Monday, September 03, 2018

Is the sad truth unavoidable?

A cartoonist and art teacher whose work I admire recently posted a piece in which he reveals that making art -- even making funny art -- for a living turns into as much of a boring grind as any job.

When I got to work last Wednesday, I thought, "There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now, and that makes me sad as hell, because I damn sure don't want to be here."

In all my years of incarceration in search of income, I either found things to like about what I was doing or could easily imagine what I would prefer to be doing as soon as I got the chance. When neither of those is true, what's left is bleak. I'm slogging forward out of nothing more than force of habit and the unfounded optimism of living things.

A few years out of college, I wrote to my independent study professor to suggest that the creative writing department include a course called The Day Job. While he responded to various other communications over the years, he never responded to that one. By basically drifting downstream rather than knowing where I was going and how to paddle effectively, I had ended up majoring in poetry rather than fiction. The professor, a poet, said that he'd been having to do a lot of academic writing and found that it drained his poetic energy as well. So even though his day job was closely related to his chosen creative path, it ended up as an obstacle to the kind of creativity he had expected to pursue.

The unfounded optimism of living things. Depression is manageable as long as the endless dull ache of an unidentifiable longing is preferable to the finality of nonexistence.

I believe that burnout is a function of temperament. Some people in nearly any profession you can name remain energetic and happy. It's probably another bell curve, with a blob in the middle experiencing fluctuating satisfaction, while each end reflects either a hum of happiness or unrelieved gloom.

As my work week began I felt like I was washed up and hadn't ever been much at best. I will still acknowledge that this might be true, but by the end of the week I felt like I regained some ground in my accidental profession. Modern bike componentry is a disease more than a cure, but I can bring myself to study it and treat it, because the sufferers still need succor. Because the symptoms are mental as well as physical, most of the sufferers don't know that they've been afflicted with an industrial disease. They think that they've purchased state of the art marvels that will serve them well for years, the way bikes always used to. Or they don't care if it lasts, because their interest won't either.

As recently as about 27 years ago, you really could spend top dollar on a bike -- particularly a road bike -- and have something that would give you pleasure for the rest of your life. Then came STI and the steady addition of cog after cog.

Consider the violin: Certain violins and other stringed instruments in the violin family from the 17th and 18th Century can command staggering prices not just because they are pretty pieces of cabinetry, but because they have all the audible and operational qualities that make a musical instrument desirable. Violins much younger can perform just as well, but they do so by adhering to qualities established centuries ago. You can also buy various mutants that make interesting and enjoyable noises, but the basic pattern remains so desirable that its extinction does not appear imminent. You can play all genres of music on it if you know the technique. You want to select one in your price range with the best playability and tone you can get. Then you meet its simplicity with your own willingness to practice.

The road bicycle frame was perfected before the middle of the 20th Century. All the strange looking frames you see today are still putting all of the critical contact points in the same position relative to the rider and the riding surface. But I've ridden that Draisine to death.

Mountain bikers face a bleaker future when it comes to technological enslavement. They're not going to be able to ride the way they want to ride without all those pivots, shock absorbers, and shifting and braking systems. All of those require maintenance or replacement at frequent intervals. Your hydraulic fluid goes bad even when the bike is stored. At least the DOT stuff does. It goes bad in the container and in your bike. If you've ever had brake fade, you created gas in the system that supposedly reabsorbs when the fluid cools, but never completely. And the absorbed water that made the brakes more prone to fade is still there, getting reinforcements by the day.

Shock seals dry out and pivot bearings rust, even in storage. You will pay in money and time to keep up with all of this relentless deterioration.

I, on the other hand, take my trusty road bike off the hook, pump up the tires, double check the chain lube, and go for a ride. The Cross Check even sees quite a bit of unpaved road and trail, and still gives very little trouble. I just replaced its original bottom bracket, installed in 2001, probably about 18,000 miles ago. I vaguely recall putting another one in there, but I don't seem to have written it down, and the one I took out is the right vintage to be 2001. But I could have stockpiled it. So maybe I only had 9,000 or 10,000 hard miles on the BB. Still pretty good, though.

The day job still eats my creative time and energy. When I could get by on less sleep, I could at least try to scratch out a drawing or a piece of writing in the scraps of time before or after work. I still held out the hope that I could produce something of publication quality in either genre. But now I find that a real professional is someone who has done so much for so long that it's less enjoyable than the morning bowel movement. It's more like just scooping the mental litter box for hours. I missed my opportunity to burn out on being a creative professional.

On the other hand, I entered the Union of Concerned Scientists cartoon contest four times and made the calendar three. I have actually gotten paid for some cartoon work, and for some writing. It was never enough to qualify as my living for tax purposes, but not because I was trying to pull a fast one. I just kept getting blown out of the groove.

Robert Pirsig is famous for basically one book. So is Harper Lee. So even if you don't manage to reach saturation and feel imprisoned by your former passion, you can still contribute works of value to humanity as a whole.

The basic problem facing cartoonists is the crappy pay scale. A few -- very few -- might manage to hit syndication and licensing deals, as well as crossover productions, that bring them financial comfort and actual fame. If a cartoonist springs to your mind, and you're not a fan and student of the art, you are probably naming one of these few. There's not much middle class in the cartooning world. Even when there was, the ink-stained wretches did have to slave at the drawing board for workday hours. It was their job, just like the steel mill or the garment factory or the offices of IBM. So the whole free expression part of it was always a bit elusive. A cartoonist for a big newspaper or commercial art house lived as a king's favorite, with the threat of beheading always in the background.

My friend suffers from the additional burden of artistic standards. He has a masters degree in fine arts. He composes his panels with all of those principles in mind. His draftsmanship is depressingly precise and clean. He has mastered not only the traditional techniques of ink and paper, but the digital techniques now de rigeur in graphic design. That means investing in hardware and software and spending time to learn how to use it.

Digital art and art editing make a piece of line art multiply useful because the digitized image can be copied and toned and colored in multiple different ways without having to be redrawn. The original can then be finished using traditional techniques and be available for gallery viewing or sale. I have not mastered any digital techniques. My old scanner might still work. The computer to which I had it hooked up is an old XP machine that I don't let out to play on the Internet anymore. My tentative attempts to use some software that a friend gave me didn't go well. And then concerns of daily life dragged me out of the studio because it wasn't my livelihood, so I couldn't shut the door and insist on finishing projects that never really coalesced anyway.

I used to really love sitting in a pool of light, working on a drawing with the smell of coffee and India ink mingling around me. I was dragged away from it so many times that being interrupted became the habit. Interruption is the enemy of flow. That's true no matter what you're doing. In every draft of my never-finished novel I would come back from any interruption with a disruptively different view of everything, whether the interruption was a single shift at the day job or months in the service of other people's needs. Eventually starting over becomes too painful because interruption seems inevitable. Why bother when the world has plenty of great creative stuff already made by people who managed to fight their way through the crap or got lucky and found a tunnel underneath it?

Writing does seem to survive interruption more easily than quality artistic rendering does. I don't find drawing easy, which is obvious from the stiff and overworked, yet still crude, look of my finished work. But thoughts in words can be scribbled and then typed, connected and reconnected like mechanical parts to make little vehicles for the mind. Readers can hop on or in them. Maybe when time permits, more elaborate, rooted edifices can be built: mind palaces rather than bikes and scooters and little camper trailers.

I will never give up the hope of enjoying what I do for a living. If it does not reward you in some way other than financially, it probably isn't a very good thing to be doing in the first place.

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