Sitting with fear and art

If you have generalized anxiety disorder, you’ve probably learned to talk to yourself about death. We all have our own methods, but my general script goes like this:

Anxiety: You’re going to die because of X, here are the reasons.

Me: I will die someday, and I’m going to take reasonable precautions to postpone that, but it is going to happen, so let’s handle that. I’m not going to obsesses over an inevitability. That kind of control is an illusion.

Confronting my own mortality happens at least once a week, usually for spurious reasons. Currently, the script includes a few more specifics. I remind myself that pandemics happen, and we’ve been due one for a while. I remind myself that the Black Plague killed 50% of Europe, and at least we’re not dealing with those odds. I remind myself that, like death, massive changes are inevitable, and that most human lives of an average lifespan include at least a few terrifying, life-altering events. I have been born in a position of privilege, but there’s no contract saying I’m going to be exempt.

Then, if I’m still spiraling, I tell someone I love them, or I remind myself of the amazing life I’ve led so far, and I have a good cry and dive into some art. Preferably making my own art while consuming someone else’s art.

“No one human is a drain on society,” Amanda Palmer says. She’s livestreaming from a church in Wellington, New Zealand right now. I’ve liked her since college, but I’ve never been a music person, it’s her first concert I’ve ever attended, even if it is online. I haven’t paid much attention to her in the last few years, but I happen to be in a Twitter anxiety spiral when I see her tweet about starting livestreaming.

That seems like a better way to spend my evening, I think. Palmer is answering questions and introducing the seven or so other people in the Wellington church with her. The video is being streamed from a laptop held by a guy she just met. It’s a choppy miracle to be watching someone on the other side of the Pacific Ocean answer questions from other anxious quarantined people around the world. In a bizarre twist, I realize that I may have toured the exact church with my grandparents when I was 11 years old.

In another moment of serendipity, she opens with my favorite of her songs, In My Mind.

And when they put me in the ground
I’ll start pounding the lid
Saying I haven’t finished yet
I still have a tattoo to get
That says I’m living in the moment

In My Mind, Amanda Palmer

That bit always gets me. I’m not done, and I’m never going to be done. That’s something I can cope with because it’s something I share with so many others.

The feed freezes halfway into another round of questions, and when it reloads, Neil Gaiman’s face is staring into the laptop camera, trying to fix the issue. He starts reading Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is a bit dark, even for me. I expect it to hurt to hear — I’ve read it before, but I had to put a moratorium on reading Poe years ago because of nightmares. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like another acknowledgement of the fears we share.

This is my second livestreamed event this week. The first was a stream of a Seattle Symphony concert, something I’d never normally tune in for. Now, it seems important, not just because I’ve been sick at home for two weeks now. Artists reaching out means everything right now. I’m reaching back.

You’re going to die soon, my fears whisper.

It’s a possibility. I shrug. It always is. I move on to my next art project. But look how well I’m living.

I’d rather be Kilgore Trout

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.” — Kurt Vonnegut

I recently decided something: I’d rather be Kilgore Trout than not be a writer. I’d rather be a piece of satire than just another stretch of silence.

Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s prolific science fiction author insert, is a constantly shifting joke, his biography changing from book to book. The sometimes-author of 117 books, with a whopping 3 fans, he is also a perfect example of a creative’s defiance. He writes and writes and writes, despite any acclaim. He won’t shut up. He won’t stop trying.

If I can’t be anything else, I’m going to be Kilgore Trout.

I’d rather be Kilgore Trout than publish nothing, waiting for the perfect draft, the perfect circumstance, the perfect amount of encouragement. I’d rather die in obscurity, prolific and unappreciated, than give in. I’d rather say everything than say nothing, I’d rather show my hand than keep it close to my chest. I’d rather be Kilgore Trout than wait to be noticed, wait to be validated by some exterior authority.

Of course, there are some differences between Kilgore Trout and I. Primarily, I am not a man, so endless creative confidence on me looks less like a virtue and more like a sin. And yet, for me, Kilgore Trout resonates. I don’t know if Vonnegut meant him for me. I don’t know if he’s meant to be a beacon for the ironically optimistic and constantly daring, but he’s mine now anyway.

Because here’s the truth of it: There are always going to be people with less talent and more confidence than you. There are always going to be people with less talent and more confidence and more acclaim than you. And if you dare to publish, dare to paint, dare to create and tell the world about your creations, you are also going to be that to some other more talented, less confident person.

But every so often, in a blue moon, someone will look at your art and get it. Someone will laugh at your joke, or get that fierce look on their face that means they understand your anger. Maybe you’ll even get three fans.

So fuck it. Ignore comparisons. Be the one who goes for it. Don’t be the sad thing in the corner griping about how you could do better if you only showed off. Be a modern Kilgore Trout. Post your selfies. Read your shitty poetry aloud at parties. Sell your art for more than your family thinks it’s worth. Write a blog that no one reads and keep posting about it even though your friends find it embarrassing. Follow every idea that stirs your passion, no matter how absurd, no matter how unmarketable.

Oblivion is unavoidable, so there’s no point in face-saving silence. Keep writing. Keep saying things. Refused to be restrained. Be Kilgore Trout.