What Is Your Vision?

It’s hard to understand why some people reach a wide audience in creative disciplines, while others toil away year after year in apparent mediocrity. While you have to be in the right place at the right time, and you have to meet people, the last ingredient is the most critical: your vision must be indispensable.

It’s no good hoping to be a famous author if you keep writing things that people don’t need. Everything is an economy, including the world of thought and emotion. People need emotional catharsis and intellectual leading just like they need bread and electricity. And despite the digital revolution, pirating, and the debilitating effect of TV on our ability to think critically and appreciate beauty, people will still pay for emotional and intellectual catharsis. If you are an artist, this is your industry; and it is not at all wrong to think that way. In fact, thinking that way is the only thing that will help you to find an audience who needs your work.

Good writing can lead its readers to new truths of the mind, just like good music can open the sluicegate of the heart to let the tears finally flow. (I know that’s an awful generalization of the function of each, but bear with me.) We are all, to varying degrees, emotionally constipated and intellectually stunted. We are all trying to find the way. If your art is not showing people the way, it is not necessary; and in any economy, that which is not necessary fails.

All right, so your projects aren’t getting off the ground. That’s okay. There’s a lot that goes into creating something and then getting it to people. For many of us, creating is the easy part; the process of getting it to people is strange and complicated–and waking up to the Internet in 2013 makes it even more so. If you aren’t marketing your stuff, no one will know it exists; and an artwork that could change the world yet stays stashed in the basement will remain stashed in the basement. So the next paragraph is not about artworks that have failed due to a lack of appropriate marketing.

This is going to be hard to hear. But listen. If people aren’t responding, if they aren’t excited, if you don’t see at least a little good that your art has done for others, you might want to sit down and reevaluate what you’re doing. What is your vision? Were you given one, or did you invent one? Are you a conduit of something from beyond yourself, or are you trumpeting the fact of yourself? Are you preaching the fact of Other to others, or are you preaching the fact of yourself to yourself? Do you want to be a vessel of beauty, or do you want to be a rock star? The world needs beauty more than ever, but we have enough rock stars. They’re on stage tonight at every black-painted dive bar in every Nowhere, USA.

The digital revolution and the rise of indie culture have redefined success for everyone who creates things. But the fact remains: if what you create is necessary, and you tell the people who need it that it exists, it will find some type of success. If it is not necessary, it will fail. This is because people need things. They need bread and water and beauty. Think long and hard about this; and if you still turn out to be an artist, go out and let beauty flow through you.

Replaying Our Wounds

“You get your wounds early.”

—“Early,” by Michael Prewett

People replay their wounds with each other again and again, but not in a way that encourages growth. Rather, they seek endlessly for the validation that their wounds once denied them. They repeat their pain over and over. Consequently, they become stuck and stunted people who cannot grow. How can they stop this cycle of dehumanization?

In Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, a book about maternal narcissism by Karyl McBride, there is a diagram of a hoary old oak tree. The tree has a massive trunk, a full crown of branches, and roots digging deep into the ground. The rough bark of the trunk is labeled “childhood scars,” while the body of leaves is labeled “adult: branching and growing.” The idea is that, like a tree that lost some bark or even a limb when young, a person must overcome her ancient wounds and keep producing new branches.

When you begin to see people in this light, you realize that a categorization is possible, however uncomfortable it is to share: some people are still growing, even in middle and old age, while others are stuck, repeating the same heartbreaking idiocy over and over.

It’s not like those who are still growing never received any wounds. They did. But what sets them apart from those who are stuck? What, in their upbringing, their past, their present, or their nature, allows them to overcome the obstacles that threaten to destroy their self-worth?

We must examine our own wounds. We must examine what we are carrying forwards with us and what we are inflicting senselessly on those around us. We must go to therapy in our heads. And if we don’t have therapeutic insight there from great books, great conversations, or great love, we must seek it out. We must approach someone else and ask for help. It’s this repetition of our own wounds that wounds others and gives them something to repeat. On and on, the cycle of destruction will roll over—unless we stop it.

