The Narratives We Live

Posted on 16 July 2012

People today are inundated with stories. We are read stories from early childhood. We watch TV. We go to the cinema. We play narrative computer games.

When we talk about our lives to one another, we tend to give it a story structure. These stories we tell ourselves and others will fall into acceptable cultural patterns that justify our decisions, actions, and who we are.

The problem is, not all stories are equal. Many are myths that our culture perpetuates because they substantiate our culture’s values. When you rely on these myths to give your life form and a promise of success, you may find yourself bitterly disappointed. It’s hard enough being an artist of any sort, without putting yourself in the way of despair.

So, let’s look at the narratives of artistic success and see if we can find something better. If you have ever watched Australia/America’s Got Talent or the Japanese Iron Chef, you would have seen these in high rotation among the contestants.

Born to it.

This is the story where artists believe they must be talented and will hit the big time, because their parents and perhaps other family members are also artists. It is primarily used as genetic proof that they have what it takes.

What these people may well have are good mentoring and plenty of connections to provide opportunities for their talent. However, we are all aware of those children of the famous who expect to fall into their parents’s shoes, but prove they have little talent in that field of endeavour. Some of this may be because of their sense of privilege, they don’t bother putting in the work. But they may have just missed out when it came to the singing or acting genes.

Hard work.

We would all like to believe we live in a meritocracy. If you put in the work, if you work with great care and attention, you WILL achieve whatever you desire. This seems fair and obvious. Sadly, it is only obvious if you are male, white, living in a western nation, and are part of the baby boom generation or before. People do not recognise what a wealthy moment in history we have been through. Magical things could happen, because people had so many resources with which to make it happen.

You do have to be willing to put in hard work to become a long-term successful artist. You also have to have talent, resources, connections, and dumb luck. Those who succeed will often underestimate the role of luck. Those who are seeking fame often underestimate the role of hard work.

If you have thrown your guts into something, working day and night, poor results may have nothing to do with your work or talent. Do not be too hard on yourself. Without any guarantees, you will just have to keep deciding how much more of yourself you are willing to commit to your dream. Some people become famous late in their life, some people become famous after their death, and some people will always remain in obscurity. You can’t be in this for ego gratification. It absolutely must be about your love of the creative act. Everything else is icing.

It was meant to be.

People who believe they have some sort of mystical right to success will claim this story as their own.

Some people have experienced defining moments of inspiration. I remember when I was twelve years old accidently overhearing the editor of a newspaper talking about how funny he found my comic strips. I had a school librarian give me a book about writing that had been given to her by her father. These moments were important to me and helped me to stay my course in life toward becoming a creative artist.

I could see these moments as representing the “fact” that I was clearly meant to become a writer or a cartoonist. Instead I see these as gifts that I used to help me determine my path. The first outlook is about having things given to me, the second is about cherishing people’s encouragement and taking responsibility for my future.

Certainly some people have a lot of luck come their way, which could justify “it was meant to be”. I have also watched people ignore and squander fortune sent opportunities. Was it meant for them as well? Would their fate eventually force them to succeed?

The saddest situation is watching people of genuine talent and good nature have not even a bone thrown their direction, when they clearly deserve better. I have to admit, I keep my eyes open for such people to see if I can change that story.

Compensation.

We all enjoy this story. Someone competes in a talent competition and gives it 110% in memory of a lost loved one. They win, and it’s as if by the lingering love of a deceased parent they were given magical powers to succeed.

What makes this story both compelling and impossible is that we are ALL going to lose beloved grandparents, parents, siblings, and friends. We are ALL going to be touched by the devastation of disease and old age. These things cannot be compensated for, except in as much as we turn them into opportunities to offer all the love, wisdom, and help to the people around us that we can.

You can certainly be inspired to succeed because perhaps your late mother wanted you to succeed. But what if what she really wanted was for you to be happy? You are then going to have to look more deeply within yourself and determine what authentically nurtures your wellbeing. None of this someone else ordering the shape of your life.

What then?

So what’s the right story? I’m afraid I will be getting all zen on you here. Let go of the single path, single climax story that makes success the pinnacle of human experience. When life is about lots of little triumphs, it’s much easier to savour. The path of the artist is so uncertain it has to be about love not success: “This is who I am, creating is what I love to do, I trust that expressing myself in this way will add clarity to the lives of others.”

Some of you may feel uncomfortable that I’m getting all gooshy and sentimental, but I know how devastating the grind can be trying to make a name for yourself. The best way to hold steady is to get philosophical about who you are and what you are experiencing. Honestly, nobody has any certainty about anything in their lives. We as artists are closer to that truth. Our choices to create and to express are as valid as any other choices people can make. Just make sure you always have friends and family around to lighten your heart while you make this journey.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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