Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Find What You Love and Let It Kill You”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 5, 2014

Thanks to Susanna Plotnick for sending me this post from April 2013 by James Rhodes, concert pianist. I’m ripping it off lock, stock, and barrel from the Guardian (UK) website and posting it here for our collective delectation.

James Rhodes

James Rhodes, my new hero

My life as a concert pianist can be frustrating, lonely, demoralising and exhausting. But is it worth it? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt

James Rhodes

Friday 26 April 2013

After the inevitable “How many hours a day do you practice?” and “Show me your hands”, the most common thing people say to me when they hear I’m a pianist is “I used to play the piano as a kid. I really regret giving it up.” I imagine authors have lost count of the number of people who have told them they “always had a book inside them”. We seem to have evolved into a society of mourned and misplaced creativity. A world where people have simply surrendered to (or been beaten into submission by) the sleepwalk of work, domesticity, mortgage repayments, junk food, junk TV, junk everything, angry ex-wives, ADHD kids and the lure of eating chicken from a bucket while emailing clients at 8pm on a weekend.

Do the math. We can function—sometimes quite brilliantly—on six hours’ sleep a night. Eight hours of work was more than good enough for centuries (oh the desperate irony that we actually work longer hours since the invention of the internet and smartphones). Four hours will amply cover picking the kids up, cleaning the flat, eating, washing and the various etceteras. We are left with six hours. 360 minutes to do whatever we want. Is what we want simply to numb out and give Simon Cowell even more money? To scroll through Twitter and Facebook looking for romance, bromance, cats, weather reports, obituaries and gossip? To get nostalgically, painfully drunk in a pub where you can’t even smoke?

What if you could know everything there is to know about playing the piano in under an hour (something the late, great Glenn Gould claimed, correctly I believe, was true)? The basics of how to practise and how to read music, the physical mechanics of finger movement and posture, all the tools necessary to actually play a piece – these can be written down and imparted like a flat-pack furniture how-to-build-it manual; it then is down to you to scream and howl and hammer nails through fingers in the hope of deciphering something unutterably alien until, if you’re very lucky, you end up with something halfway resembling the end product.

What if for a couple of hundred quid you could get an old upright on eBay delivered? And then you were told that with the right teacher and 40 minutes proper practice a day you could learn a piece you’ve always wanted to play within a few short weeks. Is that not worth exploring?

What if rather than a book club you joined a writer’s club? Where every week you had to (really had to) bring three pages of your novel, novella, screenplay and read them aloud?

What if, rather than paying £70 a month for a gym membership that delights in making you feel fat, guilty and a world away from the man your wife married you bought a few blank canvases and some paints and spent time each day painting your version of “I love you” until you realised that any woman worth keeping would jump you then and there just for that, despite your lack of a six-pack?

I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven—to be a concert pianist.

Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”

Reading this on a mobile? Click here to view video

And yet. The indescribable reward of taking a bunch of ink on paper from the shelf at Chappell of Bond Street. Tubing it home, setting the score, pencil, coffee and ashtray on the piano and emerging a few days, weeks or months later able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis. A piece of music that will always baffle the greatest minds in the world, that simply cannot be made sense of, that is still living and floating in the ether and will do so for yet more centuries to come. That is extraordinary. And I did that. I do it, to my continual astonishment, all the time.

The government is cutting music programmes in schools and slashing Arts grants as gleefully as a morbidly American kid in Baskin Robbins. So if only to stick it to the man, isn’t it worth fighting back in some small way? So write your damn book. Learn a Chopin prelude, get all Jackson Pollock with the kids, spend a few hours writing a Haiku. Do it because it counts even without the fanfare, the money, the fame and Heat photo-shoots that all our children now think they’re now entitled to because Harry Styles has done it.

Charles Bukowski, hero of angsty teenagers the world over, instructs us to “find what you love and let it kill you“. Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto.

theguardian.com Copyright (c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2014 Registered in England.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

38 Responses to ““Find What You Love and Let It Kill You””

  1. Kevin Worthley
    February 5, 2014 at 2:38 am

    Wow. Powerful stuff…

  2. Keith Winter
    February 5, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Thank you. I had to read it again. Then watch the video
    (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXa_iycbnQM). When it was finished
    I just sat still in stunned silence. When you hear him
    play, you can see that, yes, it has been worth it.

  3. Mary Doyle
    February 5, 2014 at 5:40 am

    Wow! I am sitting here with my first cup of coffee trying to catch my breath after reading this. “Slow death” versus “suicide by creativity” – he nailed it. Thanks for passing this on to us!

