In Defense of Contentment

Rob Gillaspie can make me mad as hell sometimes. Not lately, but still. Like most things that raise my hackles, though, he can also get me thinking, and therefore writing. He stated in the comments on [his latest blog][1], "One thing I worry about, despite all of my complaining, is that someday I might become too comfortable. Once I fall into that comfort zone, my creativity will undoubtedly suffer. Great art comes from instability and suffering... I'm not saying I've ever produced great art, not yet, but if I allow myself to get comfortable, I may never get the chance to do so." The following started out as a response in that same comment section, but I decided it was worthy of a blog of its own. So thanks, Murderama, I owe you one. When Penelope has made her entrance and I can drink again, I'm going to have to buy you a bourbon-and-coke -- hell, make that a Jack-and-Coke, you broke-ass fellow complainer.Comfort can definitely hinder your creativity, or at least send it in new directions you never wanted/thought you wanted. I used that rationalization for a long time. When I decided to leave my first husband, that was the excuse I used, even though there were dozens of others much more worthy (getting married too young and to get more financial aid, his compulsive gaming, my compulsive fornication, an excess of chemical escapism on both our parts, the list goes on). When I dropped out of college for the first and second times, it was because I knew I could write more and better without the constraints of a formal education. When I decided to spend rent money on an eight-ball, it was because I'd never had the "experience" of being homeless, something all good tortured artists should suffer through. When I began transporting enough methamphetamine to put me away for the rest of my adulthood, it was because it would be the makings of a novel to put Jerry Stahl to shame. When I dropped off the face of the earth and left my poor parents calling area morgues with my description, it was because a supportive family was too much of a safety net. When, two weeks out of rehab, I merrily put a needle back into my arm, it was because I hadn't written anything decent since I got sober. When I left a miraculously procured internship with the chamber of commerce, it was because I was getting too many respectable job offers and no good poet ever worked 9-5 in a Kathy Ireland suit skirt. See a recurring theme here? My writing, my life's work, the reason I believed I had been put on this earth, was a handy catch-all excuse for almost every self-destructive, illegal, potentially fatal decision I ever made.But somewhere along the line, I decided, slowly, almost subconsciously, that it wasn't worth it. At first I began trying to clean up because my lifestyle had almost killed my father. Even as stupid and self-centered as I was at the time, I could still see the connection between him finding a bottle of used rigs in my apartment and him keeling over with a massive heart attack two hours later. That was my sole impetus for a long time. But the longer I stayed clean, the more progress I made towards a "healthy" and "sane" life, the more I realized that I was happier living what had once been my worst nightmare than I had ever been living what I thought was my destiny and knew was my dream.Do I produce the caliber of work as an ecstatically married, supposedly middle-class, soon-to-be-mother as I did when I was a couch-surfing meth junkie? Hell, no, not even close, at least as far as my poetry and fiction are concerned. I think I actually did produce some works of great art back in the day, and am still proud of those bits of burning genius I somehow coaxed out of my speed-addled brain. Do I consider the trade-off to be worth it? Fuck yeah. I may not write epic poems that leave my audience speechless, but I occasionally manage a blog (I hesitate to call them essays) that I'm told are worth reading. That scalding insatiability in my gut may have spurred me to works of greatness, but it also left me personally unfulfilled, miserable, and it was slowly killing not only me but everyone I loved.I used to be terrified of comfort. I thought contentment was a synonym for living death. I believed that the moment I stopped suffering, my creative spirit, the fire that drove me to not only write but to live art that would make me immortal, would die. In a way I was right. I no longer spend hours scrawling away at pieces that leave me feeling as though I just gave birth to the greatest thing to be written since "Howl." When I finish a blog, I feel a certain satisfaction, to be sure, but not a week-long high. What I write now doesn't leave me convinced that I am among the most brilliant minds of my generation. Sometimes I miss that feeling, but then my husband comes home from work or my baby kicks me in the kidneys and I realize I wouldn't trade what I have now for all the acclaim and adoration, or even obscure self-righteousness, in the world. I'll admit that's as sappy as a black velvet painting of big-eyed Mexican orphans. Call me a sellout; I'm too damn happy to care. [1]: http://blogs.lawrence.com/murderama/entries/743/

Comments

Roscoe 17 years, 6 months ago

Here's the flip side- ever listen to the difference in the quality of music produced by bands before they sober up and after they sober up... Aerosmith being a prime example, the list goes on. 'nuf said.

