In one of his recent New Yorker articles, "Late Bloomers", Malcolm Gladwell delivers good news to me: not all genius artists are young. Some, like Picasso or Melville, do their greatest work in their twenties, but then others, like Mark Twain, Alfred Hitchcock, or Cezanne, make their greatest work in their forties and fifties. It's not too late for me!
Well, maybe the news is not as great as I first thought. Gladwell goes on to explore what makes these two artistic life cycles so different. The late bloomers, he explains, are exploratory -- they don't know where they are going when they start, and they spend a great deal of time trying to discover what they want to express in the process of creation. Ok, that sounds like me: a guy who starts writing a blog one day with no clear direction.
Now the bad news: those late bloomers can take a looooong time, years and years, to get to great work. Their early work is often poor . . . which means they have to spend a lot of time compensating for their lack of native talent with practice, experience, and brute trial-and-error. The process often requires patronage -- external support from sponsors, friends, spouses, and day jobs.
I got a lot of work ahead of me.
I guess I can still hope that I'm a young genius who is just getting a late start, instead of a dedicated grind who might eventually slave his way to greatness. I wrote some pretty good stuff in my twenties. . .
Yeah, right. I got a lot of work ahead of me.
The variation that we see in the life cycles of artists might be reflected in those of spiritual figures as well. Sometimes relatively young people (Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle) are seized by spiritual experiences and seem to reach some high level of insight without much evident struggle (though sometimes tremendous pain). Others, it seems, have to live through life, suffering through disillusionment and a long series of humiliations before they finally break through. Richard Rose guessed that any dramatic spiritual awakening had to happen before the age of 30, or else the seeker wouldn't have enough vital energy to "make the trip." Andrew Cohen, on the other hand, speculated that most people had to be over thirty before they would be disillusioned enough to seriously devote themselves to liberation. Vedic traditions recognized intense spiritual lifestyles could be appropriate for the young (the brahmachari) and the old (the sannyasi ).
Lots of ways up the mountain . . . some a lot longer than others.
It's funny how much I can't relate to this. Despite my "ego" essay (in which, incidentally, what I think I was criticizing was having the wrong ambition), I really have given up spending any of my time looking to be either great or enlightened. Right now I would settle for "better father than I have been."
I think I know what you mean. I do not wake up every morning with a burning desire to have Terry Gross ask me about my latest best-selling book . . . which makes me fairly certain it will never happen.
Nor do I entertain delusions of spiritual grandeur. I am not going to see the universe spread out before my feet.
My current drive to write, and specifically to write about spiritual and philosophic topics, is not really about ambition. It just feels like something that is supposed to happen. This is what I need to be doing right now. And while I harbor as many idle fantasies of fame and fortune as the next guy, what I'm really holding out for is the possibility that I will make something really, really Good.