Death and Creativity
I have a confession to make. I think about death. I think about it a lot. More so now than I ever have.
Until a few years ago, I can safely say I never thought about it. Like every other young person, I thought I was somehow going to live forever, that the death problem was going to be solved by the time I got there.
My current thoughts are not the theoretical “we’re all going to die” but the very real you-could-draw-your-last-breath-at-any-moment death. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I am haunted by Ivan Pandev’s death. He was my best friend and much more than that. When I am ready, I will write that article on our friendship, but I am not there yet. Just let it be known that I totally blame him for this dark cloud that now follows me around. “Fuce you. Brother.”1
I see death everywhere, in everything. Every action I take, or don’t take is measured up against the end of the line. It has become a balancing act. Every action of consequence has me thinking either “I should do this, because, time is running out” or “I shouldn’t bother because in the end, it won’t matter. I’ll be dead.” This is usually for anything that requires some effort, that is often creative and that would most certainly feed my soul in ways I know would somehow be beneficial. Whenever I think I have a hold on it, that I can forget it for a little while, it rears its head in the strangest places.
Last week, I attended a Zoom meeting with Austin Kleon, Beth Pickens and about two hundred other people. I say meeting, but it was really two hundred people eavesdropping on a conversation between Austin and Beth about what it means to be an artist. One of Beth’s first slides was
We’re all going to die, so do your art.
On the days when I can think more clearly about my creative process, I remember the evenings Ivan and I spent together. I feel the importance we gave to the writing, the music, in our lives. It was all that mattered. We were going to take over the world. We plotted. We planned. We created. We wrote. We sang. We laughed. We sometimes cried. There was so much we needed to do. We mostly understood that we needed to DO our art, but the next day, the mundane would more often than not, rear its ugly head, pushing the important things to another day. “Get a haircut and get a real job.” He loved that song.
I spent much of my time working that job, and trying to not be a slob. I put off the writing to another day. I had tons of excuses. I still do, but when Ivan died, it broke me. Of the two of us, he was the one to push back against the status quo. He worked and got things done in the “real” world so that he could have that time for music. I loved him for that. He never confused the important of making music. And he was always pushing me to write. I rarely did. The world had me convinced I needed to get that real job and that job was who I was. How could I be software developer and a creative, a writer, at the same time? This dichotomy threatened to rip me apart whenever I let writing in, as I invariably did, whenever I felt overwhelmed and drowning in reality.
Ivan’s death was a literal knell for me. His last word to me was “write!”
His is that voice in my head telling me that I should not ignore my need to create, but it is also death. It is the only thing that can permanently remove any choice in what I can and cannot do. It scares me. It wants me to trust that I will be okay, that we’lI all just be okay if we follow the beat of our own drum. On the one hand, I want to embrace my creativity, to write, but on the other there is death, and it will come no matter what I do or don’t do. Shouldn’t I just enjoy the time I have left and not worry about agonizing over writing? Ivan died before he could get his music out to the world, before he could properly become an artist. And second, now that he was dead, did any of it ever matter? Who cares that he was a musician, that he wrote songs? He was dead.
None of it mattered. I know that everyone that loved him would trade his music to have him back again, if only for a minute. Except for him. He would never have traded anything for his music. He never did. He knew that his death was coming. He had to have known. He was too intelligent not to understand what he was doing to his own body. The music was kept him going as long as he did. It fed him. I see that now.
The creative process is painful, for me, most of the time, but not always. There are times where it just flows, it feels good and better still, I don’t care about the outcome.
In those moments, I know that the work is important. Not important to anyone else, but to me. It is the only thing that nourishes me. Ivan knew this, but still fought the fight. His music became more and more important as time went on, as he neared the end. Now, this is all conjecture, and doesn’t even begin to cover all of the other things that I know were going through his mind. And I don’t mean to minimize the complexity of alcoholism and what it does to a person, but as an artist, he had a true north. He spent a lot of time making music, more than I ever spent writing. He knew he would never fully realize his potential. He was a damn fine musician, but hadn’t figured out how to tell the world. He never would. And it didn’t matter. What mattered was the doing. He needed to do it, even in the face of death, because he was an artist.
I am ready to say that I am an artist and given my limited time on this rock, I should do what feeds my soul, even if it’s part-time, between other tasks, on weekends, on the bus. Every little bit helps to stay off the darkness.
This isn’t a call to arms against death. It’s a finger tapping on a watch face. I need to be aware of the time I have. Do what I need to do to be fulfilled. Stop putting it off tomorrow, next week, next month. Do it now.
Do you agree? Do you feel the artist’s call? Do you ignore it?
I remind myself everyday that a life half-lived is not a life worth living.
Embrace your creativity, and as always…
Keep on Thinking Free.