"The artist says, 'I can do very little about the chaos around me, but at least
I can reduce to perfect order this square of canvas, this piece of paper, this chunk of stone.'"
Given enough time, you begin to realize things are more difficult than they first seemed to be.
This is not by design. That's the first step: realizing there is no great conspiracy. There are no elders seated at a round table, pushing buttons and destroying nations. There is no secret handshake, no special code. There are no forces working against you. You are seeing all there is to see.
Michelangelo was given a piece of marble, flawed and irregular. No one else would touch it. No one else could touch it. Maybe the world knew it was his, and let it go until he could find it. Maybe he was the only one with an ego big enough to make the attempt. I don't know. It doesn't matter. He took that marble, and he gave us David.
Maybe that's not clear enough. Look at David. Look at his distant eyes and his broad, drooping shoulders. Notice the way he leans forward, about to take a step, about to move and slay the giant. He has not acted yet. He is deciding. Weighing his options. Can he win? What if he doesn't? Is it better to walk away a coward than to die a brave death? Notice his smooth white skin. Try and find the flaws. Look for cracks and misshapen sections. Is his nose slightly crooked? No. Is that a bump on his upper thigh? No.
Now do you see?
I think you're beginning to understand, but let's keep going. James Joyce sits down to write Ulysses. He is going to change your world. Maybe he knows this already. Maybe he doesn't understand this yet. He has paper and a pen. This is all he is given. Paper and pen and partially formed thoughts that struggle to emerge, fully formed and powerful, like a thousand tiny Athenas.
How many times, do you suppose, did Joyce lament the limitations of mere paper and pen? How many places, do you suppose, did he stop and say, "Damn it, I can't work under these conditions! Why don't they go ahead and invent television already, so I can show the world what I really mean?!"
Or maybe Joyce would have made a better movie star. Why didn't he move to Hollywood and set fire to the silver screen?
You know the answers to these questions. You know where I'm going with this.
Michelangelo didn't paint his David pink because no one in real life is that pale. Joyce didn't roll his cigarettes with his manuscript because words are never really enough. They grew up in worlds that said, again and again, everything worth doing has been done before, a pessimist mantra passed down by people who want to believe they've scaled the highest mountain. This is what matters: they didn't believe it. No one else will touch that marble? Well I will find the sculpture in it. All the modes of human thought have been documented and filed away? Well I will invent new ones, or show you the ones you've been too scared to look at.
Do not try so hard to change the world to fit your mold. Learn to love the limitations that have been placed before you. Not the limitations of imagination - never those limitations. Explore the boundaries of the medium. Look at the edges and corners of the block of marble or the piece of paper. Hold your pen a new way, or toss it aside and write in blood or sweat or semen or tears. Try what you haven't tried. Try what you have tried, but do it upside down. Or in a mirror. Or while drunk or under the influence of heavy drugs or while making love or while dangling by one hand from the Brooklyn Bridge or while buried beneath a mountain of shit or while you're dreaming or while you're skiing or while you're sunbathing nude on the beaches of Italy or while the world destroys itself with nuclear bombs or while you destroy your lover with terrible curses or while the audience laughs at the jokes you just made or when none of it matters anymore because all the people of the world can't find enough passion to care. That's when you need to work harder than ever, because there is no defeat until you're broken or dead. There is no victory until every heart has turned. There is no ending until you find a reason to begin again.
Find a dusty corner that you haven't seen before. Clean it out. Fill it with dreams from your childhood and the songs and words and love that inspire you. Write it all down, then burn it and start again. Chisel it out of stone, then crush it and glue the pieces back together. Do not give up because the stone is too white, because the paper is too dry, because the people don't understand you, because there might be a better way if only you could change this. Do not give up because you think maybe possibly you could make it better, if only they would listen. Forget all that, at least for now. Maybe there is a better way, but that's no reason to go there so soon. Work within the limitations of the medium. Find everything there is to find. Do not give up so quickly just because the world won't change to suit your needs. Show us all what we could be by showing us the things about where we already are we have not seen before.
You are a genius. You know you are. Now go and show the world what they've been missing.