My new role model is an artist and philosopher named Andres Amador.
Wearing a ponytail and a beatific smile, Amador uses a rake, his bare feet and a wonderfully creative mind to fashion elaborate sand “paintings” on California beaches. Sometimes, people see what he’s doing and flock to help him. Almost always, they stand in awe when his work is done, camera phones clicking softly above the gentle lapping of the surf.
Then, in a few hours, Amador’s gritty canvas has been swept clean by the incoming tide, existing only inside those portable phones and short-term memories, And Amador is fine with that — he just starts another sand painting. If you Google him, you can see examples of his work, and the joy it obviously brings him.
So what’s the lesson here? I’m sure Andres Amador does OK for himself in other areas of his art career. There is more to it than simply racing (or raking) against the tides. But in this little facet of his life, I believe, he teaches every creative person a lesson about our obsession with results, and with permanence.
We don’t like to think about it,. but most books are, in a way, like sand paintings. They get published, they may be popular for a few months, and then the incoming tide of new books takes their place and washes them away. Soon, they are relegated to libraries and bargain book bins.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t take the marketing and sale of our books seriously. And who knows? Maybe something we create will weather the tides and stand for decades as a shining example of our craft.
Yet here’s Amador’s unspoken point: Even if what we write doesn’t last, or perhaps isn’t even published, we shouldn’t forget to glean joy from the process. We create because we love to, because we have to. I don’t know any feeling better than a day when you sit down at the computer and everything just flows, and those plot problems that bedeviled you the night before obediently fall into place.
I love to sing — in the car, in the shower, wherever. I enjoy the sound of my voice, despite the fact that I’ve heard myself singing on tape, and it’s pretty awful. I tried karaoke once, and it was a disaster.
Thus, I’m not singing to impress anyone. I have no hope of making it as the front man for a rock band. All that matters is that I’m enjoying myself.
Harry Chapin (remember him?) once wrote a song called “Mr. Tanner.” It was about a man who ran a dry cleaning business in Dayton, OH and sang operatic arias while he worked. His customers were so impressed with his voice that they convinced him he had a great future in music, so he took his life savings and rented Carnegie Hall for a performance. He sang, and the critics savaged him, one of them noting: “Perhaps an alternate form of employment … might be in order.”
So Mr. Tanner went back to his store and forgot about being famous. But he never stopped singing.
Here’s a suggestion, based on watching Andres Amador “painting” on sand. When you’re creating your work, just appreciate the fact that you have been given the power to form something out of nothing. That door doesn’t open for everybody. If you get writer’s block, walk away for awhile. Don’t show what you’re doing to anyone, because that’s a no-win situation — either they will be too honest, or not honest enough.
Wait until you get it done, and then feel the tide wash it away from you. Once done, it belongs to other people — the people you need to edit it, and publish it and present it (you hope) to the masses.
But you have finished a book, or an article, or a painting, or a song, and no one can ever take that away from you. That, alone, makes you special.