Tending the fire

I’m about to say something downright obscene in a capitalist society: Feeding your soul is the only reason you’re here. Period.

And that’s why I get so pissed off when people blow off their Muses, because art is one of the soul’s major food groups.

I mean, come on: It’s your Muse. You know? If you insult or ignore her, she may not be back. And if you cut her off, her gift backs up and hurts you.

Kind of like blue balls.

I was talking to my best friend yesterday, and as usual, she was ranting ad nauseum about her job. Finally, I stopped her. I said, “You have all these creative impulses that you only allow yourself to channel through your work.

“Maybe it would make a real difference in your life if, instead of thinking of yourself as a manager who’s taking a writing class on the side, you saw yourself as an aspiring writer who has a day job as a manager.”

She was stunned. “Wow. That’s pretty radical,” she said. “You know, there might be something to that. That could work.”

I mean, she tells me she doesn’t have time for writing, which any writer can tell you is bullshit. It’s always a choice. You have an office? You shut the door, you hold your calls. Who knows what you’re up to?

Just because a phone rings doesn’t mean you have to answer it. What are you, Pavlov’s dog?

There’s not much authentic love for the muses in America. (Just look at school funding for the arts – it’s always the first thing they cut.) Art, music and poetry are only valuable when they make money – a lot of money. That’s the only validation worth having, to most people’s way of thinking. Contrast that with Ireland, where artists don’t even pay income tax.

I don’t know where I first got the idea I was entitled to be an artist, but I did, quite early on. And I protected that goal against all comers. Making money was never really the priority; the art was. Whether I was immersed in painting, writing or writing songs, my work was just as important to me as paying the rent.

I’m not necessarily proud of that, by the way. It is what it is. My kids might be happier now if they’d had a little less Bohemia and a lot more financial stability while they were growing up. (But then, what did they choose for their own lives? They’re both artists and musicians.)

Friends always tell me, “But I’m not brave like you. I couldnever (fill in the blank).” Brave? I’m the biggest scaredy cat in the world. I’m a nervous wreck, just deciding to move a piece of paper from here to there.

The only difference between me and them is, I do have faith. I take risks because I believe there’s something positive to come. So I make myself push on through the fear. I believe in my art, and so I believe in myself.

It’s very hard to make your art a priority because it pisses off just about everyone. I’ve had friends and relatives lecture me about being “selfish,” which used to baffle me. When you’re playing suburban Supermom, aren’t you being a tad selfish, too? Doesn’t at least a chunk of all that activity have to do with burnishing your self-image, and not your kids’ needs?

But that’s heresy, and we all know what happens to heretics.

There are other ways to honor your Muse besides turning it into a full-time paying gig. The single purest example I know? Acoustic music jams. They’re filled with superb musicians who never play anywhere other than a festival campfire or a friend’s living room, but man, do they love the music. You can see it in their faces when they play, and the feeling in the room is transcendent.

If, though, the Muses have called you to that more challenging level of creativity, you can’t shut it off without hurting yourself.

So you make excuses. No time, bills to pay, I never really wanted it anyway, yadda yadda yadda. Hey, maybe you’re right.

It reminds me of that old story about the world-famous violinist. He was coming to town to hear the most talented students, and this one very driven student practiced night and day in preparation for his big chance.

So he got his moment. He played his heart out, and the maestro said only, “You’re competent, my son, but you lack the fire.”

The boy was devastated. He dropped out of the conservatory, went to business school and instead became a wealthy man and patron of the arts.

Years later, he’s at a fundraiser and meets the maestro again. “You know, you heard me play years ago, but you told me I lacked the fire,” the man said. “Because of you, I stopped playing. Now I support people like you with my checkbook.”

“I’m sorry, I actually don’t remember,” the maestro said.

“That’s what I tell everyone. The ones who have the fire don’t pay any attention.”