When we pursue any creative endeavor, we must travel down our own hard road. Thankfully, the artist’s journey is worth every blister along the way.
I’m going a different direction this week and sharing something I wrote eleven years ago at the University of Iowa. Iowa? Yes, Iowa. For one glorious week in the summer of 2011, I took a week off work and flew to Iowa City for the University's esteemed Writer's Workshop. After thanking my boss for giving me an extra week of PTO to attend the event, he replied, “just come back smarter.”
Gathering twice a day with ten others in the “short non-fiction” writing group, our instructor was a tall, middle-aged woman from Seattle with a pixie haircut and hippy demeanor. The nine other writers in my group were either bloggers, teachers, or blogging grad students about to become teachers. I rolled solo as the only former Marine and current Bodyguard.
Early in the week, pixie hair asked us to write about two unrelated subjects that somehow connected in theme. I wanted to write about the creative life, as I believe deep down we’re all artists bent on self-expression. But what would my two unrelated subjects be? Sitting at the campus coffee shop, I began to free-write. Twenty minutes later, and for reasons unexplained, I landed on these two things.
First, was music. I’ve always loved the aggressive sound of “Rage Against the Machine,” and lately I’d been listening to their guitarist Tom Morello’s acoustic solo project, The Nightwatchmen. His song, The Road I Must Travel, while steeped in politics, really spoke to me artistically. Maybe because the last few years of my life – leaving the Marine Corps, earning a MA in History, and becoming a bodyguard – I’d been on my own road I must travel. And for the first time in my life, I felt in control of what I'd do and where I'd go.
The second subject I’d write about was the greatest piece of creative expression I’d ever seen: Michelangelo’s David statue. I had no clue how I’d combine these two subjects and what it would even mean. But that’s the magic of art, right? You grab a glass, pour the wonder, stir the vigor, and get to work! 24 hours later, I had my piece. Here's what I read to the class. Hope you enjoy.
I cut open and swallow Tom Morelloʼs, “The Road I Must Travel.” This isnʼt a song, itʼs a raised-fisted anthem forged in the back-alleys of Irish rebellion, East Village radicalism, and Black Panther anger. Morelloʼs thick acoustic power-chords are a boot-heel to the brain. And when the bag pipes wail and the snare drum kicks, Iʼm ready, like Morelloʼs protagonist, for a fight. From beginning to end, Morello sings an odyssey of torn jeans, blistered feet, and pen scribbled notepads stained with tears.
Self-expression fuels Morelloʼs character; itʼs the water he drinks and the food he steals -- without it, he dies on the highway. With self-expression, however, heʼs a fist of artistic passion marching to his own drummer, a sound that reaches down his throat, grabs his soul, and splatters it on the asphalt page.
As the bag pipes, guitar, and drums gallop forward, his man tastes the street, smells the tar, and spreads his expressive wings across a decaying world. As Morello cries out, “. . .with worn shoes on my feet,” his heroic artist continues to march forward towards an end he “cannot see.”
But here’s where I diverge with Morello. Iʼve actually seen where the artist’s road ends, and it’s worth every bloody blister along the way.
With worn shoes on my feet I turned the final corner at Florence’s Galleria dell Accademia and felt the magnitude of my first climax when Michelangelo’s David -- standing seventeen feet tall under the Italian sun -- leveled me with a god-punch to the throat. His bulging calves, torque-strong stomach, I-beam shoulders, and bricklayer hands looked as if he could yoke an ox and plow a brick field. The David hit me like no blitzing linebacker ever had. He left me wobbling like a Deadhead on a balance board. Dazed but not confused, I realized right there: Iʼve been chasing David all my life.
When we pursue any creative endeavor, we willingly slog through Morelloʼs hard luck road in hopes for that moment of clarity, that climactic end-point of brilliance.
As an athlete, I’ve pursued David. Instead of working with oils and a canvas, I work with sweat and iron inside the gym. Through every rep, set, and grunt, I chase David down “the road I must travel.”
As a writer, I’ve pursued David. Exhausted in the confines of a windowless office, library basement, or lonely coffee shop, Iʼve torn, scratched, and scribbled through draft after draft after draft. I’ve cried more than once with “This writing is shit. I’m shit.” But Iʼve endured this pain just to touch, feel, or even glimpse David in my creative work. Yet, ultimately, the only way I can see David is to buy a ticket. Because to reach David along Morelloʼs hard road is to reach an end that only Michelangelo can achieve: Perfection.
So what are you drawn to do? What would you do if no one could applaud you or even know you’re doing it? Whatever it is, do that!
Whether writer, runner, gardner, or musician, when we let our imaginations go wild and chase David with vigor and discipline, we’re on the road we must travel. This artistic road isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Because when we journey north of the wall – when we do the work! -- we awaken the barbarian inside and express the deepest components of our soul.