What’s the difference between the two? How do you know when you’re intentionally holding yourself back vs. when you’re sticking to your guns? I feel myself to be at a crucial cusp point — an evolve-or-die point — but I don’t know if that evolution will come from pushing further into the murky, obscure, ambiguous work I’ve been doing so far, even if it means continuing to alienate people, and slogging through more years of rejection and tiny successes, or pulling back, trying to write (whether that’s fiction or screenplays) in a more realist, emotionally direct, character-driven mode.
The moment’s not all bad — sometimes I feel like I’m on the verge of a breakthrough, like some new language is welling up in me and is about to find its way out … but here are the questions I have:
How important is it to me that people are able to get my work, vs. how much do I want to a create a nightmarish disorientation that people can only tilt and grope along in, without ever fully understanding where they are or what’s happening? Am I still, as I was a few years ago, trying to express the ineffable, to point toward the presence of some godlike spirit that can never be seen or described, but only sensed? Or have I put this quest behind me in favor of something more concrete? Something closer to the work of other artists, perhaps, but also closer to the language that real people in the real world actually speak?
(Do I even know what the real world is? There was a point at which I did, but it’s been a long time, I feel, since I’ve gotten out into it.)
Is there some breakthrough that I’ll only reach if I keep pushing ahead with total faith in myself, ignoring all the people who say what I do is too opaque and off-putting, or is ignoring this feedback only narcissism and, if I want to make work that has meaning for anyone but myself (which I do!), do I have no choice but to listen to them and try to simplify, streamline, clarify?
In terms of likable characters, do I hate people? Do I believe that life is futile and that there is no such thing as real happiness? On the one hand, yes, and I balk at the idea that characters in art need to be likable or that the story has to offer them a chance at redemption. On the other hand, no, I do believe that life is worth living and that there is some greatness or grace or beauty still within reach in the world … so why can’t I allow for this in my work? Why can’t anyone in anything I do come out alive, perhaps even better off than they were at the beginning?
What about character motivation? Do I, as a person, have any genuine motivation other than becoming a great artist? (I do have one: being 9 years old again, wandering the aisles of Pleasant St. Video on a weekday afternoon.) But can I give my characters genuine motivations beyond these?
How crucial is it to delve into the unknown, working toward the fearsome, beautiful, mystical universe or polyverse I sensed so clearly as a child and adolescent?
Will the years between 17 and 20 remain the most important in my life for the rest of my life? Did I know it then? (I think I did.)
I still believe in the surreal, in a world of images and shapes and sounds and monsters that emerges naturally and meaningfully in the course of real life, but to what degree can I go on fighting to express this through project after project that balloons out of control until it collapses? Am I working toward some kind of transcendent fruition, or just wallowing in the mud of my subconscious?
How many hours have I spent on Lars von Trier’s wikipedia page, fetishizing his life, wishing I were him, wondering how he became what he is? What, if anything, have I gained from this time? What other use could I have put it to? Do I love his films as much as I lust after the idea of being transformed into the man who made them?
Is genius an absolute quality, something you either have or don’t have, or is it negotiable and conditional? Is whatever allowed Lars von Trier to write The Idiots in 4 days simply something I don’t have, and never will, or is it something to work toward, to aspire to?
On the topic of simplicity and directness, will I ever manage to focus on a single project at a time, seeing it through until it’s done? These past few years, I’ve been spiraling out of control, working on so many things at once that I often spend most of the work session just deciding what to work on (and the rest of it thinking about everything I’m not working on) … is this a manifestation of the same part of myself that makes the stories and novels so untenably complex? Do I have to eradicate this part of myself, or nurture it even more, until it achieves a kind of fusion?
What am I looking for in my email account? What message do I believe I’ll find there if I check it once every minute? Certainly no real-world communication, since I’ve received enough of those to know they don’t make me feel any different than the instant before I received them. Is it a message from God then? Some kind of divine election or reassertion of the clarity of purpose that I felt as an adolescent and in my early 20s, when I could work for hours at a time without thinking about anything else? Or did I just not have a smartphone then?
Have the 5 years of working on my novel ANGEL HOUSE, with no objective feedback whatsoever, fried my brain, and made me incapable of thinking clearly? Will I ever receive any finality on this book, or will I have to just keep editing and re-editing it endlessly until I give up, whether that’s right now or in a year or ten years? If I knew this would be the case, would I give up now?
