Reasons and Excuses
Somebody told me, shortly after I quit drinking, that I’d never have a reason to drink again. I may find plenty of excuses, but no reasons. This kind of fried my noodle. I’d never made any kind of distinction between the two. To me, they were the same thing. But in looking at why I haven’t put more effort into my own art over the years, all of those reasons to put the pencil down look more and more like excuses. Below are the big ones, my go-to’s over the years. Maybe you’ve got a few of your own that sound the same. I mean, I hope so. I couldn’t have been the only one...right?
#1: I was a baby-daddy-baby. (Or a baby-baby-daddy.)
I was a dad and on my second marriage by the age of 24. (I would like to clarify that I am not from the Ozarks, and that none of my wives were directly related to me. I don’t think.) At an age when most people were still in school, or having drunken sex in a Vietnamese hostel, or joining the crew of the Sea Shepherd to sink Japanese whaling ships (I’m pretty sure these are the only available options), I was changing diapers and pushing strollers and reading books on why 3 year olds are clinically insane. Seriously. I get why they’re so cute. It’s so we don’t eat them just to make them stop screaming.
And I wouldn't have had it any other way. My kids are by far the 2 coolest people I”ve ever met, and I’m proud to have been a young dad.
But I needed to look after those little maniacs, and I needed a JOB. At one point I was convinced that I needed to become an accountant. At 24, that was the only adult dad-job I could think of. And if you know me at all, you know how pathetic that is. If you told me to pick a number between 5 and 7, I’d draw you a robot wearing underpants.
#2: Meh. Close enough.
Luckily, both I and the world of finance were spared from my accounting skills; I ended up falling ass-backwards into an amazing career in video games. And I figured I’d made it! (And actually, I have.) It was a well-paying career in art, my kids never wanted for Spice Girl paraphernalia or hockey cards, and I bought us a brand new purple minivan by the age of 28. I’m not even kidding about that.
I was doing pretty well for myself! I mean, if you look at the general range of jobs available to people, getting ANY art related job was pretty much hitting the bullseye.
But once you zoom into that “art” bullseye, you see that there are a bunch of OTHER options in there, and I STILL had no idea which career path was The One. which one was the outlet that scratched that creative itch.
Most of them, though, paid less than seasonal fruit picking. Video games was a fun, challenging job that may not have been looking for my specific style, but it meant I didn’t have to sell blood or kidneys to put food on the table. Sure, I didn’t have time to do my own thing, but I was too busy making a living and sucking at yardwork.
#3: I suck.
I’ve always been kind of an instant gratification sort of person. The idea of having a goal, identifying the steps to that goal, and working towards it was not something I was familiar with. My attitude was, if I can’t do it perfectly right away, I don’t want to do it. When I was a kid, and adults would see my drawings, they'd fawn over it and tell me how famous I was going to become. I totally bought it, not realizing they probably just wanted me to stop shoving a drawing in their face and go outside. I just assumed that it meant I’d be famous the day after I became an adult. So when I DID grow up, and realize that if I wanted to make it on my own in art, I’d have to put a lot of work into it, I pretty much gave up. If I couldn’t draw like the bastard-child of Bill Watterson and Berkeley Breathed, what was the point? Let me give you an example to illustrate my point: One time, I decided I was going to start oil painting. So I went to the store, spent WAY too much money on supplies, came home, set up, painted for 5 minutes, realized I had no idea what I was doing, and threw everything in the garbage.
Did I mention I was an instant gratification kinda guy?
Since that shameful event, I’ve realized that no matter how much talent you have, you have to put in the time.Talent, or taste, it’s just the beginning. Having a regular practice, working for it, is what matters. There’s a quote from Ira Glass, host of This American Life, that I’ve loved for years. You’ve probably seen it. I try to remember it whenever I want to give up:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
#4: I kind of had a bit of a drinking problem.
So yeah, I’m a drunk. Not a practicing one, though. Honest. I haven’t had a drink in 8 years. But when I WAS drinking, it was an obsession. It was what helped me feel like I fit in the world. When I had a bad day, I drank. When I had a good day, I drank. And over time, it started to rule me. I didn’t live under a bridge, or drink out of a paper bag, or sing duwop around a burning barrel with the other hobos (I wish). I was still a dad, a husband, I had a home and a good job. But I was an alcoholic.
And every time I had an idea of something I wanted to draw, a project, I’d get super excited about it. So excited that before I went and got my sketchbook, I’d go grab a beer. A little lubrication to get the ideas flowing. And because I’m an alcoholic, that one beer would turn into 2, into 6, and pretty soon I’m just sitting at the kitchen table singing duwop around a votive candle (I was a VERY fancy hobo). As a result, I don’t have a lot of my own work to show from that time. Just a lot of half finished sketches covered in wine stains, followed by some really shaky looking scrawls that I THINK were of my high school bullies being thrown into a pit of alligators.
It just wasn’t the right time.
Looking back at all of my former reasons for not working on the things that Hippie Brain demands that I do, I can see now that they weren’t reasons: my first marriage. My first divorce. My second marriage. Raising my kids, being a dad. My career. My drinking. My second divorce. Sobriety. None of those, on their own, were reason enough not to try.
Seeing everything together in hindsight, though, I can see that they add up to the one valid reason I can come up with: It just wasn’t time. Cumulatively, there was just too much going on.
I woke up in the middle of the night not too long ago because I heard this voice. (OK, I woke up because I had to pee.) But I ALSO heard this voice, that said, “You’ll never be more free than you are right now.” And I thought….is that true? And I think it is. My kids are grown. I’m married to the most amazing woman, who not only supports me in my creative work, but has her own. And we spur each other on. “Call each other forward”, as the life coaches say. I have the time. I know now that I have the talent, and I’ve grown up enough to know that talent won’t be enough, I need to create daily habits that support my passions. I’ve learned how to get out of my own way.