Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Back-Up Plan

Van Morrison recently put out an album called Born to Sing: No Plan B.  I found that title particularly odd.  At this point, in his later 60s, he’s got no financial worries.  What he chose to do with his life has paid off handsomely, surely beyond his wildest dreams.  Even if someone stole every penny he had, he’s of an age where the government would support him free of charge.  He’s reached a time in his life when Plan B is death.

But I’ll often hear of people discussing “the back-up plan” in regards to any artistic inclinations.  They’re usually idiots.  And they’re usually trying to impart their idiocy on someone much younger, and presumably more impressionable, that they should have a back-up plan just in case this rock and roll thing/acting/writing/artistic thing doesn’t pan out.  I would never tell someone starting out that, unless I was assuming their talents were so mediocre that they didn’t stand a chance of making it in any sense.

No one creates worthwhile art with a mindset that dwells on a Plan B.  It just doesn’t work that way.  Even if the art he’s creating occurs while he makes money doing something else.  We tend to forget people like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens had day jobs.  Poets, in particular, understand the bullshit of the “Plan B” mentality.  They lived “Plan B” lives and managed to create great poetry that many of us still read today.  Most novelists are on Plan B, most likely teaching at universities to judge by their bios.  Many writers you’re assuming are making a living at their craft more than likely aren’t.  A minute fraction of actors make a living at their craft.  We’re now entering an age where most musicians either now have or will have Plan B in effect, as it will be virtually impossible for them to make livings through writing, recording and performing music alone.  (And most are smart enough not to discuss the real Plan B: working spouse.)

Oddly, I’ll often hear musicians saying the best advice they’d give to young musicians would be to have a Plan B.  These are generally talented musicians who’ve had some level of success, playing in bands, recording, sometimes for years, but never quite locking into that higher level of success where their creative and financial futures were cemented.  They don’t seem to realize none of what they’ve created in their lives, none of the songs, none of the hours of great experiences playing live music, would have existed had they been rational enough to really bear down on that Masters in teaching instead of going on the road in the van in 1988.

At some point, they gave themselves completely over to the music, and did so for a long time … probably still do in some form.  Music is different from other artistic endeavors (save for movie making) in that it costs a small fortune to pursue: instruments alone costs hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, and then there are amps, microphones, effects, vans, buses, the need to travel and play, recording costs.  (Some might say Pro Tools has changed all that … but anyone recording with Pro Tools who doesn’t have studio-level experience is pissing in the wind production wise.  I’ve heard it.  If you don’t spend a few years learning how to mike instruments and use proper recording techniques, it sounds bland.  Of course, Pro Tools does allow musicians to forego massively expensive studio costs, provided they find a good recording space.)

At some point, they realized they were going to be destitute were they to depend on music alone to make a living.  Or writing.  Or acting.  Or painting.  I crossed that bridge at various points in my 20s and 30s where I found myself unemployed for weeks or a few months at a time and thinking, now’s my big chance, all day long, all week long, to hone my craft.

Mostly what I did was fret over my shrinking banking account and feel an odd sort of creative stasis set in.  I didn’t seize the day – it was more like seizing my dick.  I just shut down, each time.  I found I couldn’t create anything when I had to dwell on losing money and potentially going broke.  It made me realize I need a financial comfort zone to create anything.  Hardly the need to be rich.  But the need to know I could afford to go out and eat every now and then, buy music, see a movie, and not get that constricted feeling of the world closing down on me as I inched closer to financial demise.

Of course, trying to balance any sort of time or urge to write while working a 9-to-5 was, is and will be a huge pain in the ass.  But it’s the only way I’ve ever known, aside from writing while at college, and if you haven’t heard the news, I consider most of that writing dogshit.  I know there will be some people reading this who fondly recall those halcyon days, but I’m telling you now, if you go back and read the archives from the campus paper, the proof is not in the pudding.  Most of it was bad, or at least reads that way to me now.  Real bad.  Sure, there was a spark there, but that’s it.  I’m forever having old college chums ask, “Why don’t you write like that anymore?”  And the answer is because we were all shitheads back then, only you haven’t gone back and actually read what I wrote to verify this like I have!

