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Why You Were Right to Make That Big Mistake

First, I'd like to thank Powell's Books for having me as their guest blogger this week. It's been an absolute blast, made all the easier and more fun by the great people of this Portland institution.

Second, by being a guest blogger, it's allowed that little picture of my book to appear over and over again all week. Perhaps you can see it right now, embedded within this very page. Go on, wave hi to the orange cat on the cover. Go on. He won't wave back to you, though. Not because he's a photograph, but because he's busy posing. He's very professional that way. Still, he always appreciates the attention.

Now, writing these posts has given me a great opportunity to think, which writers always prefer to actually writing. That's because while writing demands that you see some words on the screen every six days or so, thinking can be accomplished by simply closing your eyes and saying, "Wow, look at me ride that kick-ass unicorn."

But, in truth, what I have been thinking all week is, Why do we do it? What compels writers, artists, actors, and musicians to dedicate so much of their energy — so much of their very existence — to pursuits that more often than not result in frustration, pessimism, self-doubt, and poor credit ratings? What can possibly be the upside to feeling down so often and sometimes so deeply? What's with the miserable, spectacularly disheartening tone of this very paragraph? Why don't I just pour salt in your wounds? Why don't I just stop typing right now, open up a big can of Morton whoop-ass, and pour it into the gaping chasm that is your soul as I sit back and watch you writhe in incalculable, interminable pain?

Because believe it or not, I'm hopefully going somewhere with this, and the result just may very well be encouraging. I can't say it definitely will be so because, well, I'm also crippled by diffidence. But the mere fact that someone as hobbled with apprehension and irresolution as myself could think for even just one sentence that this might all end on a happy note has got to be seen as somewhat encouraging, right? Right? Come on, people. Give me some positive feedback. I'm dying here.

Anyway, why do we do it? I've thought about this long and hard for several minutes and I've come up with the following three possible reasons, which together I believe ultimately support artists' career choices (just not in the crucial financial way that involves being able to purchase food minus such cooking directions as "stir in seasonings from flavor packet" or "can also be used to make a mock apple pie").

1. To Know You Exist

At the risk of sounding like Neo struggling with the Monarch Notes to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," when you get right down to it, reality is but a shared illusion. We don't feel as if we truly exist unless someone, at some point, turns to us and says, "Hey, glad you could make it! Oh, and you just gotta try the dip. I don't know what Jenny put in it but it's just freakin' awesome! Maybe she added chickpeas. Hey, Jenny? Jenny! Did you put chickpeas in the dip? The dip! Did you put chickpeas in the dip?! You did? I knew it! Awesome, man. Just freakin' awesome."

Consequently, most artists only feel truly alive when someone takes note of their work, of their efforts, of their goals. Now many of you might be thinking, But I know plenty of artists who are loners. Who seem to actively shun social interaction. Who can't go five damn minutes in a group without making some whacked-out comment that alienates everyone, even after I went out of my way to vouch that he was cool and wouldn't bring the party down. But being unable to cope with people is not quite the same as not wanting to be recognized by people. What we can't say in public without causing people to dismiss us or stare at the table in awkward silence, quietly peeling the labels off their beer bottles and making us feel about as welcomed as a pandemic, we can say in our writings, our performance, our drawings, our self-produced EP.

Now, that might come across as rather ridiculous talk from a guy whose professional responsibilities include writing comic-strip dialogue and penning a book with the word "pee" prominently in the title. But my writing allows me to connect with people who I would in no other way get to meet or be able to utter hello to without freezing up or immediately apologizing. What I'm trying to say is that we all need to find our own way to achieve recognition. I don't mean at a pecuniary or even a professional level, but in a manner that lets us have our identity confirmed. You are an artist. Through your art you substantiate such to others. You go from an idea of who you are to being this creator that many will love, many will like, many will detest, and many will wonder what the hell you're doing at age 55 still buying all your clothes from a consignment shop in Williamsburg. But you've done it. You've joined the party. You've got your name tag, now enjoy the dip.

