AKA When your wife calls you names.
There have been only two books in my entire life of which I have purchased multiple copies. The first of these books will come as no surprise; I have gifted this book to so many people over the years that I probably should have been asking for a cut from the publisher. That book is called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. You’ll notice the subtitle:
“Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles”
It took some gumption for me to buy this book the very first time I did so. I was in school, studying all realm of science and the scientific process at the time. Creative battles were not the type of struggles that I perceived myself to be dealing with. I was pursuing understanding of facts, applying an exploration of process, and endlessly seeking the most correct answer. The most…correct…answer.
When you spend as much time in school as the average doctor, you become accustomed to answering questions for which there is a correct answer. The longer one answers to the average professor, teacher, or instructor, the more likely that the pursuit of understanding becomes replaced by the pursuit of knowledge, facts, and verifiable truths. By the time you are 25 and have spent two decades in formal schooling, especially when said schooling is in the sciences, you will most often emerge as a regurgitator of answers. With many professors like the mommy bird barfing her lunch on my lap, I became hyper-proficient at gobbling up the warm entrails and re-regurgitating them (in standardized format, of course) onto a piece of 8.5×11 paper. Man, could I barf with the best of them. A machine — or maybe even mommy bird — would then deem the redigested bits as correct or incorrect. Hopefully the entrails were digested just the right amount. The survival of the scientific species depends on this. Mass amounts of people need to know mass amounts of things in order to do a little bit of stuff (for other people) for a little bit of money. It’s not good or bad. It’s learning in the system. It’s how I was trained from the outside in. #bestbarferaward
So why was I drawn to a book so clearly identifying itself as part of a different world? Why I have I managed to re-read this book over 20 times now? Why did my conscious brain tell me to buy yet another text book, but my gut told me that this was the scripture for me? My wife knew the answer all along. Fortunately for me, on December 22 of 2018, she revealed my truth to me.
It was the first morning of our Christmas vacation. I had made a point of telling my wife the night before that I would really love to start our time together with breakfast at our favourite restaurant. Happy to oblige, as the huevos rancheros there speaks to her soul, we both knew that it was the “correct” thing to do.
As per usual, after we ordered our food, my miniature monster-child was talking at a standard three year old pace while I stared into the abyss. For the year or two prior to this breakfast, life had been very, how do you say…aggressive. In the past year alone I had quit every single role in every single organization or club I was ever a part of (except ones which I still owned). My longtime family dog passed away. Finances were up and down. Many relationships were up and down. I uncovered the bitter realization that I will never want to return to my childhood home again nor the business which I had built for the last 7 years. I was still recovering from a gnarly scare with blood pressure and a suspected tumor. I had a giant chunk of my back removed and still couldn’t feel my left shoulder blade. The mental whirlwind was blowing me over. And so, as much as I wanted to empathize with my three year old’s angst against white crayons’ incapacity to draw on white paper, the abyss became me.
At this point in my life, my wife is used to both the chaos that follows me around as well as my incessant swimming around in the soup of my mind. Why this time was different, I don’t know. I think I may have been complaining that I had written an email at five times the size it needed to be and couldn’t understand why I simply felt like I couldn’t not write a story. I was feeling a bit trapped by the fact that a lot of my job had become akin to information transference. I just couldn’t stop writing too much, too often, when the reality of my job was that people didn’t want the story, they just wanted to know what was necessary to know. I was divulging some of this sentiment to my wife when this approximate conversation came about:
Ben – All I really needed to do in this email was tell these people about the course.
Amanda – Uh huuuuh…
Ben – Then [so-and-so] told me it was way too long. So I went back and read it. What was suppose to be a “Hey, don’t forget about this course we have coming up, just for you” turned into a frickin’ story, plot and everything. I managed to write the chapter of a book instead of an email.
Amanda – *smiling now*
Ben – I just can’t help it. I keep doing it over and over again. I think I am actually bad for our business at this point. I just want to tell people stories, grab their attention, and help them get it. I don’t know. It just feels so weird communicating to exchange facts instead of to relate or something, I don’t know. Haha, I sound like an artist. *leaning forward to put my chin on my hands while smiling eyes while shaking my head*
Amanda – You ARE an artist.
Ben – *wipes smile off face for a confused and steely glare at wife* Uh. What?
Amanda – You ARE an artist. You know that.
Ben – Uuuuhhhhh no I don’t.
Amanda – *Emphatically nodding and smiling with an I-told-you-so eyebrow tweak* Yes. You do. You’ve known that for a long time. Are you seriously telling me you didn’t view yourself as an artist? I mean…seriously…all you talk about is creating and writing and teaching and performing. You’ve wanted to write a book or become an actor as long as I’ve known you (15 years).