A few days ago, I wrote about grace. The article is here. Grace is the answer—but we have to give it out rather than seek it from others. Those who can’t reference the receiving end of grace in their own experience can’t pass it on. We have to show it to them. We have to give them an experience that they can reference. We may even have to do it more than once. The only way to stop this toxic cycle is to start extending grace to those agonizingly ungraceful people in our lives.

Maybe this is what a certain teacher meant when he said something about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and the log in your own.

Extending Grace to Yourself

In his essay The Lesson of Grace in Teaching, Professor Francis Su suggests that grace is the most important component of the teacher-to-student relationship. By extending grace to students, he says, teachers relieve students of the burden of measuring up. They even rehumanize them.

Our culture’s lauding of achievement whispers to us with “the poison call of fame,” to quote Will Stratton’s song “The Relatively Fair.” Whatever podium you’re climbing towards, you may think that getting there will give you a sense of arrival—that perhaps the world’s recognition of your achievements will open up to you a truer, more vibrant, more joyful existence.

Trust me: it won’t.

I’ve dreamed of having my novels widely read. I’ve worked for 16 of my 26 years on story after story—so many that I truly do come across whole novels from childhood and adolescence that I’ve forgotten about completely. If it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to reach that elusive level of mastery, I’m as much there as I can be at 26. After all, I’ve written three-quarters of a million words in practice of the craft. I’ve been read by others (even if the number is probably still under 100). I’ve received praise that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve learned to recognize respect in people’s voices and facial expressions and online comments. It stuns and humbles me (though not enough to not state the above).

I’m there, right?

Yes, but it’s not enough. I’m already planning the publication of my next book as I work through its edit. I’m doing the cover at the same time. I’m working through the concrete ways that I can give this book a bigger chance to make an impact. I’m looking into Kickstarter. I’m filling out spreadsheet after spreadsheet of information. I’m working from a shadowy, brainstorm-style plan towards something tangible. I’m cracking the whip on myself.

But achieving this isn’t going to make my life any better. It will add a lot of stress this summer, or whenever I do it. It will teach me many new things. It will get my book into the hands of more people who’ve never met me in person. But it isn’t going to make me feel at home, really at home, for more than a few moments here and there.

Solomon’s declarations of “Vanity, vanity! All is vanity!” in Ecclesiastes have begun to ring not with a deficiency of dopamine, but with cold, hard, intellectual truth. The guy wasn’t depressed; he was right. It is vanity. It is striving after wind. The fruits of this labor are not tangible or measurable. There is no way for me to look at my work and say “I have succeeded.” It could always be better. It could always have been better. When I hold the finished version of thisbook in my hand, it will just be the words that I wrote, edited, and typeset. I won’t be able to read the book and enjoy it, at least not for a while. I’ll be damn sick of it. This is just something I do. It’s something for me to build while I’m on this earth. But it isn’t going to fix me.

If you’re a workaholic like I am, you’re constantly pushing yourself. You go to bed dissatisfied with the day’s little achievements and wake up preparing to try again. You think about your project in the middle of the night. You think about it on Sunday afternoons. You can’t stop thinking about it, and when you finally sit down to work on it, you can’t always get it right. You can’t accomplish enough. You can’t earn your own approval for the day’s work, however great or small it was.

This is when you need to extend grace to yourself.

You extend grace to yourself when you give up for the day and say, “Oh well. It is just vanity of vanities, after all.” You extend grace to yourself when you stop expecting divine powers of you, O pinprick of significance—when you stop imagining that with a little more effort, with a little more gusto, you can crack this. You extend grace to yourself when you look at yourself from the outside and take a moment to chuckle about how obsessive you are, how insane you are.

But most of all, you extend grace to yourself when you remember that everything will be okay whether you succeed or not.

 

Show Up Ready To Make, Not Ready To Take

A thought for hipsters everywhere: love of money is the root of all evil does not mean that money itself is the root of all evil, but rather, that desiring it as an end in itself is. At the heart of it, evil—laziness and self-centeredness—is the root of the need for money.

