Chasing the Firebird…OR, Being an Artist


I’m going to start in an odd place.  Once a student of mine, who had been a professional actor for ten years at that point and worked at LORT theatres all over the country, told me that when he graduated from college he told himself that if he could just make a living in theatre, he’d be happy.  If he could work consistently and find joy in that, it was enough.

He was not chasing the firebird.  He was living a daily life.  What he said struck me because it was so unlike my own attitude, and unlike most of the artists I’ve known.  I have made a living as an arts teacher and artist for over 20 years, but I pursued the firebird, dreamed of catching it, dreamed of fame, money, the most prestigious prizes, the most enormous impact.

This is what we do.  I’ve watched the auditions for American Idol, with all the young artists crying, saying, “This has to happen, this is my dream,” and the sheer numbers of them have caused me to see the firebird whirling over their heads.  She’s beautiful, elusive, often impossible.  They see her so clearly; she calls to them like a siren.  They know if they touch her, they will be Dave Matthews, or Prince or Beyonce.  It will happen, they can feel it.

There’s a short story by Lorrie Moore that I love, called “Becoming a Writer.”  In it she talks about writing, in the middle of the night, the sweat staining the armpits of your shirt, when you know you are a genius.  (Paraphrased…too lazy to go look it up.)

I would like everyone reading this to know that I am, in fact, a genius.  I knew this when I was 15 and smoking pot every day more clearly than I do now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still believe it.

I am an artist.  As inescapable as breathing, the way creativity flows out through my skin, my voice, the beating of my heart.  I can’t stop making things.  Even this blog–when I’m making nothing else, I have this thing to make.  (And don’t even ask me how often I keep track of the stats of how many people read me.)

I knew that I had to write when I was twelve (I knew about acting at 3, but that got bullied out of me in grade school, so it took a long time to find it again).  I smoked cigarettes and drank wine with poets and painters in Arizona, in Europe, in Asia.  I thought we were a breed apart, somehow better than the rest of humanity.  I thought we were deeper, freer…that we were seekers of truth, that we saw beauty other people missed.  I imagined an artist’s life to be completely unconventional–and I wanted this, because I had always felt so different from everyone around me.  I thought our vision was bigger, less provincial, more catholic in its tastes (not the religion!  the adjective!). I couldn’t understand how anyone, anywhere, would choose another life.

I believed so much in this that I was willing to live with the absolute fact that mostly we were poorer, that we lived on the edge of poverty at times if not always, that we lacked all kinds of safety and security that money brings.

But now, here I am.  Not rich or famous, with the vision of the firebird more a taunt than an inspiration.  Studying Eastern religion to see if or when I went wrong.

I mean, nevermind that I have had so much of what I wanted–travel, adventure, inner seeking.  And more than that–that I have woken up in the morning eager to enter my day, with so much passion for the work and the teaching that I couldn’t wait to get to rehearsal, or class.  I mean, much of my working life I actually couldn’t wait to get to work and couldn’t believe people would actually pay me to show them how to get free, would pay me to talk about what I loved so much–beauty, truth, how to find these things.

But I have gone wrong.  In the last 7 years especially, I have come to see that the name of the firebird, at least for me, is “only rich and famous will do.”  I mean, truly, the realization began to creep up on me somewhere around 2000.  I’d been so ambitious about publishing my novel, with so many “almosts.”  I drove myself mercilessly, revised, revised…and then woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to go to the computer any more.  It was self-punishment rather than joy; I didn’t know how that had happened.

I stopped.  I told myself I wouldn’t write again until I couldn’t wait to get to the computer.

It took a while, but the time came.  Writing is joy now.

But here’s the thing–in one of the yoga/Buddhism books I’m reading, Stephen Cope talks about this pursuit.  He explains that there are two aspects to it–our ideal of who we should be and our ideal of what our life should be.  For some people it’s chasing the perfect love (those people better not come to my house, where neurosis and laughter often dominate).  For others, it’s the dream of being an artist–not a working artist, not someone finding joy in it, but a famous artist.  Angelina Jolie.  Julia Roberts.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  Toni Morrison.

And hell, the truth is, I’d really like to have more success in the future.  I have trouble accepting what my partner says–that I’ve had more than many people and it really should be enough.  I want recognition and to be heard, and I can’t beat that out of me.

So.  It’s okay to want it.  It’s just not okay to say nothing but the firebird will do.

I have learned that the only thing that matters is getting into this moment, right now.  And if I’m creating, and finding joy, if I’m rising up, if the beam of light from the window suddenly locks in and becomes poetry, then yes, I’m an artist, this is what I live for.

The great irony is how the chase for the firebird can make even that moment of living poetry not good enough.

And an even harder truth–making art won’t save me from death, or loss, or betrayal.  It helps me to make meaning from these things, but I still have to learn how to accept them and have peace.  In the end, if I sit with what is, and hold it, then I can hold being an artist, its challenges and joys, much more lightly.  I can want my stories to be heard, I can want to embody what I’ve lived in the characters I play, and I can be here, or anywhere, okay with what is.

Being an artist fills life with joy and light like pouring water into a cup.  But the drink turns dark and bitter so easily–when you can’t pay the rent, when retirement looms and you’re unprepared, when you don’t get the role, when the book doesn’t find a publisher, when you haven’t reached the should in your head for what life will be.

Oh, how life surprises us.  How it wants to strip us down to our own essential immanence and nothing else.  How peace is found when we just let it.

So I return to the student who taught me that a daily life fills you as the firebird can’t.  And I imagine, for those who have caught her, that her touch warms, heats, gets you very high…and then burns.  Which doesn’t mean if she slips away, you won’t crave her again.

I hope I teach my students the joy of the moment–on stage, on the page–as immanence, as the place where light can flow out of us.

And here’s the greatest irony:  the more I let go, the more success I have.

What is with that?

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