2. To Know You Are Free

As far as subtitles go, "To Know You Are Free" is about as down to earth and humble as "To Know We Duly Possess the Inevitable Facet Crucial to Soul and Sapience" or some other quote I'm certainly misstating and surely misinterpreting from Rousseau. But nonetheless, I'm going to stick with it. Why? Because who among us, even those not in the arts, have longed not to have to work for others? How many of us here today have wanted to say, "You know what? Screw this. And screw you, Mr. Big-And-Mighty Company President! Just who the hell do you think you are, Mr. I'm-All-That-And-Oh-So-Much-More CEO?! Not everyone was lucky — oh, I'm saying lucky — to have your economic and educational advantages! Some of us didn't graduate from the Ivy League. Some of us graduated from The School of Hard Knocks. Of course, 'graduated' may be putting too fine a point on it. Classes were chosen. Teachers were challenged. Security was alerted. Apparently knowledge is only for those who fill out an application form and are formally accepted by the institution. But that's perfectly fine. In fact, it made me the man I am today! After all, some people learn best in a structured environment from accredited professors, others on a slowly sinking oil derrick at knifepoint. Eventually, though, I made my way back home, taking odd jobs that mostly involved delivering unmarked packages, collecting 'dues,' and stuffing envelopes. But with each employment opportunity I learned something about myself. Sure, I left each position minus any la-de-da 'benefits package.' And sure, that means I now have nothing in savings, nothing in checking, and no income coming in with the exception of rebates from Crest and Best Buy points. But I'm a survivor. Or, at the very least, a breather. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Boss Man!"

Clearly we've all been there. We've all felt the desire to not have to report to people we don't particularly care for, fulfilling tasks that often fail to satisfy us. Your art is your key to accomplishing that goal. Sure, that may sound like a specious argument at best, especially given that most artists have to work for someone else because their craft cannot pay their bills, their college loans, or even their parents back. But just knowing that you are in charge of something outside of some manager's grasp is in itself liberatingjust knowing that you are in charge of something outside of some manager's grasp is in itself liberating. Just knowing that you are the key decision maker in a project, a dream, that is not beholden to countless approvals and being dragged through endless meetings or having everyone input their thoughts and objections through some sort of corporate wiki has got to make you feel emancipated from others' whims and rules. That's because working on your art, whatever your art may be, is the very moment in your day that you are, in fact, free. (See? I told you this would start sounding rather positive.)

3. To Know You Can Just Plain Deal with It All

Every decision we make says in some small way how we've chosen to cope with this little thing we call life. Accept a job you don't particularly like but may prove financially advantageous? You're saying, "I put the great value in personal security." Opt for an "everything bagel" for breakfast? You're saying, "To hell with carbs and halitosis, I deserve a little personal pleasure." Decide in childhood to dedicate your life to becoming a professional cartoonist/writer? You're saying, "I'm through with sports. Oh, and forget about having a girlfriend until college. Just forget it. Ain't gonna happen. Well, off to doodle in the bathroom for two hours with the door locked."

I've known writing and cartooning were my calling since junior high school. Alas, that was way back in 1981, when Quarterflash topped the charts and mustaches were the tonsorial choice of more than just undercover narcotics officers, so you know it was an era rife with poor decision-making skills. I mean, really, who bases their entire life on a career selected in a decade that opened with the question "Who shot J.R.?" and closed with the query "Who the f*** is the Escape Club?"

So why did I stick with it? Because writing and cartooning are the main ways I know how to cope with the world and my place in it. It's a means through which I can address problems both personal and public, organize my thoughts, and ultimately offer some response (or, when I'm feeling particularly snide, retort). That's not to say I'm coming up with any great solutions to mankind's problems. I'm not. I can't. Hell, you've read this article. It's a discursive nightmare! If this were a high school report, I'd get an "F" for effort. And what in the world was that nonsense about oil derricks a few paragraphs back? I actually graduated from college and the closest I've ever gotten to the oil industry is driving past the refineries off the New Jersey Turnpike. Seriously, that's the sort of circuitous logic that's supposed to crack open the mysteries of the universe?!

Well, no. But life isn't about breaking the code. It's about finding out what you believe in and what you need for a happy existence. Through writing and cartooning I've been able to draw my own conclusions about politics, relationships, religion, death, and even '80s TV programming. Every artist uses his or her talents as a prism through which to see the world. And every artist is fortunate to have that gift. True, you may never achieve conventional success. You may never even be able to live solely off your art. But if you keep at it, you will be recognized as an artist, you will enjoy the freedom that can only come from pursuing your own dreams, and you will find not only a voice but also a belief as you go through life.

Well, what do you know? I ended on a hopeful note after all. Somebody beer me.

÷ ÷ ÷

Francesco Marciuliano is the author of Sally Forth, an internationally syndicated family comic strip (created by Greg Howard). He was also the head writer for the PBS children's series SeeMore's Playhouse. He lives in New York City.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems...
    Sale Hardcover $6.98
  2. The Allegory of the Cave New Trade Paper $7.75

Francesco Marciuliano is the author of I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats

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