  4. Catherine
    February 5, 2014 at 6:12 am

    Absolutely brilliant!!

  5. February 5, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Someone asked me years ago of what kind of an artist I was: 1) Was I willing to put up with tremendous hardship to devote myself 100% to my art? 2) Did I find money, prestige and physical safety very important, and because of this, would I be willing to keep my art as a hobby? 3) Was I somewhere in between?

    There is nothing wrong with any of these options, I think that what it important to be honest about oneself about what sacrifices you are and are not willing to make. It would be good if artists could some to terms with this relatively early in life, but that often doesn’t happen. So marriages, children, self-respect can be left in the wake of a lifetime of conflict.

    I have known several artists who have provided themselves with material security, and also had tremendous artistic dedication, but it is so rare! Something usually has to be sacrificed. None of these artists had children.

    • February 5, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Yes, it is important to be honest about what sacrifices you are and are not willing to make. And not compare one’s own path to the paths others have taken. Those of us with children have to carve out time in the manner that best fits our beliefs about following our passions while developing lifelong relationships with our children.

      Susanna, I visited your website and I LOVE your illustrations. They tell stories all on their own!

      • February 5, 2014 at 10:28 am

        Dora, thanks for visiting my website and for your comments. I consider myself a storyteller, even though I am primarily a visual artist.

        I visited your website too, and I can see that you are devoted to the spiritual lives of children. I can’t think of a more worthy pursuit!

    • Aaron C
      February 5, 2014 at 10:05 am

      So true. It seems you were given an early warning, as it were, of your options. So many of us get lost along the way. For those of us who had little security in our childhoods, money is a huge temptation, and society helps you buy into the illusion that it brings that security, a security that a life in the arts cannot bring. But then suddenly you’re 45 years old and you realize it still could all be gone tomorrow, and what has leaving the arts behind brought you? Reflections of “what could have been.”

      These days, it’s tough to find the energy to be creative, but I have to try. And when I try, I feel better. I feel hopeful. And I guess that’s what Resistance is all about. Thanks, Steven, for posting this.

  6. February 5, 2014 at 6:27 am

    Fantastic. The real answer to “why ]anything]?” Thanks for finding, sharing ;-)

  7. February 5, 2014 at 6:41 am

    Steve Pressfield, I don’t even know you but I love you! You bring me the exact thing that I need to read exactly when I need to read it. Thank You!

  8. February 5, 2014 at 6:42 am

    Thank you.

  9. February 5, 2014 at 6:43 am

    Thanks for grabbing this one and sharing it with us. Awesome!

  10. February 5, 2014 at 6:57 am

    What really hit me was the line: “My life involves endless hours…” Sometimes, just the little things inspire you. Makes what you are doing seem right.

  11. Autumn Stone
    February 5, 2014 at 6:58 am

    While sitting on a train rushing through yet another fucking blizzard, on a train that has been delayed over an hour, after shoveling 9″ of snow again from my two car driveway and seemingly endless slabs of sidewalk cement, after getting my child ready and off to school, after primping and dressing and taking care of the dog, after a fitful night of sleep interrupted by debilitating peri-menopausal menstruated cramps, I read this article. Through my exhaustion, I laughed and I cried off all of that carefully placed eye makeup that is supposed to make me somehow look not like me so that the world will give me, what might otherwise denied, love, whatever that is. I laughed and cried and was again fortified in my fight to become somewhat financially solvent so that I can step outside of this rat race and live the life I deserve to live.

    Thank you Steven (and Susanna), for making this piece your Wednesday inspiration to all of us.

    • Gerald
      February 5, 2014 at 9:07 am

      Wow. Thanks for sharing Autumn that was really powerful to read.

  12. February 5, 2014 at 7:08 am

    Brilliant words.

    Bukowski understood the importance of creativity.

    He knew that it was such an atrocity to live an entire life ignoring the unique creativity you have to offer the world.

  13. February 5, 2014 at 7:26 am

    Nice reading this again via The Guardian website, the last sentence, ‘Suicide by creativity is something perhaps to aspire to in an age where more people know Katie Price better than the Emperor concerto’is a great summing up and unfortunately so true.

  14. February 5, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I remember reading this piece when it came out! Love this dude. Inspiring as hell.

  15. David
    February 5, 2014 at 8:09 am

    Who’s Katie Price? :/

  16. February 5, 2014 at 8:40 am

    Not only is Mr. Rhodes a magnificent pianist – he is also an excellent writer.
    I will always remember that you sent this, Steven, at the exact moment I most needed to read it.
    Karma, I guess.