Rob Gillaspie 17 years, 6 months ago

Yeah, I've been guilty of this syndrome quite a bit in my life-- hell, I'm probably still suffering from it... It's a pretty easy trap to fall into, the whole bringing-misfortune-upon-yourself-in-ord er-to-feed-your-muse thing. Some people manage to crawl out of it, some people let it pull them down. Like Corey Feldman. Quite the load of wasted talent, that guy.

Serously, though, as much as I rant and rave about the evils of a comfortable lifestyle, I'm also the first one to admit that I've put my wild years behind me... the drugs, death, sex and violence are a thing of the past, but I still carry them with me for inspiration. It sounds like you have a large well of experience to draw from; there's no reason to think that your lifestyle is hampering your creativity in any way. When I said "Great art comes from instability and suffering..." I meant it, but it sounds like you've already had your share of that in your life. There are too many shitty writers out there that have ZERO life experience, they came out of some college writing program and went straight to the bookshelves. Settling down isn't going to make your writing "safe" if you've already had a lifetime's worth of experience.

As for me, and the rest of that statement... That's just what works for me. I wouldn't really tout that as a gold standard for all writers. I'll be the first to admit I haven't really explored amny other options, though. I recently quit workign so I can focus full-tme on being a writer... My girlfriend and I are getting a nice little place together, I'll have my own office to work in. I'm just going to do medical studies for money for a while and see if I can make it work. So, yeah, my life is about to get more comfortable, at least by MY standards... we'll see what happens.

But you know, Mitzi, I wouldn't get so pissed off and waste so much time arguing with you if I didn't consider you to be a worthy opponent... I may be prone to temper tantrums and name calling, but I don't usually waste the energy on some one that isn't worth my time. You probably already figured that out, though.

And just what's so wrong with obscure self-righteousness, anyway?

Bad_Brad 17 years, 6 months ago

I think this is a very worthwhile topic and a very good blog entry. In my experience, the bottom line is that some people just don't want to be happy. Or, for whatever reason, they are simply afraid to be happy. One theory I have is that, as you pointed out in your blog, happiness implies contentment, and contentment implies complacency. A lot of people are not comfortable with complacency. Another theory I have, and one that I put more and more stock in the longer I live, is that some people are just so hung-up on what other people have that they don't take the time to appreciate all the blessings that they themselves have. I think we're all probably guilty of that at one time or another.

scarlett 17 years, 6 months ago

Thank you for presenting the positive side of contentment. It's not easy to get there and it doesn't require alot of money, just enough money and the right work schedule, for me, not in an office anymore. It's trite but really it is the small things that make you happy, a few good people, a few good animals, a little garden, and peace of mind that frees you to actually be creative in so many ways. Instead of being really into myself, and creating useless, needless angst, and all that shit, there is instead just this great peace I've made and am finally, after a bit of a lifetime, creating my own little contribution to art. I don't have to be Da Vinci or TS Eliot to be happy just doing it for myself. I guess it just takes some time and losing the really bad habits that help you hide for years. It will never be perfect, but that's just the way it is. So anyway, no worries, try and find the way that will work for you. You are not a sellout Mitzi, you are smart, and I'm glad that you can enjoy your happiness. Peace and love.

seth 17 years, 6 months ago

I usually try to stay out of the comment section on these blogs, but I just have to point out that Permanent Vacation and Pump are two of the rockinest albums that Aerosmith made, both of which once they cleaned up. One also needs to consider Dr. Feelgood by Motley Crue, which is THE rockinest album that they made, also once they lost the booze and drugs. I'm sure there are more examples, but none come to mind right now, and I do concede that most bands start sucking once they sober up. In the case of Aerosmith and Motley Crue though, I put their flaking out down to having alternative rock to compete with. This has just got me thinking way too much.
OK, personal experience part. My old band was probably loaded at every performance and consistently blew big dog turds. Despite this, we and everyone around us were convinced that we were the coolest thing that ever walked the face of the earth and destined to become huge rock stars. I keep in touch with the old bass player pretty regularly, and he's got some old tapes that literally make me shudder. So I often wonder how much ass we could have actually kicked and how far we actually could have gone if I had been less interested in drinking beer and more concerned with playing guitar.

