Discover more from Why Be Happy When You Could Be Writing
On Living Influence
And then, living without it
The four most profound contemporary influences on my art throughout my life have been David Bowie, Diana Wynne-Jones, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim; and three of them are now dead.
I have been thinking a lot, like many of you, about the death of Stephen Sondheim and okay, not as much what it means for his family and friends - who knew him as a person - but as for me, for me and my theater friends, who knew him as an influence. As a towering inspiration. As both creator of some of the most meaningful art I’ve even beheld, consumed, and performed - and also as the creator of careers, the innovator shaper and mentor and tastemaker, the longtime collaborator, the man who took the reins from Rodgers and Hammerstein and made musical theater new again and vital and of and for a more complicated age.
Others have written more eloquently than I, so I’m not going to talk much about Sondheim here, other than to say that like so many of you, I am also both devastated by that largest loss - the death of artistic possibility - and also flooded with memories of the most important artistic moments of my life so far. His death, though expected, has also clearly been a trigger for so many people in the arts, a release valve for something that we didn’t know we were holding in until we did.
And I wonder if I know what that might be.
“If we are lucky to live long enough, we start to lose the world from which we learned what the world was. If we are even luckier than that, and live to be old, we come to exist in a world that holds no traces of the one in which we first learned to live. Eventually nothing remains of the things that formed our ideas of how things would always be.”
That, to me, is the heart of the heart of the matter. I’m about to see Bob Dylan in concert for the third time in my life, and I will continue to go to see him in concert until he stops touring. Diana Wynne-Jones died ten years ago, and I was so bereft I wrote this. We lost David Bowie almost six years ago, which still seems unimaginable and raw. And now we’ve lost Sondheim. I am terrified to lose Bob Dylan - not just because he is my favorite living musician, and because he is still creating great music, still reinventing what it means to be an artist - but also, because he will be the last of the foursome who invented me.
I am in my early forties now, and I keep realizing - to my own cliche dismay - that I am now in the middle of my career. A mid-career artist! That it is now me and my generation who are supposed to be creating and shaping what writing and art can say and can do, to be building a new framework and theory and practice and yes, mythology that will shape and influence the young artists just coming into the creative world today. And someday, in what will probably be feel like forever and also like no more than a moment, we will die, and if we are very lucky, people in their thirties and forties and fifties will write tributes to us, will tearfully describe how the stories and poems and plays and novels and music we wrote and the art we made changed their lives and inspired them to become artists. It’s a terrifying thought! It’s so much responsibility, a mammoth amount really, especially when so many of us are also dealing with aging parents and small children and relationships of our own, and a life in art can seem so hard and so remote. How to take on the mantle of making for the next generations to build on?
But we’ll be okay! Because! This is exactly what an early life being so influenced has prepared us for. When we are young, we don’t just casually consume art, we marinate in it. We breathe it in along with the weed and the incense and the stereotypical and heady atmosphere of being an artist, of being a person who is steeped in the world of art. I was lucky - so lucky - to have parents who not only introduced us to art early on, they also encouraged us to make careers of it if we chose. And oh, I chose.
I loved the theater so much that I thought sometimes that I would die of it, and when I went to college to learn to be a psychologist, and on the third day changed my major to theater and my minor to philosophy, the only thing my parents said was that they would like me to double minor in something more practical as well. (I chose English, hahaha.) (And in case you wonder, no my parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they were music majors and teachers and lifelong theater lovers themselves. They said as long as you’re okay being poor! And for a while, I was, which is another story.) I lived music, wrote about music for local papers, spent all my free time at shows, was in five different mostly mediocre bands at one time or another. We didn’t just get a new album and throw it on while we were doing something else - we would listen to it, again and again, lights turned down low, arguing passionately about the meaning of one line of lyrics in Bjork or Radiohead or yes, Bob Dylan. My friends and I didn’t just love painting; we decided to tag along with the art department on a trip to New York over spring break, driving twenty hours in a van to sleep in a hostel near Central Park so we could see Joan Mitchell’s and Helen Frankenthaler’s and Mark Rothko’s and Basquiat’s paintings for real real. And we didn’t just listen to the original cast recording of Company once or twice - when my university decided to put it on, we listened to it over and over and over again, hundreds of times, memorizing every part, every note, every cadence.
And I know that this story is not original; it would never pass muster as the subject of a play or a novel or a song. I know that most of you reading this have similar stories, similar spells you fell under, similar waves you rode. I know that most of you fell headlong at some point into art. You fall into art like you fall into love: sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, and always utterly changed in the end.
The point is this: we didn’t just make art on the side; it was fodder for obsession and the formation of a personality. It was the foundation for a life. But that doesn’t just prepare you as an artist; it also delivers you the most devastating elevator drop you can imagine when you reach middle age, and the artists you worshipped start leaving the stage. A life in art leaves you suddenly uncertain and bereft, holding the bag and terrified you won’t be able to fill it. And this isn’t new to us, of course, as much as we like to think everything is new to us; this is the same sense of loss of terror and responsibility that artists have suffered since the beginning of art, this constant torch-passing. It is a source of both great productivity - as the fear of death usually is - but also a source of existential dread and the horrifying possibility that you might never measure up, might never make the art that they made, or the life in art that they made. The truth, of course, is that most of us won’t - statistically, maybe one or none of us will ever be a Bowie, or a Sondheim, or a Dylan, or a Jones - but the more comforting truth is that art is not just built around one person. No artistic movement ever is. Even Sondheim would never have been Sondheim without James Lapine, without Bernadette Peters, without Mandy Patinkin, without Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou and Joanna Gleason and Elaine Stritch and on and on and on.
And so when we mourn the loss of giants like Sondheim, we are also putting away the model of our own living fandom. We are mourning our lives lived in pure appreciation, our apprenticeships in the world of art, and we are donning the cloak of responsibility, of yes, influence. We are taking up the mantle and in doing so, acknowledging the passage of the time and the fleeting small space on this earth where we can be influenced, and influence others, and live a life in love with the subject and making of art. It’s fucking scary, and it’s fucking thrilling, and there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my time here on earth.