Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You Could, But Will You?

Years ago, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, one of my favorite weekend activities was to stroll through the Saturday Market -- a lively collection of artists' booths, street performers and food vendors downtown by the Willamette River. I'd get a chai tea or some greasy ethnic food from one of the booths and then wander around for a couple of hours, daydreaming, shopping, people-watching... it was one of those activities that is both inspiring and relaxing.

Like many such outdoor festivals, the Saturday Market was full of both works of art far beyond the talents of the average person, as well as some things that were technically simple, but cute and clever. Those simple innovations or creative pieces often leave me asking myself, "Why didn't I think of that?" And sometimes that thought is followed with, "I could totally do that myself."

And why not? I have (or could obtain) acrylic paints, mismatched spoons, wooden frames, shellac, old magazines, lone barstools, fake flowers, a typewriter.... whatever the ingredients of this particular creative project might be. Why can't I go home right now and do [whatever it is] myself, for far less money?

I guess this is a common reaction, because at one such booth, the artist had posted a sign to spur sales from hesitant customers: "Yes, you could do this at home. But will you?" The honest answer: no, I won't.

The words on that sign have come to my mind again recently, as I've found myself with a little more time on my hands (well, time to think, anyway, while cradling a fussy infant in the wee hours.... not so much time to do). I've been trying to decide how I want to channel my energies in the coming months and I've found, discouragingly, that the possibilities are almost endless. There are loads of things I could do, but the question is, what will I do?

For example, I recently finished reading an astonishingly mediocre historical novel; and about halfway through, I began thinking -- "This is terrible. How am I not a published author already? I could write a better novel than this with my eyes closed. Maybe I should." Okay... certainly I'm capable of doing the research for such a novel. And perhaps there's some kernel of truth to the idea that I could be better than some at writing historical fiction. I would probably even enjoy it, if that's how I decided to spend my time.

But that's the thing... writing even a mediocre novel takes time and persistence. So in order to write a better novel (eyes open or otherwise), I would have to decide to spend my time that way. I would have to commit the time and discipline to doing the research, writing, editing, marketing, etc. at the expense of all the other ways I could spend those few precious moments while the little one is napping. I would have to choose to do that instead of doing just about anything else.

Now we've hit my problem. And, I suspect, the problem of talented procrastinators and underachievers everywhere. In order to do something, you have to commit to that and forgo other things, even if only in the short term. And committing like that means taking a risk -- hitching your wagon to one identity or pursuit, and casting off the safety net of the many other ways you could demonstrate your true talents. There is a built-in excuse for any shortcomings in your work when you're not pursuing your "true" passion. In that sense, I guess you could say it's easier to be a frustrated waiter than a failed actor.

I mean, let's face it, the reason Lady Mediocre is a published author and I am not, is that she wrote a damn novel! Meanwhile, I have lots of ideas and notes and half-finished paragraphs all strewn about in a black hole of a file folder called "Writing." Once in a while I invest some time and effort into that folder; but more often, I think of it longingly while I'm doing other things. And in many ways, it's safer that way.

But the reality is, life does not judge us on our aptitude (despite all the hype around the SAT in high school). No one cares what I could do if I [wanted to], [had time], [could find the energy], [got paid in advance], etc. I can only be judged on what I have done, am doing. That's where real greatness emerges, and it's up to me to do the work to bring it out in myself.

For me, the first step is letting go of some of the things I could do. Paring down my ambitions might feel like a loss in some ways, and it's certainly risky. But by closing a couple of those distracting side doors, maybe I can channel my energy to create definite direction, and build passion toward one or two pursuits at a time until I actually have something resembling a finished product. Then someone else can play the critic!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An Ordinary, Everyday Miracle

It seems that every time I take a hiatus from blogging, I feel the need to explain why in my return entry (we can talk about the uselessness of that later). This time is no different, but those who know me personally can guess -- it's the arrival of my precious little boy, just over a month ago, keeping me away.

Of course, any parent can tell you that the sleepless nights, constant feedings and general lack of mental acuity is enough to sideline any blogger with a newborn. All these things are certainly contributing factors. But on top of that, it's hard as a new parent to look outside your own little world to find things that would be of interest to everyone else.

A good writer feels compelled not just to entertain, but to connect. When I write a blog, an article, or the sketches for a book, I am always searching for what is simultaneously universal and unique. The idea is that those taking the time to read what I've written will be rewarded with something that is both different enough to be interesting and relevant to their own lives. Sometimes I'm successful at this, and sometimes people read a few lines and click away to see what's happening on Facebook instead.

Usually this involves channeling the natural stimulation I find in the world into some sort of weird, thought-provoking synthesis. But I have to be honest, right now I mostly just want to sit around and stare at my kid. Lately I'm focused on counting and re-counting his fingers and toes, decoding the mysterious rhythm of his cries, watching in awe as he explores the world. It's all beautiful, miraculous, and.... well, somewhat mundane.

Babies are born and suckled and raised every day -- and the people who understand and relate are the ones who have their own, far more poignant experiences of late-night toe-counting. so the center of my world these days is not exactly fascinating fodder f0r a blog. Well, maybe just this one.