Right now, the only artists that truly speak to me are Guy Maddin and Joseph Cornell — both self-taught, both nostalgists, very in touch with their inner child, both stayed in their hometowns making extremely personal, obsessive, often esoteric work … and yet both achieved greatness in an extremely specific and inspiring way, doing things that no one else had ever done or could have done, without bending themselves into the shapes I’m afraid I need to bend myself into — grad school, TV writing — to make a go of it in the world, during my lifetime. Can I be an eccentric, private-universe-building obsessive like this? What would that mean — moving back to Northampton, renouncing my relationship and my life here in NYC? Could I handle that? Or would that be a form of throwing in the towel?
Am I an outsider artist? Do I wish I were?
These guys didn’t go to grad school, but they also didn’t (it wouldn’t seem) have the same deep investment in being seen as successful at a young age — which is maybe (probably) an investment I need to fight my way away from, though I don’t yet know how … how can I stop caring if I’m seen as successful, the way I was (to a larger degree at least) in my early 20s? This is the first period of my life when things have, for an extended period, not worked out … when my work hasn’t been received, and I haven’t been able to maintain the rock-solid belief that there’s a future for it, a belief I maintained throughout the 5 years of working on this novel.
What about making a living? Is it right that I strive to do something that’s actually interesting and gratifying to pay the bills, or should I just work at a store or cafe and try to take all pressure off my real work, like Cornell did when he was a fabric salesman? Does it make any sense at all for me to try to work in the world of commercial film and TV, where financing has to be raised and numerous people have to sign on to make anything happen, or should I just get a $200 camera and make movies with my friends, like I did in high school … and not worry at all about what happens to them?
The desire to relive my 20s is overwhelming, deafening, makes me feel insane … to be 21 again, and just put all my heart and soul into filmmaking, not flounder for years trying to write literature when I’m unwilling to be part of the academic literary establishment as it exists in the world today … and yet, the purity of literature, the fact that I can express anything I want, and no one else needs to ratify it or put any money toward it, and that I can do it all from my room … there’s an immense appeal to this, though also a sense of horrible isolation and solipsism …
A year ago I thought that all I needed to reach fruition was as much time to myself as humanly possible, to write and write and write, but now this isn’t true — I need something more, a community, a sense that I’m part of something, that I live in the real world, that there are others who know what I’m doing and that I know what they’re doing … and an actual place to go, somewhere besides my room where I can actually work, not just drink and hang out … some other place where things are going on that I’m part of.
What about being a workhorse? For a long time, I’ve had the conviction that art is only about work — pure, dogged, ritualistic — and thus, as long as I got myself to the desk and turned the Internet off, I would, slowly but surely, achieve what I set out to achieve. I was sure that all notions of passion, wildness, freedom, inspiration, were traps, delusions used by people who want to be real artists but aren’t … but now I’m questioning this too, wondering if I’ve been too serious, too joyless, too much like a scholar, and that real art only comes through more ups and downs, a rockier, more sociable, more extreme life — but am I too reserved for this? Do I have a side to myself that can be outgoing and open to whatever, or am I too doggedly fixated on my own work getting done to ever loosen up?
Am I afraid of the very people and situations I’m trying to represent and give voice to? Does this fear have a positive component, or is it simply something to get over?
After the long, happy daydream of childhood and the drugged out, enjoyably morose haze of adolescence, my whole life has been a mad dash for self-expression, for some kind of artistic success that would allow me to live on my own terms and be known as a unique entity and interact with other people whose work I admire … now, for the first time, I feel I’ve hit a wall, come to the end of the long sprint and I need to think hard about a lot of things: NYC vs. Northampton, film vs. literature, big film vs. small film, self-taught vs. grad school.
And, most of all, esoteric vs. relatable, in everything I do … why, if I want to reach people, do I make my work so hard to comprehend? But why make work at all if it’s not striving to express something that couldn’t be expressed in any other way?
For the moment, am I capable of taking a vacation? Can I just step back from everything I’m doing, leave it all hanging, and come back later, recharged, with a little clarity and confidence restored, or is it a moving train and if I step off, I’ll never get back on?