A Special Circle of Heaven for Artists

Often, I contemplate the nature of doing good. Listening to a lot of Sam Harris and Peter Singer unavoidably makes these questions top-of-mind, I suppose. Devising a sensible metric isn’t as straightforward as it may first appear. For instance, one’s mind may gravitate to “obvious” answers such as Mother Theresa, Dr. King, or Gandhi. But a quick read-up on any of them quickly yields heaps of criticism. Mother Theresa, winner of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, believed that “the sick must suffer like Christ on the Cross.” Christopher Hitchens wrote especially scathing take-downs of the patron saint, “[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.”

Meanwhile, there is the entire question of unintended consequences. Setting aside Dr. King’s affairs, there remains a larger unanswerable question whether his non-violent approach itself (a la Gandhi’s as well), was actually “the way to go?” Malcolm X advocated “black nationalism” and a more “any means necessary” philosophy. Is there an alternate version of history, a more violent timeline, that actually ends in more equality and ultimate peace?

Rather than grapple with complicated legacies and unanswerable questions, as I’ve grown older (and my mind less supple to entertain impossible conundrums) I’ve grown to take a different tact: I now firmly believe artists –ie. creative people who produce works that spread inspiration and joy– are probably as good as one’s going to get in this life we lead. Bill Gates is currently on a crusade to save Africa and the most impoverished from malaria. But is Gates just hastening human’s extinction with overpopulation and resource depletion? Similarly, Norman “Dwarf Wheat” Borlaug (winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize)hero or villain?

But with artists, eg. Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Tina Turner, George Lucas, J.K. Rowling– the work they put out into the world has touched the lives of hundreds of millions. Billions, in the long-run. Or I think of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Whether you are Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, black or white or Hispanic or Asian– it is likely you’ve at one point been touched by Journey or Van Halen— and your day brightened just a little by that interaction. Probably, maybe?

In closing, I feel Salvatore Sanfilippo, creator of Redis, said it best in his recent goodbye letter as he stepped down from the open-source project he helped found. Pretty much sums up my current sentiments exactly:

“I’d rather be remembered as a bad artist than as a good programmer.”

Salvatore Sanfilippo – Creator of Redis

Process + Motivation

After I met Bagel, it was definitely like finding another gear.  I keep a few photos of us on my desk.  And it always helps when I’m in my weaker moments, when it’s late at night and I’m feeling tired, sick, or frustrated, I’ll look over at us to remind me that we’re worth it.  And so I’ll write another few hundred words or two.  Granted, they’re not always the best words of the day, but the point is that, for me at least, external motivation has made all the difference.  I do consider myself a pretty disciplined, determined person.  But, man, writing a novel is a whole other beast.  It’s mostly the incredibly distant time horizon that makes the project so difficult.  I mean, when you’re a student, you kinda get used to cramming the night before in the library or pulling the all-nighter to finish the paper, right?  And even when I was working at the bank, we were still delivering software projects in well-defined two/four/six-week sprints.  There was constant feedback every step of the way, your team that you were meeting daily with to make any course corrections necessary, and a consistent sense of progress.  Even if it wasn’t always exact, there was still (usually) a forward sense of momentum and progress.

But writing is a multi-month (maybe even multi-year?) process? This is a campaign of an entirely different stripe. And it’s one without as finely defined, well-understood goals and milestones. For every successful Normandy invasion, you may also get a Waterloo or a Gettysburg. Sometimes you spend years building the Atlantic Wall or Maginot Line and it, well, just doesn’t quite do what you expected.

Additionally, with novel-writing, the formative initial “requirements gathering phase” is a little different.  There’s a discovery process that’s actually more like the beginning of a data science project or trying to QED a math proof; initially you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for.  But you have some ideas of what might work.  And so you poke around to see if any of your pet theories have legs.  And then the entire project starts to (slowly) crystallize and firm up and you mold the beast as best as you can.

Obviously, along the way there’ll be dead-ends.  And there’ll be days when you take one step forward but two steps backwards.  But if you just keep laboring away, every day in the salt mines, it will slowly start to come together.  I can’t remember who said this but I remember once hearing on a Fresh Air podcast an interview with a famous writer and she painted the analogy:  “It’s like driving up a foggy, pitch-black mountain.  Your head-beams only allow you to see a few meters ahead of you at any given time.  But it’s enough.  Slowly, but surely, you’ll make it to the top.  That’s what writing a book is like.”

Or, similarly apropos, writing’s a lot like having faith:  “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.