edie_ 17 years, 6 months ago

It astounds me how people get so defensive about switching on the air conditioning or take issue because someone else would rather do without. Vice versa...people feel the need to explain if they aren't choosing to guide their lives into a salaried orifice with benefits. Why answer about how you live? It's my business if I'm swimming in weed ridden splendor tomorrow and blowing my wad on used records today. If you aren't hurting anyone it's your own business if you want to surf in Penelope land and crank out your writing on your own terms. Fuck everybody else. Whatever is going on in your life you'll have your own take on it, whether it's past or present, or the past influence on the present...as long as you can see those weird red things jutting out of the supermarket manager's temples, you're ace! And you know, those nods of approval I get for making the "smart choices" are just as annoying as the garbage I get for being a wingnut. It's just not anyone else's business!

thetom 17 years, 6 months ago

The pursuit of integrity involves a treacherous internal landscape that we all navigate on our own. I have found it incredibly easy to fuck up. Hypocrisy is an easy trap to fall into, and I have fallen more than once. Looking back, I guess one of the darkest periods in my life was when I too was using artistic autonomy to rationalize a self destructive downward spiral.

Worse yet, while trying to make it up to the people who loved me through the rough years, I overcompensated with a string of 'smart choices' that - long story short - ended up fuckin up peoples lives while I was pretending to be something I wasn't. (I went to church for about 8 years in there).

I don't know what the answer is, but I do believe that artistic integrity equates to personal integrity, and that elusive goal is what differs for all of us. And this is where I went wrong. I have accepted it and moved on, and want to believe that its not over.

Right now if I had time, space, and money to pursue my muse (pianos are big, expensive and I'm the kinda guy that needs to practice), I would use it for something else. But the music still rings through my head everyday, and what the hell, I sing to my kids. (been thinking about a series of children's songs with an edge - something like 'Big Daddy Bossman sings Stinky Stinky Little Fart' to the tune of...). Silly? Bet your ass. But here's where it comes from: when my 2 year old runs to me, grabs my leg, looks up at me with the power of the entire universe in her big blue eyes and says "Iwuvwoo, Daddy", nothing I ever did, or thought I would do, or will ever do measures to the truth of that moment.

If I gave a shit what people thought, I'd recognize that I'm way past 'age appropriate' for trying to figure this shit out. But at this point, while you will probably never hear any music I wrote, I hope I die wondering if I'm doing the right thing.

thetom 17 years, 6 months ago

counterlife: Yea, I likes my alkeyhol too. Wish I had more time to do it justice. Just finished 'Really the Blues" by and about Mezz Mezzrow. Looking for a good read. I'll check out some Roth. Thanks.

Roscoe:

With big money acts like aerosmith, there's another cycle besides the drunk/sober one, and thats the pre/post millionaire one. I'll usually lean towards the early stuff. No doubt if a band has sobered up (more power to em) they certainly PLAY better, but I'll have to say strugglers write better than millionaires, or at least there's very few millionaires that have anything worthwhile to say to me. Not saying they couldn't - they just usually don't.

Caterina Benalcazar 17 years, 6 months ago

Things that make you go "hmmmm..." Were you a better artist because you were f'ed up, or did you THINK you were a better artist b/c you were f'ed up? Speed, and particularly coke, is known for imparting delusions of grandeur. I could go on and on about the basic wrongness in thinking "comfort" and "contentment" are somehow antithetical to creativity, but I don't have the time: I have to get to work. Here's the brief nutmeat of my perspective: I work. I work a whole fucking lot. I don't make a ton of money, but I would say that I love money. I put in overtime. I pay for my health insurance, my rent is covered, and my dog's belly is full, and I cook and therefore eat, like a queen. I choose not to waste my money on over priced drugs. I drink moderately (very moderately) every day. The rest of my money goes into a savings account. Once a year I clear out my savings and spend a few weeks in a foreign country. When I return I spend the next 12 months writing about it and cooking all the dishes I learned abroad. I've been in just about every continent (australia and africa are yet to come) on my own tab. No credit cards. Just me and my 40 hrs/week to thank for it. All this on tips.
God bless money.

