“Despite popular conviction, a writer needn’t wear black, be unshaven, sickly and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children” ~Noah Lukeman
There’s a scene in the 1986 movie Crossroads where a young Eugene Martone, aka Lightning Boy is wandering the deep South, trying to learn how to play the blues from aged bluesman, Willie Brown. A Julliard trained classical guitarist, Lightning’s got the speed, the technique, but that ain’t the blues. To play the blues, he’s told, you’ve got to FEEL the blues. To feel the pain of love lost, of hope lost, of sorrow. Because that’s the place the real blues comes from. You can’t play the blues if you’ve never been blue.
Willie: Why do you want to know about all that stuff?
Eugene: I’m a blues man.
Willie: A blues man? [starts laughing]
Willie: Where you from, boy?
Eugene: Well, I was born in Long Island.
Willie: Oh, Long Island aww shit, this is rich! Long Island: the famous ‘breeding ground’ for blues men!
The scene resonated. A few years earlier, I’d spent the summer living in the famed East Hampton, playground for the ultra-wealthy. I drove a 1971 Volkswagon Rabbit that I’d bought with 90,000 miles on it for $800 and had repainted at Earl Sheib’s for another $99. And, I’d soon learn the chassy was so rotten that at any given moment the seats could drop out of the car. I was painting houses, living pretty much hand to mouth and renting a bedroom in a small A-frame owned by a big East End builder. I had nothing compared to the world around me, but I had enough. So, I was happy.
In the other bedroom lived Tommy. Can’t for the life of me remember his last name. Lanky, blond and freckled, Tommy’s dad owned the place. And he was learning the family business over the summer. But, that wasn’t Tommy’s dream. He wanted to be a writer. A REAL writer. Like the greats. But that little voice inside him said, if you want to be great, you’ve got to FEEL the blues. You have to suffer.
So, at summer’s end, he planned a sojourn that would take him across the country in a beat up old station wagon. Starting out with $10 in his pocket and a stack of blank notebooks. He wanted to live hard, to feel the pain. So he could connect with that wellspring of angst that seemed to fuel the greats.
I’ve heard a similar refrain from a number of friends who’ve sought artistic relevance as they prepared to set off on a pain-seeking hiatus from a life of privilege.
Problem is…it’s bullshit. On two levels.
One, the pain that fuels creative mastery can’t be artificially induced. It can’t have a kill switch.
It’s got to be born of genuine experience, of deep immersion in the process of life, of vulnerability to luscious highs, consuming love, mad passions and crushing loss. Of transformative first-hand experiences and observations. Of the knowledge that you’ve got no exit but the course of time. That’s where richest creative cauldron most often simmers. If you can yell “cut” at any time and walk away, it’s just not real. Not enough to open the floodgates on a level that matters.
Two, it’s not about pain.
It IS about engagement. You don’t need to suffer, you need to live. You don’t need to lose, you need to be open to risk. You need to feel what it’s like to stick your neck out and be judged. You need to dance with uncertainty. You need to pursue passion with breathless zest. You need to sit in a moment, alone in a sunwashed field and let every sense flood. It’s not about suffering. It’s about being present. It’s about connecting to what’s real and what’s not. It’s about allowing yourself to feel. Be it from the back of a station wagon in the deep South or a pied-à-terre on Park Ave. It’s about being real.
Because that’s where the good stuff happens. Where creation breaths and grows.
That’s when life becomes worth writing about.
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