Which isn’t to discount those days.  Those were good times, and that experience invaluable.  I still remember hanging out on the steps of Carnegie, talking with a girl who worked on the paper, her dying to know what I was going to do when I graduated, surely publications were pounding down my door to have me write for them.

No one was pounding down my door.  I was writing idiosyncratic humor columns (mixed with some truly awful “serious minded liberal arts student contemplates the cruel world” think pieces) on the editorial page.  Very few humorists make it onto editorial page, and the ones who do … Dave Barry?  I’ve always found Dave Barry unfunny.  That’s the pain of humor columnists for me.  It’s hard to be full-on funny all the time.  When you’re seeing a comedian on stage, that act usually represents weeks or months of writing, often with other comedy writers, to stumble onto the funniest lines and routines to shape into a solid one-hour show.

What I wanted to do back then … I’m doing now.  Just letting it loose as much as I can and seeing where it goes.  I gather as you grow up and then age, again, it’s hard to be funny all the time.  When things like parents passing on, houses catching fire, old friends getting weird, jobs grinding down sanity, occur routinely, it often feels just as good for me to write more contemplative pieces.  I’ve been through some desperately unfunny shit in my times; we all have.  While it would be great to say, let’s just laugh all our problems away, after awhile you realize you’d be better off staring them down and gathering you can make sense of all this.  Which is to say you need to develop the capacity to interpret really dark shit in whatever way allows you to stay sane.

And this, among other things, keeps me sane.  A lot of things do, and I pursue all of them knowing this.  This is the context that I put writing in, not whether or not I make a fortune at it, or even a living.  Plan B?  Van Morrison, give me a fucking break.  Hell, it might have been better for Van if he hit a really tough spot financially and had to go back to Belfast to, I don’t know, tend bar or something, to get an idea of how real people live, as opposed to cantankerous old dudes who sit around luxury homes thinking there’s such a thing as “Plan B” when death with his cloak and scythe is spooning with you in bed every night.

But to return to that original thought, if I had a Plan B mentality, I surely wouldn’t be doing this.  I’d be doing Plan B all the time and would have tossed aside any childish thoughts of creating something like this for any reason.  I never would have written anything in my adult life.  I’d have gotten out of college, tried to make it as a writer, and I can assure you at that point, would have failed.  Not succeeded enough to realize that this whole “making a living” ruse was something I’d see with too many mediocre hacks, albeit highly-motivated self marketers, who would keep hounding on this when asked at parties and bars.  These days that implies a blitzkrieg of self promotion that would make even the most shallow narcissist want to vomit after spending all day hyping one’s self all over Twitter, Facebook and whatever else is the new hot thing to exploit for personal gain.  I’m not good at that.  Most writers aren’t.

So, I apologize for having no Plan B, other than the desire to live my life however I choose.  Probably makes me look like a horse’s ass to very responsible adults.  But I’ve always recognized very responsible adults as the ultimate horse’s asses, not people I’ve ever wanted to emulate.  Of course, that’s unavoidable – if I had kids, it would be extremely unavoidable.  But you’ll have to excuse me for recognizing the spark all those years ago and blowing on that small flame every now and then to keep things going.  It’s not all I got, but it makes life a lot more tolerable.

1 comment:

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Interesting thoughts, though at the risk of sounding like a pedantic jerk, I would add that T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens were also from fairly affluent, Ivy League-set backgrounds. Poetry will probably never put a roof over your head. William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, on the other hand, had to pay the bills at times through writing B movie scripts-an almost literal plan B-as a "day job". Were they the better for it? No clue on my part.

Now, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost operated working farms! Both did a variety of work before that. There's definitely something to that, if I might conjecture so.