It was a surprise to hear from her, but it was an even bigger surprise to find out why she was calling. An old girlfriend was looking for a recording of an interview I did about six years ago with KFAR radio in Anchorage, Alaska. I didn’t know she had even known of the interview.
I started searching through my archives Saturday afternoon, but the search for the interview turned into a survey of hundreds of other things I’ve written and recorded over the last eight years. I was uneasy with how much I hated most of the older material and I was surprised at how dramatic the shift in tone and emotion had been for my work.
From this perspective, I see something much different in my work over eight years. I see what I’ve written and spoken as a vivid record of a struggle for me to become a different person, as though I knew I was changing but was both impatient and agitated about where I was going. Seeing this clearly made me feel very vulnerable.
When I contacted my ex this evening to say that I couldn’t find the recording she wanted, I mentioned what it had felt like to see my changes through the old work.
“I always thought you were going to change the world,” she wrote in her reply. “What you’re writing now is closer to what I thought you would be than anything you had done before. Every great man goes through a dark night when he’s trying to figure out his purpose, but you feel like you’re about to explode to fame, because you’ve found your voice. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for me to be there when it happens, because you’re quite addictive.”
It feels strange to talk about this, but I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. My ex had read what I wrote a couple of days ago about how I now see the changes in myself over the years and she had a bit more to say about that. She was encouraging — surprisingly so — and it felt good to have this sort of external validation from an unlikely source.
I would love to believe that I can one day be “great,” as she said she had expected me to be. I’d like to believe that I’m about to “explode to fame,” even though I’m not sure what I’d be famous for. Her phrasing — about me finding my voice in the last few years — feels accurate, although I’m still not entirely sure what I’m doing with it.
I happened to read a book last week which detailed winding and unusual career paths for some famous people. I was particularly struck by the narrative of Vincent van Gogh’s life. When it comes to famous people whose work is universally hailed as great, I tend to think they always knew what they were doing and had been on a path of doing great work until they were finally discovered.
Nothing could be further from the truth in Van Gogh’s life. In almost everything he did, he was a failure for many years.
As a child, he tried drawing, but he wasn’t very good at it and had no real interest in it. When he grew up, his uncle got him a job at an art dealer. Although he was generally successful in the work, he didn’t always get along with those he worked with, so he was transferred from The Hague to London and then finally to Paris. He was eventually fired from the company.
He then became a teacher at an English boarding school, but that didn’t work out, either. He then left to become an assistant to a Methodist minister. After that, he took a job in a Dutch bookstore, but he was unhappy there. He became increasingly religious during this period and decided he would become a pastor, as his father was.
But Van Gogh failed the entrance exam to the University of Amsterdam’s theology program, so he tried a three-month ministry course at a protestant missionary school. He failed that program, too.
He then started working as a missionary in a Belgian coal-mining district. He was seriously committed to his work — even giving up his own lodging for a homeless person — but the church authorities dismissed him for “undermining the dignity of the priesthood.”
His parents were frustrated with their unemployable adult son. Van Gogh was close to 30 years old before he finally became interested in drawing and painting. But he swung wildly in his thoughts about what kind of art he wanted to do. He would discover a style or technique and pursue it, only to discard it soon. He kept doing this over and over as he struggled to discover his own artistic voice.
Toward the end of his life, he developed the colorful style for which we know his work today. By the time of his death, his work was being shown and critics were finally applauding him.
After struggling from one failure to the next through the years, Van Gogh had found his artistic voice. He had developed a style which was confidently his. Today, he is considered one of the greatest artists who ever lived, but for most of his life, he was a talented and troubled man who was always just a half step ahead of complete failure.
I’m not going to be a Van Gogh. I don’t believe I’ll revolutionize a field of art or anything of that nature. But his story gives me confidence. I started to say “hope,” but that is too weak a word. His life story gives me confidence that my meandering struggle to find my voice is paying off, too.
I am the person I am today because of what I’ve gone through, not in spite of my varied experiences. Having such a broad background has given me an understanding of the world — of human nature and how human society really works — which I could have never had if I had followed one narrow path and been a specialist in that narrow thing.
According to the book which I read, it was Van Gogh’s varied life experience which gave him the breadth of understanding that allowed him to create art in his own way. He needed all the experiences he had, even though others perceived him as a failure.
(I actually have some more thoughts to share about the difference between being a specialist and a generalist — based on this book I just read — but I’ll save that for another time.)
Everything I’ve written here is a bit like a footnote to what I wrote a couple of days ago about changes over the years. I’m not sure I would have had these precise thoughts except for the correspondence with my ex-girlfriend and the deep dive into my old writings.
I’m still finding my voice and I’m starting to see clearly what I can accomplish through the integration of all that I’ve done over the years. I’m not there yet, but I like to believe I still have a chance — at least a little chance — of changing the world.
Note: The art with this piece is Van Gogh’s 1889 painting, “The Starry Night.” In a letter to another painter six months after it was created, Van Gogh said he considered the piece a failure. Today, it is considered one of his best works and is displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.