My dad used to say that I led a charmed life. He’d say, “He’s never had a job, he loves what he does, he’s a happy guy and he always seems to have enough money to do what he wants. He even looks after everyone else.”
Recently, hearing this sort of thing once more has given me pause to consider just what a “charmed life” is.
During the decade of my twenties, when all of my friends seemed to be doing just fine, I was struggling to make ends meet. My work was selling all right — for peanuts. Unfortunately, I was developing a taste for cashews, so the old bank balance didn’t always balance. I was an unfocused dreamer.
During my thirties, the arrival of family responsibilities brought further pressure. At this time I began to see that work habits were more important than almost everything else. In a TV interview I gave at the time, the interviewer asked what my goals were for the next few years. I said, “To work to get good.” It wasn’t particularly good grammar, but it was what I meant.
Fact is, I had a sword of Damocles hanging over my head. I saw quality work as my key to a charmed life, but I was constantly discovering what I considered quality work to be just beyond my reach. I lived with the spectre that I was a mediocre artist — a man destined to be forever fighting his shortcomings.
As well as the need to sweat through my inadequacies, I needed to learn to interact with others. The fine-tuning of dealers, agents and advisers became a sub-plot to my daily studio struggles. There were disappointments there, too. Being nervous and maybe even neurotic, I’ve always strived for a minimum of conflict. In retrospect, I realize plenty of conflict went on between my artistic dreams and the reality of my work. Looking back, I don’t think I could have handled much more.
Somewhere along the line I became addicted to the fixing of my errors. The studio drew me in like a druggie to a needle, and I arrived early every day to get my fix. I’m still doing it, only a lot slower. I’ve actually come to love this struggle. Maybe that’s what a charmed life is all about.
PS: “The way to achieve happiness is to try for perfection that is impossible to achieve, and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it.” (Winston Churchill)
Esoterica: While economics can be a driver, habits are better. When you’ve had one twelve-hour creative marathon, it’s a lot easier to have another. My friend Fen Lansdowne, who ate and slept birds and loved to be in the field, was a compulsive studio worker. Speaking of fields, this sort of “charm” applies to any field. Adam Kreek, one of Canada’s Olympic Gold rowing eights, said, “We train longer and harder than anyone else in the world–we’ve rowed when our bodies are frozen.”
This letter was originally published as “A charmed life” on August 22, 2008.
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