One of those Kurt Vonnegut quotes popped up on Twitter the other day that caught my eye. I have always been a bit suspicious of the way social media has used Vonnegut as the sort of sage uncle we always wanted (not the one who "does his own research" on Facebook). The kind of person to put a metaphorical arm around your shoulder, impart some wise words, give you a cigar, shake your hand and leave you feeling better about yourself.
He experienced the Second World War, the Dresden firebombing, he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five and witnessed the worst of what humanity could do to itself. He also gave wry, wise and uplifting graduation speeches. In other words, one helluva guy.
Anyway, the quote was the familiar one about going on an archeological dig at 15 and bemoaning the fact that although he did lots of activities, he wasn't any good at any of them.
'I had been raised in such an achievement-oriented environment, so inundated with the myth of Talent, that I thought it was only worth doing things if you could "Win" at them.'
This certainly resonated with me. Uncle Kurt had poked me in the chest, cracked a smile and shared another pearl of wisdom. I wanted to give him back his cigar, as I don't smoke, but he was already gone. Does he loiter in the ether somewhere, ready to give an important life lesson to a confused soul?
Wherever he is, his timing is impeccable.
Spend any time in a creative field and sooner or later it dawns on you that you can't 'win', Sometimes the only win is waking up and making something new. Sometimes the win can be deciding not to write, but to set up a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. It is worth remembering that the man who would go on to write Cat's Cradle struggled to make a living from something other than his words. Fortunately for us perhaps, Kurt's talent for selling cars was not as acute as his way with words. The dealership went bankrupt within a year.
There's often talk of there being a need for business advice to be part of arts courses. That they should be more focussed on practical outcomes and career prospects. I would argue there should be a short module on Kurt Vonnegut.
The horrible truth is that many of the students on an arts course will not have a career in the arts. Of the ones who do, they will be unlikely to make a living at their art. They will have to teach or work a day job selling cars. Of the rest, none are ever likely to create something as enduring as Slaughterhouse-Five.
No matter what he says, Vonnegut was a rare talent.
The question is why make art at all if it doesn't become your job or a way to earn a living or something to be the very best at? Why make art if you can't 'win'? I don't think that question was ever posed the whole time I studied my degree. What utility does this thing that has been such a vital part of my life have outside of the market? What part will it play throughout my lifetime, not just now, but while raising kids or after retirement?
Perhaps the question we should all ask is not why, but why not? Why shouldn't we all be creating if we are freed from a need to win? Why not fill our spare time with ukulele playing, poetry and painting? Stop worrying over a five star review and do what makes you happy.
Vonnegut was a soldier, prisoner of war, a failed car salesman, writer, the sort of uncle you wish you had and, years after his death, is still imparting wisdom to graduating students and long-since graduated people like myself.
You can't win.
New, well, old and new book alert! Paris, the fairy tale romance Simon Gane (artist extraordinaire, not ENT consultant) and I put out back in the day is coming back to print from Image comics in May. A handsome hardcover will feature new art and extras from Simon. Please navigate the arcane pre-order process if you can (Previews code JAN220156) to avoid supply chain/paper shortage disappointment.
I have books out in the world, Kerry and the Knight of the Forest & the awards nominated The Book Tour. Support my efforts through my store – digital comics – patreon or by leaving a positive review online.