  17. February 5, 2014 at 9:28 am

    WOW, this is strong! Thank you, sir – you have kicked my creative behind, and moreso, you have ENCOURAGED us all — God bless your life and work…

  18. February 5, 2014 at 10:34 am

    The edited version of my reaction to this is: Thank you for reminding me that following your Passion, while often times painful, is in effect it’s own reward of a life worth living. I must cast off the lines and set off in pursuit of my dreams. Thank you and thanks to Mr. Rhodes as well.

  19. February 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Wow! I love this post. “Find what you love and let it kill you”. How much more has to be said? Thank you for sharing with us Steven.

  20. February 5, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    It amazes me how a particular combination of words in the right context – relevant to the reader’s life – can spark unfounded creativity and inspiration.

    “Find what you love and let it kill you… Suicide by creativity.”

    Start creating. Keep creating. Do not stop creating.

  21. February 5, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    My mother always saw the writer in me before I ever did. I’ve loved reading since I was a kid, and I’ve always had a knack for expressing myself well, especially with subjects I am passionate about. My fear with writing is that 1.) I won’t have anything to write about 2.) I won’t be able to express myself effectively in words, and 3) that no one will read what I write. Which in all honesty I know to be untrue, so to me what matters most is just doing the writing. That’s where my Resistance sets in. This article is inspiring. I’ve recently begun writing heavily. Not anything specific, mostly journaling twice a day for about twenty minutes. I know that this practice will evolve into something more; I can feel it. I simply don’t want to lose my momentum. Thanks for sharing.

    • February 6, 2014 at 11:59 am

      Laura, those fears you delineated 1), 2), 3) … those ARE Resistance. They are not your thoughts. They are Resistance personified.

      Dismiss them and keep working!

  22. February 6, 2014 at 9:30 am

    This is unlike any other post i have read in a long while. Thank you for sharing. As I guitarist and budding musician who stays awake late in the night trying to “perfect” my craft, this is validating.

  23. February 6, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG !

    I am sending this post to all of my students and requiring that they read it out loud to me! And perhaps I will pinch them just once during their recitation so they will know they have suffered enough and to just SUCK IT UP AND DO IT!

    Okay, I’m better now. Thank you Steve. Thank you Susanna. Thank you James Rhodes (whose music I will now purchase on iTunes).

  24. February 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Advice to Mr. Rhodes.

    Don’t be a dilettante.

    If you are a pianist, don’t write! If you are a writer, don’t play piano!

    It is unkind to those of us who have spent a lot of time thinking about mastering one art form. You are sucking all the air out of the room.

  25. Elizabeth Tomlinson
    February 7, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Andrew Klaven is taking your advice and that of Seth Godin, in telling us how we can take back the culture:

    I invite you all to read this review of _Crisis in the Arts_:

    Andrew Klaven:

    “We need to act like the rebels we now are and stop trying to win the favor of the big studios and publishers and mainstream reviewers. We need to make stuff. Good stuff. And get it out to the audience any way we can.”

    http://www.frontpagemag.com/2014/frontpagemag-com/crisis-in-the-arts/

  26. Elizabeth Tomlinson
    February 7, 2014 at 8:24 am

    …review/introduction to the book, which you can purchase–however, the contents of it follow that review.

    As Pope Francis said at World Youth Day in Brazil:

    “Go out and make a ruckus!”

  27. February 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

    I am writing this from the inside of my caravan that is tucked away on an isolated beach in New Zealand. It is a self enforced writing retreat to finally push my self to get the words flowing…Holy resistance shit storm. Wow is it interesting to watch. I went through this same thing though when I began to teach myself photography…Huge doubts in my skills and abilities. Now that I have cracked the photography side the writing aspect is my next hurdle…thank you for bringing this article to my attention…now I am going to get back to work :)

  28. February 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    This is absolutely outstanding!

  29. February 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

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  30. Peter "Socrates"
    February 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Oops! Couldn’t shut off italics. My bad!

    • February 22, 2014 at 9:46 am

      But my post is gone; well, let me try again. I don’t think if Resistance is “the devil” than the Muses or the Light will kill you.

      And bi-polar disorder, which tends to affect artists, etc. is not to be trivialized. There are books and articles out there, and dealing with it properly will not *decrease* your talent, but I trust increase your ablitiies. I cannot believe “God” is destructive; mortals are self-destructive.

      Google, if I’m allowed to post, Kay Redfield Jameson’s TOUCHED WITH FIRE

  31. February 26, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    One more book and author, Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder , it can help those in need and their families.

    See: http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780060897420

    & http://www.mcmanweb.com/

    Warm regards to all on the blog.