Everybody I know is the same. We all want to make something. A kid’s show. A song. A cupcake. It doesn’t seem to matter what. I have noticed over the years that when people make the things they truly want to make they tend to become quite happy, generous and peaceful.
But I’ve also seen that the ones who don’t make their own work–out of fear, lack of discipline or because they chose money–well, they become quite unhappy, cynical and can even turn quite dangerous to themselves and others.
I’ve come to believe that everyone has an arc that is wholly their own that stretches from their birth to their death. That arc is like a path that, when followed, places a person in the ideal circumstances to create work that is original and to build a life that is meaningful. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “That which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them.”
For me, if I am making work that is true to who I am, then I feel pretty good. There is a lightness to my days and my dealings with other people. I feel excited about coming to work at Little Airplane or sitting down at my computer to write. I feel happy for the success of my friends and my colleagues. But if I have lost my arc for some reason, then I tend to feel quite badly. I become restless. I feel competitive with others and I resent their success.
So what causes us to lose track of our personal arc? Lots of things. I know some people who are very creative but they have ended up in positions that are only marginally creative. In lieu of making their own personal work, they now spend their days managing or critiquing others who make creative work. By choosing safety and stability over the perils of their personal arc they have left themselves marooned in a high place with little creative satisfaction. In some cases, I have even seen these sorts of professionals become sullen and jealous of the creatives they manage.
Many other creative people have trouble making their own work because of fear. Though the fears differ, they usually come down to some variation of this fear: “What if I make something and it sucks and then everyone, including me, will know that I am not talented, that I suck.” Rather than facing these fears and developing their craft, these individuals simply avoid their arc entirely. They say to themselves: “I’ll do something else. I’ll distract myself with something that the world values like making money or having a family or doing charity work.” But deep down these people usually know that they are just running away from their true calling, their real ambition, their own arc. And as a result they often become quite unhappy.
Virtually everyone I know struggles with some combination of these fears almost daily. I know that I do. Though I can’t say that I have any formula for overcoming them, I do find that the more I focus my energy on the actual making of the work and the less I dwell on myself or any kind of judgment like, “I am good at this” or “I am bad at this” or “What will the world think of me?” the easier it is for me to just shut up and make the things I want to make.
I know some people who have had great, long periods of being very productive and then they suddenly freeze up. And some stay frozen forever. For them, their internal script often goes like this: “I was really good. Everyone saw it. There were awards. There was attention. But what if I’ve lost my mojo? What if I make something now and it sucks compared to all that great stuff I used to make? Then everyone, including me, will know that I suck, etc…”
I think I have been fortunate in that I have always had a pretty good sense of my own arc. I spend most of my days trying very carefully to track it. When I lose it–while writing something, in a meeting or at a social event–I feel acutely aware that I have lost it. I get an instant, unavoidable feeling that I am no longer being true to who I really am. I feel myself “faking it.” (And, as those of you who know me know, I’m very bad at faking anything.)
When I get that feeling I try hard to re-find my arc and get back on it. If I’m writing, this means going through many drafts until I feel I am finally being “true” to that particular script and those individual characters.
And when I lose my arc in meetings or social settings, I ask myself, “What do I really want to say at this moment?” Then, regardless of the ramifications, I usually just say it. I find that this type of honesty will often snap me right back to myself. I think this is because my discomfort is usually caused by a feeling that I should act in a way contrary to who I am, that I should “fake it.” Which is stressful. And which is impossible. At least for me.
I happen to think that faking anything, regardless of how harmless the faking may appear, is one of the most corrosive activities that a human being can indulge in. It’s a form of dishonesty that greases the wheels in the short term but causes them to squeak, crack and ultimately break in the long term. I have also noticed that those individuals who are great at faking things are often the ones who struggle the most with their own personal arcs. Why? Because when you can fake your way through life you have far less of an incentive to work through all the hard creative and emotional challenges of your personal arc. The faking lets you off the hook but only very briefly. You still walk home knowing that you’ve lost your way.
I have also been fortunate in that I grew up working very hard. When I was in first grade I had a job at a shop on Broadway between 89th and 90th St. called “Books and Waterbeds.” Every Sunday morning at dawn I would get up and leave my family’s apartment alone and walk across the street to a luncheonette and get a buttered roll and an orangeade. Then I would go to “Books and Waterbeds” and I would assemble the sections of the New York Times Sunday edition for a dollar an hour. I loved this work and by noon I would have $5.00 cash in my pocket (which is a LOT of money when you are six). Ever since then I have worked at some job or another–dishwasher, bike messenger, street performer–and I have always worked very, very hard. I believe this blue-collar work ethic has helped me stay close to my arc. Whenever I’ve been confronted with a new fear or distraction or the temptation of money, I try not to indulge these vampires. Instead, I just get to work.
Though I know that times are tough and I see many people changing careers either by choice or by necessity, I would suggest that the only real challenge for any of us is to stay true to our own arc. That arc might be making preschool television shows. But it might also be opening a bakery. Or teaching someone how to read. I’m quite certain that all of us know deep down exactly what our own arc looks like. I say embrace it completely. Don’t allow your job loss, your partner, your promotion or the fears circling above your head like fruit bats distract you from your own unique arc. And never allow this fickle, arbitrary and sometimes cruel industry to discourage you.
I believe that your arc is the most sacred thing you have, even more sacred than your loved ones. After all, your loved ones are part of your arc and ideally they, too, want to see you happy and healthy and completely fulfilled.
I have been re-reading some old Tennessee Williams essays recently and there is one quote that has been resonating with me that I want to share with you:
“The heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies.”
We can avoid our arc and become a sword cutting daisies or we can accept our arc and face the fears and insecurities that will inevitably arise. Nothing in this world will ever kick our asses more–nor will anything ever be as rewarding–as staying true to our own arc. And for this struggle, I wish you all strength, tenacity and courage. As I have said before, we are all in this together.