I turn 45 in a few days—and I still wonder… My dad, when he was in his 50s, said, “I wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up?” I laughed at the time, but I get it now. Time creeps up on you. That—and in our society, you’re kind of defined by your job. “Oh, he’s a banker.” “She’s a senator.” “Yeah, that guy works at the mill.” Income equals identity. I’ve BEEN a lot of things for money: DJ, floor manager of a music store, cashier, pizza delivery guy, teaching assistant, editor, writing consultant… I’ve even made a few dollars from writing and painting (which probably amounted to about 10 or 12 cents per hour, but that’s okay. I can still SAY that I’m a “PROFESSIONAL” artist.)
But what do I WANT to be when I grow up? My wife and I had kids young (probably too young) before we had all those silly, unnecessary things, like security or good jobs or any idea of what we were doing—but the up-shot of starting early is that our kids are mostly grown and doing their own things now, and we’ve still got a little bit of LIFE in us. The older daughter is married, has a good job, several hobbies that she really enjoys, and she seems to be happy and enjoying her life. The younger one is about a year away from finishing her college courses, has a decent job (that works around her school schedule), and is looking at starting her own grand adventure. That leaves the little woman and I (in our 40s) with a mostly empty nest and this weird situation that we haven’t had since we were teenagers: WE’VE GOT OPTIONS.
Mariah (“The Boss”) makes good money at her current job and has a fancy title and everything. She is a “Licensed Dispensing Optician and a Contact Lens Specialist.” It isn’t paradise, but it could be worse. We’ve both worked much, much worse.
I don’t have either of the things that Mariah does (a title or a reliable income…) I just draw pictures and write stories and correct other people’s punctuation and then take credit for their hard work (that’s what editors do.) I often wonder if I should scrap this whole project (the “ARTISTIC LIFE” project) and get a real job loading boxes onto trucks or checking IDs from a little booth before raising the barrier arm and letting whoever drive through. The funny thing is, I’m pretty highly educated, but in the area that I live (and with the social climate in the state that it’s in) being a “smart guy” is at best underwhelming and at worst a sign that I need to be beaten up or chased out of town.
Back when I first started college I quickly became enamored with PHILOSOPHY as a subject, and declared that I was going to be a philosopher—take it all the way to Ph.D. and everything. Luckily, my “Intro to Philosophy” professor (who became a great friend—and who is sadly now deceased) took me aside and said, “Philosophy is great, but you’ll never get a job if you get a degree in philosophy. You need to do something practical.”
So I followed his advice, and I got a degree in HUMANITIES (magna cum laude), with a formal minor in ANTHROPOLOGY, and I went to grad school where I specialized in poetry and literary analysis… A career path GUARANTEED to get me a fat paycheck and fame and a fancy house, right? I’ve written a great deal about Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman and the Dada writers and even some of the more poetic fiction authors, like Mark Twain and Thomas Pynchon. I can go toe to toe with Doctors of Rhetoric on obscure subjects, like Rene Girard’s Memetics Theory or Semiotics in Occult Symbology. I am a published academic who has given guest lectures at universities on topics like the history and development of punk and strategies for writing poetry; I’ve taught writing classes for kids at writing festivals; I’ve presided over workshops at museums on zine making; I have over 40 publication credits (poems, articles, and stories); I’ve been the (paid!) poetry editor of a college literary journal; I’ve been the author or editor (or co-editor) of about 10 books that I’ve self-published (many of them still available on Amazon); and I’ve been on the staff of at least a half-dozen independently published zines and papers…. But I’m still broke and basically unemployable.
So here’s the question: IS IT WORTH IT?
Once you get over the STUPID questions, I’d say YES. It’s worth it. What are the “stupid” questions, I hear you asking (in my head.) Here are a few stupid questions: Will I get rich and famous doing this? How will I be remembered once I’m gone? What if someone doesn’t like what I’ve written/drawn/painted? Is this a masterpiece? These are stupid questions because they take the focus off of the IMPORTANT things about ART:
(1) Having fun making stuff. I love to draw and to paint and to write stories and to make weird, indecipherable poetry. I’ve always done these things, since I was old enough to hold a crayon, and I will continue to do them until I drop over dead (and maybe for a little while after.)
