This is the first of a three-part series about where I’m going with my life and work.
When I was around 10 years old, I got interested in drawing. Although my parents had divorced and my father had custody, I still saw my mother at times. She was delighted with my newfound interest in art.
My father didn’t think much of the idea, but my mother got a full-time artist — one of her old college friends — to come to our house in Anniston, Ala., and talk with me about how I could develop my skills. Nothing came of that and I barely thought of it for years.
I’ve been thinking lately that this was one of the first skirmishes in an inner war — one that has been both intellectual and spiritual — that’s gone on inside me ever since I was a child. My parents represented very different approaches to intellect and life and philosophy.
Neither approach is wrong or evil. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Part of me is ruled by one and another part is ruled by the other. They’re both essential parts of me.
But for most of my life, I’ve followed my father’s rational and factual approach. It was about making direct arguments and seeing the world in concrete and practical terms. My mother’s approach was more artistic and abstract. Even mystical. It was about intuition and following what felt right.
It’s easier to make it in the world if you’re able to live by my father’s rules. But I’m slowly concluding that this pragmatic approach will never work for me. I’ve admitted this before. Several times. But I keep getting scared of the alternative.
I’m terrified to say this, but I fear that I’ll never have any peace until I follow my mother’s more intuitive and abstract path — right over the artistic cliff into the world of creation.
Let me say briefly that my father’s approach isn’t wrong. Not really. Most people will do better in life if they’re practical and reasonable. It’s the easier path. It’s the only one that the vast majority of people understand.
But for me, it’s been a path of misery and dissatisfaction. It’s left me with the strong realization — for years — that I’m far off my correct path in life. And I find myself unable to achieve much of anything, simply because I can’t commit to the pragmatic path and I’m too scared to commit to the artistic path.
When I was a child, there were two parts of me — one like my father and one like my mother. Since Mother left us when I was 5 years old — and was completely gone from my life in another eight years or so — I became more and more like my father. I reflected his approach to life.
But there were times from the beginning when I was moody and turned inward, when I thought about things other people didn’t think about — when I felt things that other people didn’t feel. But because feelings weren’t encouraged in my household — and art was almost alien — I learned to follow what was pragmatic.
My goals were sometimes fanciful and creative, but I thought about channeling my talents into areas such as engineering, technology, law and politics. When I fell into writing in a serious way, it was purely an accident. My high school newspaper asked me to join the staff. Then I became editor, mostly because I preferred to be in charge if I was going to do something.
When I was starting college, the local daily newspaper offered me a part-time job as a reporter and photographer, which I took for the money, not because I intended to be a journalist. But the work was fun. I was good at it. And I got promoted quickly — to the point that I was managing editor of that daily paper when I was still 21 years old.
Yes, I was a writer, but I wasn’t a Writer. If you know what I mean. I was more of a technician than an artist.
I wrote and edited news and sports and features, but I didn’t see it as especially creative, much less literary. Over the years, I got very good at speaking directly to an audience. As a journalist, I was filling very defined boxes for newspaper readers. Then as a political consultant, I was using my ability to communicate in order to sell politicians.
After I got out of politics, I knew I had things I wanted to say to the world. I had ideas to share. And I’ve been struggling with this for more than 10 years now.
As far back as when I was about 30 years old, I came to the scary realization that I was an artist, whether I liked it or not. (Here’s something I wrote about it more than 10 years ago when I was struggling with this.) I’ve spent the years since then running away from that realization and constantly returning to it.
I’m terrified to believe that I should express myself through art. I’m afraid I would be a fraud as a filmmaker. I see myself as an imposter for even considering the idea. I would be humiliated if I committed myself to making art and then I wasn’t good enough, although I know very clearly that fear is just my ego speaking.
When I ask that most basic of questions — who am I? — I often see a small child who looked at the world very differently. I used to observe things that other children didn’t notice. I used to ask questions that weren’t typical.
When I was just a child, I got lost in seeing the world in a very different way.
I’ve tried for many years to force myself to be like other people, to experience the world the way they do — to live and think and act as they do. And I can’t. I just can’t.
And now that I’ve spent all those years trying to do things my father’s way — that of direct argument and concrete engagement — I wonder whether it’s too late to become a child again.
I wonder whether it’s too late to reconnect with the small child who looked at the world differently — who I’m told would get a faraway look in his eyes for several minutes before finally asking, “What if…?”
Is it too late for me to reconnect with that curious child — and to explore whether my mother’s abstract and creative approach to truth is a better fit for who I am?
Is it too late to finally choose art over argument?
Note: You can find Part 2 of this three-part series here.