I’d always thought that success was a showy affair. Life is meaningful, but I picked up on the idea that I’d find “meaning”. The difference is subtle.
I’ve always wanted to be an artist. It’s a nebulous term, and a loaded one. A definition: An artist is someone whose default mode is production rather than consumption. It’s an idiosyncratic definition, but it works to describe the shape of being I’ve been aiming for these last 14 years. (I remember taking my first concious decisions around the age of 12, I stole my cousin’s hair dye, coloured my fringe copper and told everyone my new name was “Truck”.)
It covers many trades. I’ve trained as a dancer, an actor and as a writer. I’ve worked as a journalist, a sex-worker, a designer, a gardener and a TV presenter. My choices, and the choice to list *those* jobs rather than the equally true “call centre customer service agent”, “McDonald’s fry chef” and “barrista”, are revealing. They’ve all got a kind of big cock swagger, an artistic machismo. It’s pure Radio 6 wank fodder.
What I’ve found most difficult about all these jobs is the silence, the absence of drama, the difference between what I thought there would be – crash, bang, camera flash – and the reality of their absence. Everything is just a job. I have struggled with silence.
Most of art is small things. Writing aimlessly in cafés whilst your life soaks up the sepia colour like a napkin in spilled coffee. The quality of light in the rooms where you sew alone. The long months between planting a seed and seeing a flower. Changes are slow and incremental. Each step is so small it seems almost ridiculous to celebrate.Eventually, I get to a way marker called completion. But my smile is a small one, a wry one.
Other people see the garden, the jumper, the poem. I see absence, the thieving transformation of time into art. A jumper does not contain the fried bread I ate in cafés to excuse my knitting in them, it doesn’t show the hours given to it, the weeks spent wrestling the desire for noise and the anxiety of failure. Art is the repeated choice to slowly sandpaper your face against the rough edges of your mind. A jumper isn’t eloquent about these things.
But then again, it is. Knitting creates artefacts. In that, there is a kind of victory. A tiny fanfare. But that is lonely, because that embodied history is only available to me. To have journeyed alone, and have the people back home more excited about the geegaws I brought back than the texture of the terrain I’ve traversed… that is very lonely. I think of the original flower hunters, who travelled the world and fought wild animals, braved mountains, watched their friends die… then returning to Victorian Europe to hear, “Oh, what lovely new geraniums!”
But even the loneliness isn’t dramatic. I’m no brooding knitwear Heathcliffe. It’s not even so grand as an ennui (meaningful work cures many types of sadness, ennui is one of them) just a persistent grey note, an unplaceable minor chord in an otherwise joyful composition. Silence is sorrowful, and learning to live with silence has been a struggle. Sometimes my head flares-up, I get enraptured with some desire for solidity, for something concrete and illusory. Recovering from these attacks comes mostly from reminding myself “life is only life, there are no stories, only details”. My development as an artist, and a person, always comes back to acknowledging reality, being present in this time, this place. Sometimes I feel very Zen and enlightened. More often I feel foolish, deluded and a little lost. But feelings are just things, the work continues and incorporates them. Most of being an artist is continuing despite it being slightly stupid to do so.
To look at the world, and yourself, and say “I don’t really know. My present experiences don’t have a meaning beyond themselves” is frightening. It is painfully courageous. It is painful to sing or shout at the world and know the world does not answer back. I understand why some people invent God.
A friend of mine critiqued my writing recently. “You write like you are waiting for everyone else to feel as strongly as you do”. I laughed. It is always exhilarating to be seen. I had gone out and danced naked for a storm in the ruined monastery at the heart of my town. He said I seemed angry that no one else was there dancing. Sometimes I am angry. I used to feel guilty that I couldn’t ignite the people around me. Now I feel angry at the people who want heat from me. It hurts the wood to smoulder, how can people not know? You can’t be safe and risky. You can’t be in love with your experience and close your eyes to it at the same time.
But that anger is just a mask for loneliness. And it is an unfair anger, no one can do the work for you. We are each of us alone with the weather, the weft of the carpet, the sounds of cutlery being cleaned in a bowl of soapy water. We are each of us alone with the quiet reality that the only thing that is happening is the thing that is happening. There is a gap in the world, and artists have to keep close to it. We all have to keep a little bit of nothing in ourselves so we can have room to change.
I am beginning to lose direction in my words. I sat down to write because it seemed imperative, essential, that I communicate the intensity of these silences. But I start to feel like the words have grown up around me, and I’m running through the leaves without a trail of bread. If I can’t communicate silence, I can at least avoid creating more noise.
It feels deceptive to end with a conclusion, as if life ever had them. As if we ever achieve “closure”. This feeling is so open ended, so grasping. So I will leave this piece open armed like my toddler heart, all need and unresolvable helplessness. I’ve dug out a little hole in the sand and water is running in. Ecclesiastes. The world is silent. I return to the page. The work continues.