Money is the scourge that keeps us working. It is the curse on the ground in Eden. Most of us aren’t working the fields for our food anymore, so the curse comes up in new ways. We are still getting our bread by the sweat of our brow, though now that sweat may take the form of long hours bending over a keyboard or shrinking digits in an online real-time bank statement. But it’s still sweat, and the world of digital work and digital compensation is no less fraught with thorns and thistles.

It’s real hip to say that we don’t want to play that game, that we don’t want to feed into the world system, man. But a caveat to you pure artists and revolutionaries who wish to bow out: if you don’t want to feed into the world system, you will have to stop taking from it, too. You will have to stop promoting your work on the internet, which runs on devices, scripts, processors, and fiber-optic cable designed and built and implemented by people who need a place to live and something to eat. You will have to stop using your car, which was likewise designed and built by people. You will have to stop eating out, since the local people who work at your favorite restaurant also need to pay rent. You will literally have to go live in the wilderness and be totally self-sufficient, because that’s really what you’re pining for when you complain about your bills.

If you want enough money to live (which, by the way, is not the desire that the passage speaks against), assess your skills and see what you have to offer. Everyone needs everything every day. The economy may be “bad,” but everyone is still buying things and subscribing to paid services.

If your attitude towards work is, “I just want something that I can show up to and get paid for without having to engage my heart and mind,” you will get exactly what you deserve, which is frustration and difficulty. People will give you a hard time at work. You will be reprimanded for laziness. You may even get fired.

We need to stop viewing an income as something to which we’re entitled and remember that it’s something for us to earn. We should not approach the work transaction ready to take, but rather, ready to make. People need things. We are all talented. We can meet each other’s needs. Money is just the moderator in disputes over the value of objects and services. As such, it is a necessary part of a messed-up world. It is the stand-in for having faith in people we don’t know.

So humble yourself and work your hardest at your job. If you get paid, consider it grace.

Narcissists

I’ve rubbed up against some difficult characters in the last few years. No, I’m not talking about people I’ve imagined in my stories. I couldn’t invent the kind of insanity I’ve dealt with, though it does help me to write what I hope are twisted, tragic people. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just good material for my muse. Very contact with these people is dangerous. If I don’t step in and do something, this self, this me, is going to take on the same insidious contagion that these folks did.

Life circumstances have forced me into varying degrees of sustained contact with three difficult people in particular, each to the point that a personal relationship of some sort should have formed between us. In one case there is no relationship at all except general bitterness in the other party. In another case, an intense argument a while ago broke through the difficulties, and we can at least be cordial with each other. In the last case, the other party’s stance towards me vacillates between irritating attempts at control and good ol’ boy commiserating about our shared struggles.

These people are hard to figure out.

I’ve known a textbook definition of narcissist for a long time: the one who is in love with his own appearance, like Narcissus, from whose name the word is derived. But now I’m learning the daily grind of really knowing a narcissist. I’m learning that it isn’t some fierce self-love, some fiery joy, that drives them; it’s a desperate self-protection, a machination born out of sheer terror. And I’ve discovered the lumpy formations of this cancer in my own heart. In ten years, unchecked, without correction, I would become one of these shattered relics of humanity.

This greatly concerns me. I don’t want to become someone who carries the bitterness of wound after wound with me everywhere. I want to be a vessel, something that beauty passes through on its journey towards people who need it. If I keep acting on this closed feedback loop of check pulse, feel sorry for self, check pulse, feel sorry for self, I fear I will bend the truth-pipe in me back around onto myself. And if that happens, I will no longer be able to write or to love.

That analysis is a bit of an overreaction, but my mind works in overreactions. I like to state the problem in its simplest, scariest terms. Then I can see it intellectually for what it is; see all its causes and all its effects; and attack it at the root.

I’ve done that. And I have a resolution.

I refuse to be relationally safe. I refuse to give in to the voices that tell me he wants that from you; better give it to him or she needs you to not express your true self; better protect her. Instead, I will boldly, but gently, speak the truth in every situation. And I will not be afraid.