Roscoe 17 years, 6 months ago

Wow, are all of us who participate in this forum 30 something, reformed, anti-social artists? I too was atroubled young writer that noticed that most of my literary heroes were all drunks or drug addicts. I thought that added some form of legitimacy or gave me license for my own. I figured,"Hell, if one habit makes a great writer, I'll pick up several and be the greatest ever!" Yeah, that worked out for me. Here's my motto; "Anyone who says they like to work is either an idiot or a liar." Where am I going with that? Well if you knew you wouldn't go along for the ride... Now, I am married w/ four wonderful children that make me crazy (two girls in high school) I am a firm believer in Jesus Christ- just ask me about him sometime, I'd love to tell you. I am a master carpenter and have discovered that it is not just my job, but also my form of expression. I also believe that raising a family and creating an environment that is stable, not neccesarily suburban or conventional, where you can correct some of the mistakes that were made either with you or by you so that your children may avoid the same sufferings and pitfalls,while still retaining your individual identity (you do have a first name- it has not been legally changed to Mom or Dad or Honey)- that is truly an art form. Ditto to the fact that I would not trade my current life for my past life. Here's a question to ponder- If I make more money now than I did when I was younger... how could I ever afford to have done the quantity and quality of drugs, the eating downtown before I went drinking downtown and obtaining a massive record collection? Yet today I can barely pay my basic living expenses? Oh, the drugs, booze, munchies and shows were my basic living expenses cause I slept in other peoples houses. Yes, it's all coming back to me now.

P.S. Even though I wouldn't trade my new life for my past one, I dont' regret a minute of it. Well, maybe that one thing.

"Just because I'm not stoned, doesn't mean I don't think stoned thoughts." -Iggy Pop.

counterlife 17 years, 6 months ago

For purely sober, edgy, outrageous, over the top, fuck you challenges to every damned conventional, boring American and human perspecitve, may I suggest anything and everything written by Philip Roth, especially (in my humble opinion): Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, Operation Shylock, Deception, The Counterlife, My Life as a Man, and oddly enough, for you women (and men) who accept the feminist judgment of Roth as a misogynist (these people can't be reading his stuff), the Jamesian and ignored, but entirely amazing, "When She Was Good"; and, of course, "Portnoy's Complaint", if read for the outraged humor and not entirely for the sex. The latter is really fun, but only an aspect of the wildly ferocious point. He is the best and most beautifully American writer out there (living or dead) and, if you have not done so, may I recommend checking it out. Happy reading. P.S. He deserves a Nobel Prize,but he is not politically correct (or perhaps drunk) enough to win so far. The Nobel Committee tends to favor American drunks. They will cave eventually, even if he stays sober. P.S. I am a "functioning" (and, by my standards, moderate) consumer of various and sundry alcoholic beverages, love it, and, despite what it may cost me in conventional approval, hope I never need to stop. But, I suppose there is point where one must consider the amount consumed and its value - it is just not the same for everyone - AA and the public health cops notwithstanding. They (the public health cops/social reformers) are after the fatties now, so perhabs we consumers will get a break, but only if we are not overweight and poor, and only if we really want /choose/require that we get one.

thetom 17 years, 6 months ago

Things that make you go "hmmmm..." I'm wondering if I've ever met anyone - either on this site or in life - that was too stupid to make the connection between delusions of grandeur and cocaine. And I'm not sure that anyone but fishermen, cooks, and (live) musicians could use it to delude themselves. Writers would have a much harder time of it because their stuff is, well (hmmmm), written down. This also goes for painters, sculptors, and recording artists. No matter what these people have in their veins when they create, the work is available for scrutiny.

