One day not long ago, a top notch violinist, Joshua Bell, who is in demand worldwide with every symphony you can name with seats at luxury prices, dived back underground as a random busker, his music case open and hungry for crump
led banknotes and stray coins. He collected a little money, but no one in the scurrying crowds spotted him for the prodigy he is. The point, of course, is that unrecognized genius swarms around us.
You may have heard the saying about money and working in the arts: “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.” I think of the hidden Joshua Bells: Actors waiting tables, guitarists strumming away in subway stations, one step up from panhandlers. And, of course, writers—wielding their pens, pecking away at their keyboards, turning out pages and pages of deep thoughts and thrills that will never end up between book covers, let alone be lauded in Publisher’s Weekly.
Every once in an infinitesimal while a sunray will beam down and lift one of these talented and lucky souls—emphasis as much on “lucky” as on talent—into the land of fortune and fame. They’ll make that “killing” (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), and their success will encourage thousands more to take to the streets and basements and notebooks and all the other improvised venues that await the aspiring obscure whose bread and butter will have to come from other sources while they invest their time and spirits in projects hoping their god-given ability and hard work will carry the day.
Joshua Bell deserves his success, of course. Every time he picks up his bow, our world is richer for it. But what about all those others? There must be something positive about the experience of creation itself, or the singers, dancers, musicians, writers wouldn’t keep doing it, recognition or no. What, pray tell, could that positive be?
I suppose I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I suspect I actually do speak for many when I say that the impulse is undeniable. As Oscar Hammerstein (sort of) put it, “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly; Writers gotta write, and so do I.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the frustrated creator automatically falls prey to the condition Maria Semple lays on her title character in Where Did You Go, Bernadette?; namely, that the person whose creative impulse is thwarted becomes a danger to society. Of course, if I stumble into the best-seller world, I’ll be happy. But if not? Let me put it this way:
Take away my keyboard, I’ll use a pen; take away my pen, I’ll use a pencil; take away my pencil, I’ll use charcoal; take away my paper, I’ll scribble on the wall of the cave like Neanderthals of old. Maybe I’ll be lauded as the greatest of all underground authors. Or maybe not. Either way, I’ll keep scribbling right along with my brother and sister authors. Happy literary new year.