No Fee and No Interference
22 May 2022 | 5:10 pm

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he started a series of biography lectures where he began to examine the lives of others with increased interest and scrutiny. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, the author Robert D. Richardson writes that in Michelangelo Emerson:

saw “the perfect image of the artist,” one who was born to see and express the beauty of the world… He loved the disinterestedness and spirit of the deal Michelangelo offered the Pope for his work rebuilding St. Peter’s in Rome: “no fee and no interference.” Emerson emphasized the sculptor’s interest in ideal beauty, how “he sought through the eye to reach the soul,” but he knew that the test of the artist and writer alike is not in intent but in execution.

For the longest time, this is how I’ve tried to work on my craft, by trying to express and execute “what the mind has conceived” and without outside interference. “Happy is he,” writes Emerson,

who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who always writes to the unknown friend.

I was reminded of these quotes—these passages that I very happily transcribed in my notebook—when this morning I read this very sobering article in Ted Gioia’s newsletter:

How creative can you really be if you need to please an enormous mass-market audience? When you go down that path, you need to stick close to all the familiar formulas—and that’s exactly what you see in much of our culture nowadays.

Earlier in the article he wrote that “only 19% [of survey respondents] made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.”

What really struck me was that “only 10% devoted 40 hours per week or more to their art.” I’m surprised at both how high I think 10% is and how much 40 hours a week spent on working on one’s art is, too. Both of my reactions tell me how unbelievably sad and disappointed I am at how the modern world works.

Just yesterday I started to wake up at 4am in order to fit an extra hour of writing time into my day. And even then, I’m maybe working 15-20 hours a week on my art. I would do whatever it takes to double this workload if at all possible, but I need to go to work in order to to pay my bills and buy food to eat. And Ted Gioia understands this, too:

So my advice to students interested in the arts is based on my own practice: namely, that they should pursue their craft but also develop at least one money-earning skill before they reach the age of 30. It doesn’t need to be an elite career, merely something that will pay the bills in a pinch.

I wish I could be like Michelangelo and tell the Pope not to pay me as long he doesn’t interfere with my art, but I can’t. I wish I could look upon my “work to know if it will succeed,” to be one “who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale,” but I can’t. This is the 21st century, and the best I can do is to wake up hours before the sun rises so I can fit a bit more time in my day to work on my art, and to go to bed when the sun is still shining brightly in the sky so I can wake up early and with enough energy to be able to work on my craft to the best of my ability.

I wish things were different, but I have to admit, I love what I’m doing, and that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To feel the joy of simply being alive to experience this? This world, this universe, this moment?


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10 Years
20 April 2022 | 3:15 am

Ten years ago today I moved to Montana, and the only thing I have been able to think about is how soon I can leave it. Ten years is a long time to live in a place, but I’m ready to move on. All I’ve been dreaming about for the past few years, and most strongly the past few months, is leaving this state and embarking on another adventure somewhere else. But I feel stuck, like if Montana is a giant sinkhole that traps everyone that sets foot in it. When I first boarded that plane ten years ago, I didn’t imagine I would have lived in Montana for an entire decade. It’s ten years later and I still can’t believe I’ve lived here for that long. Montana is a beautiful state. I’ve met some incredible people here, and I’ve made some wonderful memories, but I can’t call Montana home. Those words simply can’t form in my mind no matter how hard I try. I wish they could—they would make my life so much easier. Instead, I’m writing this with so much anxiety in my chest because I don’t know what comes next.

Why can’t I call Montana home? I think it began when COVID-19 shut the world down two years ago. Back when Trump and his supporters infected everyone’s psyche with their idiocy and illogical thinking. Back when a virus that didn’t care about ideology killed everyone it could, from the rich and the poor, to the old and the young. But if I’m being honest with myself, I think it began before that.

It began the moment I landed in Missoula. It began the moment I grabbed my two bags and loaded them into my sister’s car. This trip was supposed to be temporary. A year, two at most. That’s what I told people; that’s what I told myself. But then I started to make friends. I started to go on dates. I started to get some weird attention. I moved into my first (and so far only) apartment without any roommates or family to live with. I became a firefighter. A licensed EMT. An IT Director. I made more friends. Made more memories. Started taking photography seriously. Started to learn the guitar. Became vegan. I paid off my debts, and before I knew it, an entire decade had passed. I went to bed yesterday in my mid-20s; I woke up this morning in my mid-30s. I woke up to a greying beard and an aching back. Where did all that time go!?

It went into building up these experiences, into preparing myself for whatever comes next. By paying off my debt, I fulfilled one of the original goals for coming to Montana, and with that goal accomplished, what does Montana mean to me now? More than anything, a lost opportunity, I think. I’m not where I thought I’d be personally or professionally. I wish I was married. I wish I had kids. I wish I had written at least one good story, something I know I’m capable of but haven’t quite achieved. It’s so easy to focus on the things I don’t have instead of the things I do. What about my health? My good friends? All my experiences from living in Montana for a decade? The friends I made and lost, all the fires I fought, the knowledge I’ve accumulated? Did I ever think I’d be a firefighter or a licensed EMT? Did I ever think I would actually learn German? So why do I want to leave Montana?

Because, even after all that, Montana still doesn’t feel like home. It still feels like I’m passing through. Like I’m a tourist. Like I’m at a crossroads. Returning to California feels like I’m regressing, like I’m going back to my past when all I want to do is move forward. So, to the east? To Chicago? Or New York? Or Boston? What I miss most about California is the diversity. What I didn’t realize until I moved out of California is how rare it is for people here in Montana to be fluent in more than one language and how much I would miss listening to Spanish every day. I’ve thought about going to Europe just to be around all types of cultures and languages, and I’m still dreaming about one day going there. So, Europe? Spain? France? Germany? I don’t know.

At work, I have this map pinned to the bulletin board inside the main office. I randomly tacked five pins to the map and created a route of places to visit for a road trip I wish to take soon. My wanderlust is real and it hurts. But if there’s one thing I know I’ve gained from living in Montana these past ten years, it is courage. And for that, I am truly grateful. Montana may not be my home for much longer, but I did grow into the man I am today by living here, and for that, I am forever grateful. What will the next ten years bring? I don’t know, but I’m hopeful it begins with a road trip and ends with one last great adventure.


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Productivity Is a Trap
15 March 2022 | 2:30 pm

A few months ago, I wrote a reminder to myself about taking things one at a time. Since then, I learned about the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, a book about “embracing finitude.” I started this book today, and in the introduction, he writes that:

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

I point this section out because I’ve battled with that feeling, too, that feeling of trying to “get through” my tasks like they’re some obstacle to overcome before I can get my prize. What’s that prize? In the end, I guess, the prize is death.

But before then, I want to enjoy my life, the two thousand weeks or so I have left (I hope). Earlier in the introduction, Oliver writes that:

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

I’m a firm believer that sometimes there’s a universal force showing me the things I need to see at the time I need them, and I feel like this is one of them.


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