As I had cause to confess recently, I am a man in whom a spiritual impulse is in a constant wrestling match with a deep skepticism. As skepticism knows all the dirty tricks it usually wins. However, the struggle doesn't strike me as pointless. G.K. Chesterton's words are truer today than ever: "When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything." Today, once you step outside the tightly-guarded compound of rational, positivist science, you are surrounded by the babble of crystal healers, aromatherapists and a thousand other snake-oil merchants trying to monetize credulity.
Recently I was browsing through a collection of "inspirational" extracts from well-known artists, writers, and songwriters, and was struck by some common threads. There was much of the usual nonsense about following your dream, which is just annoying, but more usefully there was an insistence on the value of actually getting down to hard labour ("Inspiration is for amateurs -- the rest of us just show up and get to work" -- Chuck Close). In the end, all dream-chasing aside, a writer is a person who writes, a painter is a person who paints. A successful artist is a person who makes at least a partial living from their art.
But there was another thread, of which this is exemplary:
If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery — isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.Sounds great, doesn't it? It's the romance of the outsider, shot through with righteous self-justification (nicely hubristic, too: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not." Isaiah 53:3). We've surely all had such moments, alone with the gods in our ecstatic shining nights. No? Well, if you haven't, you have my sympathy. But anyone seeking to lead a life led at that pitch of self-absorption who is not also blessed with considerable talent is, as Bukowski warns, likely to die alone, cold and hungry, a burned-out, rejected and resentful never-was. The flaming fire must cool, be transmuted into ink, and end up as meaningful words on a page. Those laughing gods won't write your book for you, but it will amuse them to steal it from you, like rolling a drunk.
Charles Bukowski, Factotum
Reading the "how to" advice of those who have achieved notable artistic success always invites the skeptical question: Sure, but how many more have failed utterly, following exactly the same formula? Curiously, the "secret" that many succesful people seem to want to propagate, in variations on Bukowski's theme, is this: that total commitment somehow of itself invokes a positive, supportive response from the universe, in the form of life-changing coincidences, chance meetings, and unexpected opportunities. It's like magic! Believe you can fly, and you will -- just jump!
It seems never to have occurred to them that it is more likely the other way round: that their response to the random churning of the world -- to the coincidences, chance meetings and unexpected opportunities that happen to everyone -- has been total commitment, and that it is this eye for the main chance that has made all the difference. I suppose that to advocate the clever, even ruthless exploitation of every chance opportunity may sound rather too cold, too calculating, too businesslike, and there is something more appealing, something reassuringly quasi-religious about the idea of art as a high-stakes game of trust played with the universe. Maybe we should split the difference and simply call it self-belief. Self-belief does have a certain magic, teflon quality to it.
But the fact is that if you can fly, you can believe whatever you like about how you got up there. And probably will.