And Feents, I'm sure the reference to hard work doesn't indicate an underlying assumption that artists don't work. During the few years I spent touring, the pace was such that most nine to fivers (overtime and all) would scream for mommy.

MAMAT 17 years, 6 months ago

Maybe some artists (Hemingway, Brando, etc) prefer to live tortured lives full of angst and pain, believing it is the price they pay to produce masterful works of art. Maybe some poor souls never realize that true happiness creates its own form of passion. However, there are a number of renowned artists who didn't have to screw up their entire life (and negatively impact all who come within hugging distance of them) in order to create works that are genius and provide lasting inspiration to all. Does pain create art, or does art create pain? If so, what about the reverse: can happiness create art, and art create happiness? What is "NORMAL" after all? Maybe the answer is in my mantra - balance in all things.

The commentators here who mention their children may be on the track of true creative immortality. While world domination or fame may be the goal that drives some, I have opted to be famous to those I know best and love the most. Maybe that's a cop out, based upon a lack of talent, drive or energy. Maybe it's "settling" for less than I could have had with more suffering on my part. Or maybe it's an acceptance of reality; not every truly gifted artist needs or will find public appreciation, at least in their life time. The art, not its appreciation, is what counts after all.

Here is my eulogy (written at age 18 - and I'm now 51) "If I leave behind one mind, with faith and love, in what I am and was, I live on, in two worlds."

Caterina Benalcazar 17 years, 6 months ago

thetom: Absolutely what an artist does is work! I have no desire to imply otherwise! I am merely saying that "comfort" and "contentment" are in no way inherently detrimental to the artistic impulse. Because being an artist (whether writer, musician, painter...) IS work, I find the cutting of NEA funding terrible. A check from Unky Sam would go a long way for an artist to free up time/ money to live comfortably enough to get the real work of creating. Art is so valuable to a community that I think it's a shame that more people are not able to call it their "job" and not a mere "hobby". Virginia Woolf herself said it in A Room of One's Own: "A woman needs money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction." And while I would submit that it isn't the absolute for all, I would definitely say that it's sad that "artist" has become conflated with the words "starving" or "tortured." Must it really be that way? I'd hate to think so. I'd also hate to think that the "suffering, alcoholic artist" stereotype that results, is all an artist has to work with. So you want to be a writer? There's alot more out there than Bukowski or whoever the hell you hold up as a shining example of the "down and out artist," talented as he is...just as there are different examples of "musician" than Kurt Cobain...talented as he is. Do we really have to self-flagellate with substance abuse for Okay, so I've never myself attempted too much under the influence of speed or coke, but maybe that's simply because I've spent alot of time around massively "cokey" artists and I can say this: I love all of them dearly but most of them, when under the influence, could use a healthy dose of "shut the fk up." Seriously. Y'all really like to talk. And "jam". Alot. Much of it is not good. That's all I'm saying. And now, I will proceed to "shut the fk" up.

Aufbrezeln Eschaton 17 years, 6 months ago

Feents: A little bit of both. When I was fucked up on the nasty, nasty meth, a lot of my work sucked, but of course, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I will admit, though, that at least half the time the sleep deprivation allowed me to break a lot of ingrained writing models I never would have moved beyond otherwise, and the extreme focus lent by the chemicals allowed me to work longer, and with more intensity, than I ever did straight. Of course, the extremity of experience the "lifestyle" exposed me to was a big factor, as well--whereas pre-speed most of my work was rather pedestrian and typical, once I got on that train I had more unique (or at least, I thought at the time) subject matter to work with. Now I realize that coming to after blackouts wedged behind a refrigerator wearing my neighbor's underwear is hardly groundbreaking territory, but at the time, it sure as hell seemed more interesting than another "I hate this small town" lament.

thetom 17 years, 6 months ago

Feents:

I hear ya.

And I'm not saying you're wrong about the coke thang. Although it is, in fact, a handy tool when you suck. Not only do you you deceive yourself, but in many cases (such as live rock & roll acts - the only thing I can speak to) you also deceive your fucked up audience. It also provides an even handier way to lose money when you're trying to make a living doing music.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.