(2) Having fun SHARING what you’ve made with other people. My first audience is my wife, who is supportive and usually laughs at what I’ve done—but not always. Sometimes it’s too weird or too creepy or too absurd, and that’s fine. (She is totally wrong about those pieces, but I forgive her.) I also share my stuff with friends and family, both in real life and through social media. (BIG UP to electronic communication!) Before I found the Faceboot or WeirdPress, I was a postal artist and sent tons of hand-made postcards and weird collages and zines all over the world (no exaggeration.) I loved sending and I loved getting stuff back (and I would STILL be a postal artist if I had the money to cover postage.) So electronic sharing is the focus now. Personal victory moment: I was at one of my younger daughter’s bowling tournaments in Everett, Washington, and a great old guy (everyone calls him “Grandpa”) caught me as we were leaving and said, “I just gotta ask—Where do you come up with that stuff? Every day, I turn on Facebook and laugh my ass off!” He hardly ever clicked the “thumbs up” button and never commented, but this funny little guy who lives about three hours north of my town, who I know mostly through the BOWLING community, had been reading my stories and looking at my cartoons and having a laugh. That felt pretty good.
(3) In an age of horror and political garbage and everybody hating everything, I like to think I’m helping make the world a slightly more enjoyable place. Sure some of what I write has a negative edge (especially the Charlie Centipede pieces), and I deal with lots of horror themes—but like Richard O’Brien said to me years ago after spending a few weeks staring at a bunch of artwork that I had displayed on the walls of the writing center we used to work at: “It’s like you’ve taken all of this horror, monsters and zombies and death, and you’ve defanged it by making it silly. You’re dealing with your anxiety and angst by painting it with candy colors, making it less threatening.” I nodded and winked, making him think that this was my plan all along… And he was right, of course—but it wasn’t a conscious strategy on my part. I was just trying to have fun and make the world a little more pleasant. That’s also why I do the music playlists and book reviews and photos of fun or weird things that I encounter: I’m trying to show people that there are enjoyable and interesting sights out there that they too can encounter, and prove that the world isn’t just terrorists and rich people stealing from poor people and religious extremists. It’s also great books and cool music and fun people and interesting things to see and do. You can’t always wallow in the bad—sometimes you’ve got to wallow in the awesome.
(4) As an editor, I also feel like I’ve given a voice to people who wouldn’t have bothered if I wasn’t there encouraging them and providing a platform. Several of the regulars here at the workshop send me their work hand-written, ink on paper, and I type it for them and then post it. And there are lots of people who have created work based specifically as reactions to the materials I’ve drawn or written or published here, and I’m always happy to post their responses, whatever form those responses may take (remixes, rebuttals, snarky comments…) My original intention for most of my zines (particularly PHANTOM CONVERSATION) was to promote the concept of a community of interacting individuals, but the internet has proven much easier and more effective for LINKING that type of community together. I’m thrilled with the number of contributors that we’ve had on this site and shocked at the wide variety of materials that people send my way. To be fair (open disclosure) MOST of the work I post on here comes from people I know in “REAL LIFE,” but not all of it. And even if that were true, it’s still pretty cool. I always love when people DO stuff and MAKE their own things. I’m all for it and I’m happy to share that stuff with the world (the INTERNET WORLD, anyway.)
SHARING WITH OTHERS.
MAKING THE WORLD A MORE ENJOYABLE PLACE.
PROMOTING COMMMUNITY INTERACTION.
Yeah. It’s worth it.
I still wish I had enough money to buy a coffee, though.
Alive at 45 (if I make it through the weekend.) That wasn’t a given, especially if you knew me from back in the late 80s and early 90s (when I was a purple-haired skater punk, hanging out at rave parties, cavorting with degenerates (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!), sleeping on various people’s floors, and spilling my guts in bathrooms as the party started to wind down… I came close to checking out more than once back then. Kids can be stupid.) Them was some ROUGH years. But I lived through them, and met Mariah, and had two awesome kids, and worked a lot of different jobs, and did that education thing (and have the debt to prove it), and now… Now I’m not sure. What do I want to be when I grow up?
—Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)