Ben – Um, I am pretty sure most people would know me as a smart guy who reads and learns a lot. My brains are what got me here. (Aside: please excuse the borderline narcissism)
Amanda – Well, YOU know what you are, even if you’re fooling everyone else. Just because you’re smart or whatever doesn’t mean you’re not an artist. You know you’re creative and like, an artist. Come on, now.
Ben – Hmmph. *confused nodding while pupils dilate, my stare stills itslf ,and the I refamiliarize myself with the abyss*
As of this writing, that was last week. My heart hasn’t stopped pounding in my head and chest yet. To have the one being on the planet who knows you best see through all of the intellectual bullshit, all the introverted tendencies, and the academic overzealousness to my very core…it legitimately scared me. I didn’t believe it. I’m still not sure I do. I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet, so naturally no one else was allowed to see through me like that. And yet here we were, with the most meaningful finger on the planet pointed straight at my face and confidently proclaiming “artist”. If I didn’t think what she said was true, I probably would have moved on with my day.
And yet, if I reframe all of the struggles in my life, consistently feeling like I was living a shadow career or an unexpressed version of myself, the sobering reality is this: my brain is a scientist, but my soul is an artist. I’ve spent the last 28 years (when I started kindergarten) paying credence only to the scientist, sacrificing the tuition of soul on the alter of intellect. Ironically, whenever the stress of paying my dues to the scientific process became too much, I fed my self through endeavours of the soul: weightlifting or training, singing, dancing, snowboarding, deep meaningful conversations, meditation…and writing.
Still in disbelief after this soulful breakfast kamikaze attack, I rushed home to look at my bookshelf, where much of my life influence resided. Standing in front of books is like a hug from the person I most want to be. Before taking my shoes off, I started counting, still feeling like I was mid confusion attack. Forty five. Out of all the books that still remained on my shelf after a 300 book urge last year, I had 45 books that were intended to lead me to the right answer. Forty five contained the what, the facts, the regurg-able. These were my mommy birds. I would use them to inform my work on other human beings as part of my job. I would use them to pass the test. They served me well. Counting them held no emotion for me.
Nervously, I undertook the scary task of counting the “other” leftover books I had read in recent years. These were the books that fell into the category of Why, How, or When. These were the books that had no answers, no conclusions, no right or wrong. These books were usually the ones I could not put down. I often felt like my humanity had shifted one tiny bit after each of them, if only changing my being by 0.1%. But they felt important. Whereas the other books felt like they were part of what I did, these books felt like like they were part of me. The count came out to 104. Loooooong breath in, looooong and shakey breath out. This was the right answer.
It was like I had just begun to witness my soul coming out of the closet. For years I had preferred to rely on evidence, and here were two meaningful tidbits of evidence that I was, after all, an artist. Not only was there a 2-to-1 proportion of soul-to-brain in my daily growth endeavours, but my soul mate (I know, I know) had reached into the closet and ripped out of me some livelihood that I didn’t even know existed. The veil had been lifted and I was looking in the mirror. All of a sudden I knew what my brain understood and what my soul experienced must co-exist.
But alas, there was one more observation that stuck with me . Two books to the right of The War of Art, on the top shelf, where my “Top Shelf Books” sat, was another title.. the only other book of which I owned multiple copies. That book is titled “Ignore Everybody“. Not exactly a title that goes over well in the science world. For the first time in almost ten years, I pulled it off the shelf and started leafing through it. The only way I can describe it is like going back to a crossword puzzle you attempted to solve a decade ago and all of a sudden knowing all the answers. The index alone told me that I had turned the corner, that things weren’t going to be the same after today. It felt like holding a holy text. The chapter titles felt like waves of startling deja vu, knowing full well that I was physically present for the reading of these chapters before, but I hadn’t experienced them:
- The hardest part of being creative us getting used to it.
- The idea doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be yours.
- Merit can be bought. Passion can’t.
- Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
- Never compare your inside with somebody else’s outside.
Is there a conclusion to this? Now what? At this point, “what” doesn’t really matter. The “what” is something I am already good at. I will continue to get better at what. I am not stopping at 45 books. The last 28 years I have been doing “what” with great success…but it always came with a shadow. I think a better question for this turn is this
Overtly shifting the ultimate and identifiable centre of my being from the person who knows “what” to someone who understands “how” and “why” feels like coming home. Maybe the “what” will stay the same, maybe not. But that’s irrelevant. It feels like it’s time. I plan to proceed very differently from this day on.