We Had Meant To Make A Covenant

My car was in the shop. It was a nuisance, a financial hardship, but a chance to see my world. The sidewalks were just as ruinous as in memory. The house where I used to live was a little less decrepit; new door, new windows. Porch still covered in chairs, though the one chair I had dumpster-dived a few years ago was gone now.

We had thrown out everything else long before: the fellowship, the failure, even the facing of it. We had soared too high. The atmosphere had proved too thin, or else the bullet had found the perfect spot.

I first came to this house as a young college student still living at home. I had heard that they shared everything here, even their food. They were a family bound together not by blood relation but by a signed commitment, a covenant. And they did this voluntarily. I was a little afraid the first time, standing on the back porch knocking.

The place was run by a campus ministry organization. Partnering with the landlord, the organization filled the house with eight students every year, some of whom were leaders within the ministry and directors at the house. The idea was simple, but radical: throw a bunch of college kids under the same roof and ask them to commit to intentional Christian community. No drugs, alcohol, or sex. Regular meetings, meals together, prayer, and Bible study.

Curiosity blossomed in my fear. What was it like? How would it change me? How would I handle the conflicts? How dare I think I wanted to do it? When the time came, I had made it onto the recruitment list. My favorite answer was something between “I don’t know” and “no.” But my friends were persistent, and they took turns. Suddenly, inexplicably, my answer changed to “yes.”

That first year was all discovery. The discipline of our regular meetings called out shadowy feelings higher than the desire to be left alone after a long day. The sense of pure creation hovered in every breath, around every corner: we were doing something new. We were holding all things in common. Surely this thing was contagious. If people could just experience the power of community, they would turn away from fear and individualism and start to live. We had to spread the love.

The neighbors on one side needed it so much. They were foster parents (as evidenced by the age disparity between them and the kids); but it didn’t sound like a loving home. The mom yelled at the kids every morning when she took them to school and every afternoon when she brought them home. I didn’t know what to do. One moment I asked myself whether I had any right to do anything at all, and the next moment I asked how I dared remain silent. One evening, in an overflow of anger, I opened the window of my attic bedroom and shouted “stop yelling at those kids!” Of course, she had a retort for me: I had no idea what it was like to deal with them all day. No, I didn’t; but I had plenty of idea what it was like to deal with her. I didn’t say that, though.

The yelling stopped for a while. Maybe I had put the fear of child services into her, or maybe I had only told her that I hated her, just as everyone else did. But at least I had been an influence, salt and light, man. We were all doing this. We were building this. Of course, the yelling started up again a few months later; and, unwittingly, I had spoken for our whole house in breaking social code and rebuking her from on high. Thenceforth, relations with the neighbors remained polite at best. But, that and other failures aside, I still believed in community. I was ready for a second year.

Then we got the bad news.

Due to a restructuring, the campus ministry directing the community house would have to let the project go after the end of the school year. But several of us, enthused with our experience of a cultural shift away from the American dream toward something like a network of real love, petitioned the owner to let us rent the house again. In leaderless democracy, we would continue the ardent and dire attempt at holding all things in common. (Minus the no alcohol rule, of course.) The owner liked the idea. We got enough people, and we all moved in.

When the honeymoon of late summer dinners and new beers together was over, an obnoxious roadblock appeared: we could not agree on our covenant, the signed statement by which we would all abide and which we had allowed to go unsettled in our rush to get the rental established. Furthermore, we could not even agree on how to work towards agreeing on the covenant; one time, having met specifically to resolve the issue, we spent four hours sitting in abject silence under an apple tree in an orchard. Before long, the old glowing community house had become a hollow place with an outward appearance of peace, love and countercultural sharing, but an inward structure of personal avoidance and even spite. Community living, we called it.

For a while we trundled along, gently working to avoid some of the conflict: trying to clean up gracefully after ourselves and each other, trying to share groceries, and trying to find a time when we could all sit down for that pesky covenant talk. But things just didn’t work out. The mess of mine and my brother’s musical gear in the basement accumulated, wiping out what was once a weightlifting space for others. Some people could only be found coming in or going out or staying behind a closed bedroom door. Dishes accumulated as statements of agitation, and proposed systems for dealing with them led to fights. We could have shrugged and said roomie wars, as it’s nothing new. But the thought just wouldn’t go away: we had meant to make a covenant.

