“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
One particular musical performance that I find myself coming back to, especially when I feel overwhelmed, is Tom Petty playing I Won’t Back Down at a hometown show in 2006. It’s endearing to see the young, flamboyant rock and roll musician he used to be, now standing in his old age, humbly exchanging smiles with the audience in the city he was born and raised in. No longer able to hit his high notes, the song was tuned half a step down from its original key.
It seemed like as he grew richer in experience with his age, so did the song. Listening to it, I felt like the chorus “There ain’t no easy way out” has taken a different, deeper meaning. As a younger man, he would sing it at the very top of his lungs, as if in anger at the invisible hands of fate. But now, he sang it much softer and quieter. Rather than hinting rebellion, his voice was now of stillness and calm acceptance. Having grown a lot wiser, he had learned to peacefully acquiesce with the ways of the world.
Petty’s music will always have a special place in my heart, and I do ask myself why, only to feel like I couldn’t capture it well enough — After all, what gives his music such beauty, even though there’s nothing so complicated about it? And I think the best answer I could give at this moment is that Petty was a great storyteller. He didn’t have to write the most intricate lyrics, or the most technical song structures. His specialty was rather, emotional honesty. And with that, he could sing a straightforward three-minute number and still affect his listeners very deeply, because he had lived his songs.
Standing there in his hometown stage of Gainesville, Florida, he told his story to thousands of people, giving them hope that in spite of all of life’s challenges, it was still worth living. The audience saw that he was still standing — In his songs, they saw a man who endured abuse by his father, who lost his home in a fire, who survived through a devastating divorce. But they also colored those songs with their own meaning, and that’s what makes them so special.
Petty, quite noticeably, experienced great meaning in his craft. Something inspired him to travel great lengths in telling his story to people all around the world, and it sure wasn’t money or fame. He played music for the sheer experience of it, because it reminded him of what it means to be human, to be alive. I’d like to think that as he sang his songs night after night, in his mind and heart he was thinking simply about being the best person he could be. And his listeners certainly found a lot of value in that.
That’s what the greatest people we know have in common. They experience a great level of joy in their work, because ultimately, they’re just trying to do good.
For Theodore Roosevelt, he always held firm to his father’s advice, which was, “Take care of your morals first, your health next, and finally your studies.” This small tenet fueled his energy to give value to society, even after he had left school. When he was the police commissioner of New York, he had a habit of taking 2 a.m. walks in the streets, jotting down entries in his pocket notebook while he kept a sharp eye out in his fight against police corruption. And during the Spanish-American war, he abandoned his high position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, just so that he could actually be right there in the battlefield, risking his life for his country with his comrades.
This brings me to my point of this article. For me as a writer, I’ve always believed that I need to think and worry about being a good person, more than I do about being a good writer. So no matter what chaos ensues in your life, no matter what falls apart or breaks, no matter how bad or good your work turns out to be, in the end you’re just trying to be the best person you could be, and you’re not changed by anything that’s outside of your control. If you’re changed in any way, it’s only because you’ve become better.
I think it’s worth going back to the very basic things and reassessing what it actually means to create art. When I say art, I don’t mean it in a self-indulgent way, whereby what comes to mind is an image of a “genius” merely creating something to display her talents or her skills. What I mean by art is that you’re making something of value — A gift, if you will — That can make other people’s lives better, even if in the smallest of ways.
That being said, even something mundane like sweeping the floor can be called art, if it’s done with genuine love and sincerity.
It’s no different from the Prophet’s advice (pbuh), that charity, or sadaqa, isn’t limited to giving big checks to help the poor. Charity can be found in all acts of kindness — It can be found in removing sharp objects from the floor, leaving the bathroom clean for the next stranger to use, praying for other people (even the ones you don’t like), or simply, by smiling to the people you meet.
Why is this important to be hammered into your consciousness as a creative? Because whether you like it or not, you will churn out horrible work every and now and then. That’s just the part and parcel of doing creative work, because you just can’t hit that mark every single time. But if your intention is to simply give value to your audience in your best abilities, then you can sleep soundly at night. Because you know you’ve made someone’s day at least a little better.
At this time of writing, I’m feeling exhausted to the bone. This has been probably one of the most challenging times in my studies so far, as I’ve had 4 major assignment deadlines to meet just in this one week. Of course, fasting and no coffee make it even harder. But somehow, I manage to find the strength to put out an article, because it makes me happy. With I Won’t Back Down playing in the background, I’m writing one word at a time.
Something much larger than myself inspires me to put in the hours week after week.
The humble craft of writing has always taught me one important thing, and that is you don’t own knowledge. In every work you create, you’re standing on the shoulders of other people, of the past and present, who are smarter than you are — And it’s the same for them too. Learning from my past writing mistakes, I realized that it’s not about making yourself look smart, but it’s about having something so important to say, that you can’t help saying it — Even then, you’re doing so with the frame of mind of, “I’m writing this based on what I know best in this moment.”
It means a lot to me to write articles every week, because my mission as a writer is to use the lens of art and literature, so that my readers can read the world — For them to find and recognize beauty, love, and meaning in a world that can sometimes strike us as meaningless, cruel or cold.
Like Tom Petty and Theodore Roosevelt, I continuously try to find joy in the work or in the fight itself, and not solely on the results. And I hope you can try to do the same for yourself too.
And as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “There’s only one rule that I know of. You’ve got to be kind.” Equip kindness as your loyal companion in your arsenal of wisdom and skills. If you think about it, kindness, really, is the foundation of art. You’re doing something good and changing lives of people you may or may not even know, because you choose to. Hold on strongly to kindness so you can breathe art into everything you do, not just in your creative work.
It would be great to fit another Tom Petty lyric here. This one’s from a song called Down South — “I’ll give you all I have, and a little more.”