I quit writing today. Had enough. Got pissed off. Threw my pen in the air. Left my chair. It wasn't worth the heartache anymore. I had been reading James Agee again. I had re-watched "The Verdict." I had listened to a new Jeffrey Foucault song.
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow posited a theory known as the "Four Stages of Competence." It describes the process by which we learn, moving from "unconscious incompetence" to "conscious incompetence" to "conscious competence" to "unconscious competence."
Sound like a load of crap? Yeah, it did to me too. But then I started thinking about how I feel when I experience beautiful things. We learn everything we learn by watching and then doing, right? At least that's the way Aristotle saw it, and it holds true whether we're two or 62. And when we see beauty in the real world, we want to copy it by reproducing it, whether on a piano, in a painting, or, yes, as a little person.
But what I'm more interested in today is what makes people artists, and that's not the ability to be inspired, and it's not the capacity to turn that inspiration into something beautiful, although those are clearly parts. No, what makes the artist is a moment between inspiration and reproduction, and that's an inborn frustration and overwhelming dissatisfaction when we really, really suck at something.
If you possess this brand of weak, groping little soul, you don't have to go far to feel incompetent. Talent, and therefore, inadequacy, are everywhere, friends. Go to a gallery and look at some local artwork. Contemplate both form and content. Note the palette used. Examine the brush strokes. Marvel at the mastery to bring all of those elements together.
At this point, if you were smart, you'd just go home. But no, not you. You're that certain type of bastard, the one that stops by the store on the way back. You can't leave well enough alone, so you buy paints and easel, and you set them up in a well-lit room. Your heart leaps up, your vision becomes fixed, you put brush to canvas, and — you slowly watch your hands turn to hooves. The brush becomes granite. You remember what you saw in the gallery and you look at what you've done and it's terrible. I mean, it is an absolute waste of materials, and time, and, most of all, desire. Why did you even try?
But then there's a slightly smaller percentage of another type of bastard. This is the one who's a glutton for more grief, the one that sees a body trapped within the stone. This is the person who is willing to suffer something being impossible, to fight through it being hard, to prod it toward being easy, and to finally witness it become perfect, or elegant or just plain right.
And perhaps the thing that's most astonishing is how many of those bastards there are. I mean, when you consider how hard it is to become proficient at, say, playing a guitar, isn't it mind-boggling the sheer number of people within a five-mile radius of you right now who can do it really, really well? Isn't it a testament to the bewildering human spirit just how talented so many around us are? That they fought through the agony of creating something awful, to then make something tolerable, then pretty good, then flawless. I mean, good God, just around me every week, you are a talented Little Rock, you are a talented state, and you are the type of talented bastards who can make me feel horrible wherever I go.
So, I'm giving up. The pain is in the trying. Life is stunningly short anyway and I won't have time to do it all, and you shouldn't attempt it either, young artist.
Good riddance to the impossible and the hard and the easy and the right. I'll just look at yours. Never mind the feeling of your hands moving from chord to chord for the first time without thinking about it. Never mind that the other side of this striving (and inadequacy and failure and fumbling) is culture itself.
The whole damn thing is enough to make me spit. The whole damn process is gorgeous enough to inspire me again.