The sad thing was that we never tried to talk about it or apologize or forgive. We just stuck out the lease, stretched out our diverging paths, and moved out on schedule. The malaise in the air had quieted to decomposition. I was not, am not bitter; but it’s still hard for me to see these people when I run into them now and then. It’s even harder to live with the fact that I really don’t see them at all. I still love each one of them.

Two years earlier, my confrontation with our neighbor failed to accomplish anything. Determined to be less harsh and more accepting, I didn’t confront anybody this time. But now I realize that that too was a failure. All right, what were we supposed to do?

That’s not to say that I regret having lived there. That experience still structures my thoughts, from my conversational instincts to the dynamics of my novels. But the riptide of striving together toward a great wholeness has not picked me up since, except perhaps in glimpses at a family holiday or an arts discussion group meeting; and without that sense of collective unity, love, and purpose, life has at times seemed like a dull and endless reciprocation of personal paycheck and personal spending. How I miss that tight and intimate giving, that all-eclipsing net of interdependence.

I’ve had some opportunity to practice that love again. Dating and engagement have shown me a new kind of community that is smaller and more desperately important. The loss of friends, both to death and drifting, has shown me how deep and unbreakable the ties within my family are. Living now at a boarding house with strangers (without a covenant), I’ve listened to people when they’re at their lowest and given them rides to school when they’re too sick to walk. I’ve written about this kind of community in my novels and seen it honored in the naming of our band after that house. But that time of life and all its dreadful seasick learning are just a memory now. And though the failure of that attempt is perhaps less heinous than the verbal abuse next door to it, the reverberations of its dysfunction are surely no less present and no less difficult to circumscribe.

New Year’s Resolutions, A Week Late

I could have resolved to write a thousand words a day; to be a better person (yay); to jog at least once a week; to control my anger. Instead, I resolved to do something more attainable: to write only what must be read.

I’m going to apply that to my particular vein of creativity (writing—hence the metaphor—see?), but also to my life. Everything that passes through me will (ideally) be only what is necessary.

This means I can’t enjoy a little boast here and there about my accomplishments. Because really, the only person who “needs” that is me. Other folks may need the things I produce, but they don’t need my pride or my self-glorification.

People need to be healed. I think I can do that a little bit, here and there, as the needs of people happen to line up with the things that I feel called to say. The best thing for me to do is just get out of the way and say what I’ve been given to say.

This is no time to rest on my laurels—and those laurels aren’t mine, anyway. There’s a big messed up world out there, and it needs to be slain by beauty. I have a vision. I can feel when beauty taps on my shoulder. I know what it feels like to let beauty in and let it pass through me in the form that my craft can give it. I need to keep doing that—I mean, I need to keep letting that. Cuz it isn’t me at all.

To do so, I’m going to have to give up this need for financial security. I’m going to have to forget that I’m an oldest child from a family that never seemed to lack anything. I’m going to have to forget that I grew up in a warm, beautiful house that was owned, not rented. I’m going to have to stop fantasizing about having a nine-to-five, because acting on that fantasy will prevent the things that I must say from being said.

I don’t know what your path is, but I do think that this year, you should resolve to follow it. Have you been putting it off? Have you blanched before the prospect of being broke? Have you shied away from the prospect of long hours? What are you afraid of? Jesus was about as broke as they come, right? (I’m sort of making that up for the sake of argument, but it sounds reasonable.) He spent his time wandering around telling tax collectors and prostitutes “hey man, you’re forgiven”; feeding people mysteriously; and preaching to huge crowds from boats. That’s just weird, and you don’t make money doing that kind of stuff. But see, Jesus wasn’t fenangling the family carpentry business into a cash cow. He was meeting the needs around him. Among other things, he was a broadcaster, a celebrity, and a member of the media—and he had every right to be, because his message was (still is) necessary.

So, ask yourself: what have I been given that simply must be done? After a moment’s reflection, get off your behind and go do it. I mean, it’s freaking 2013.