all these reeds and said I would be a master basket weaver, so fuck it, I guess I will. Anything is possible if you’re willing to fail, and I’m sick of hearing only the missed notes of my life. Everyone misses notes. I’m here for the mixed metaphors, the crazy yearning, the golden patterns that arrange themselves in the mud of our failures. I’m here for the poor poetry, the lost dreams.
I’m here for the god damn music.
Joshua Clark Orkin