When I was a young would-be writer and artist, like most others around me with the same aspirations I thought success and achievement came from having talent and perspective. Wanting to be novelists and poets, painters and musicians, dancers and film-makers, we worshiped talent in others and doubted it in ourselves; we saw the affectation of attitude and pretension in others and embraced the same in ourselves like a faith. Like a shibboleth, we believed that if we could find the talent and act the part, becoming the artist would naturally follow.
But while talent and attitude have their place, neither of those things make an artist. As I was describing it yesterday to my partner, pressing on the gas pedal and turning the wheel are very important where it comes to driving the car . . . but if there is no gas in the gas tank, it does not matter how hard you press down or how desperately you yank the wheel. You're going nowhere.
Art - and every other achievement - is an act of faith. It argues that if the time is taken today to work on this small thing, that thing will bear fruit in the future. If I start the book, if I start working on my game world, if I buy the tools and start building the wall across my back yard, one day, one day, the book and the world and the wall will be finished.
Without that faith, without that conviction that the work done today is not wasted, nothing today gets done and there is nothing in the future.
That is why so many of the would-be musicians and painters, dancers and film-makers, that I surrounded myself with in my youth are none of those things today. That is why they work in the trades or sell insurance; that is why they have gotten rid of the studios in their basements and stopped practicing. After years of working and trying and failing, they lost their faith. Nothing they did bore fruit and they stopped believing that it ever would.
It is the enormity of the task that destroys. Bad work can be corrected and made better; having the wrong perspective can be righted; but working day after day without the apparent value of that work being made evident . . . that strikes deep in the breast and withers the vine. The tools that once brought joy and aspiration now sit in the corner of the room, unemployed and sincerely hated. They lay there and they lay there until they must be gotten rid of, else they cast a pall upon every moment of opportunity and life left in the body.
This is what is happening as we sense our worlds slipping away from us; as the gaming projects that endeared us in our childhoods now seem harder and harder to work upon in a world with jobs, mortgages, children and the fear of failure. A week's labor for a week's pay gives proof of time spent like no world-building exercise can ever offer; a faith in that is so easy to possess that it washes every other uncertain aspiration away like a flood scouring a valley clean. Paying for a world, paying for modules, reduces the act of faith to a mere transaction, the moment lasting no longer than the time it takes to pick the item off the shelf and exchange coin for possession. The cost is minimal and the reward immediate.
Why, then, practice the artist's habit of working quietly and ineffectually in ground that may very well be sterile, that even seems certain to be sterile, after a decade of planting seeds that never sprout?
Faith can be a habit. If it is there in the early years and is sustained with imagination and ardor, it's presence becomes a balm in itself. When things are finished, one thing after another, the sustenance of that too impresses itself, until the effect of the work ceases to matter and the work itself becomes the principle upon which one continues to move forward.
People ask, what can I do? What will get me there? Where is the door and what is the key and how do I use one to open the other? I tell them as best I can; I explain the work and the method, I give details for the strategies they might try, I propose fixed steps upon which they might embark within a few hours or a few days . . . and for the most part, it all comes to naught. The advice is never taken, never set in motion, never embraced.
That is because what we can do in a few hours or a few days will never produce the kind of fruit we want right now, the fruit that can be gotten with a transaction or working a job. Worse, all the work that can be done towards artistry will never be the sort that we can manage in a few hours or a few days, because artworks are not made from pouring barrels of paint onto a canvas or backing up a dump truck full of words. The fingers and the breath are not empowered by the instrument; the physical body must be remade and adapted to the tool. This takes immeasurable amounts of time - time that differs from human to human. There's no straight path, no unqualified promise of a pay cheque, no warm and friendly face to give change from the till. From the start it all looks hopeless and, for most of the time, it stays that way. At the beginning, for years and years.
If we do and we believe, we will find that one day we will have done. This is the formula. There is no escaping it. But it is a beautiful thing, too; for it will change us and help us to see the world differently; and once we have seen the world differently, we will enable others to do the same, without having to pay the cost we paid.