I fell in love with thrashers and cactus wrens while I was hunting with my hawks in Kingman, Arizona last week. They are beautiful birds, but that wasn’t why I fell in love. I was smitten by the enviable way they nestled into the cholla, navigating the pervasive thorns and making what I thought of as inevitable pain look like a cozy home. Desert birds are bad ass.
Living as an artist is like being a desert bird in a cholla, I think. It looks dangerous from the outside, but it’s all about experience and what you know. Everyone is afraid to embrace being an artist or of being an entrepreneur because the cholla looks so daunting. Really though, life is nothing but cactus. You just have to figure out how to manage it.
I’m not saying that being an artist for a living is easy.
The year has barely started and it’s already being irascible. This happens in an artist’s life. It’s what practical people with steady jobs and inflexible responsibilities most fear. The bonus I was promised from a part time writing job didn’t happen, leaving me scrabbling for how to pay the mortgage (which quite frankly is already in a very precarious position). The slew of press releases I killed myself to write over the holidays for a client at the last minute were received with silence and then an admonition that they had done major rewrites in house. The work calendar looks bleak and I would love to buy a cord of wood, get my brakes done, and take the dogs to the vet for their checkups and overdue shots. I’m just going to have to push this all aside and wait for a better week.
I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I’m telling you this, because it is the sort of thing artists never speak about. We don’t talk about money, because we are so very lucky to manage to live on our art. Still, my life is nothing short of navigating cholla.
So here’s the thing. I do live on my art. I AM in an admirable place. I make it work. Every month I find a way and every month things work out somehow. I have freelanced full time for four years now. I have food, a house that is mine, time to fly my hawks, space to write what I want, flexibility, and a vast expanse of possibilities for what is next.
Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have security. I could be financially or emotionally devastated at the world’s whim. I don’t have all the things I want. I can’t buy everything that would be helpful to have when I want it. I have to find workarounds for life’s challenges. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
And you know what? Even if you happen to have a secure corporate job, are a trust fund baby, have a steady retirement fund, or have just been fastidious about your finances and your family’s future – I’m pretty sure that you are in the same boat.
So what’s stopping you from living the life you want?
I’ll tell you what’s stopping you. It’s called resistance and it’s a very real and very tenacious enemy. Resistance is the spines on the cholla.
How do I know? I face resistance every single morning. Every day I get up and don’t want to face a blank page, don’t want to face another empty-handed falconry hunt, and don’t want to have my writing rejected by agents and editors yet one more time. I want to stay in bed where it’s warm and binge watch bad sci-fi on Netflix and when five o’clock rolls around and the day seems wasted, I want to ease my anxiety with tequila and a long phone call with a friend.
Some days, this is exactly what I do. Most days though, I do what makes this life possible. I do my work.
Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wanna be writers don’t and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”
If you haven’t read The War of Art … well, you must. It will help you face whatever it is that really want to do and haven’t. It’s simple, really. You tell resistance to go fuck itself as often as you can and do the work. Pressfield will kick your ass and remind you to find the discipline to do the best you can or shut the hell up and stay in your corporate cubicle.
I am not opposed to cubicles. I yearn for one sometimes. I’m just assuming that you are reading this because a cubicle isn’t what you want. And if it’s not what you want, I’m telling you right now, you don’t have to trust in leaps of faith and luck of the draw. You only have to believe you can do the work and then make yourself do it.
I’ve published 14 books. I’m not sure how. Most days the hardest thing I do is just to start typing. And some days I don’t even manage to start. But I always try again. Despite anxiety and heartbreak and unexpected personal tragedies, I try again. And I bet that YOU are already doing that too. So what’s stopping you from the rest of it?
So whatever your resistance: lack of faith, an admirable sense of responsibility, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or falconry, it’s no excuse not to try. We’re all doing the best we can and just showing up is what turns the world. Showing up and doing just a little adds up to a lot in the end.
For the record, after three hard days of days of hawking, my red-tailed hawk Dread caught a rabbit in a stand of cholla the last day I was in Kingman. In my haste and inexperience, I ended up with a rear full of the beastly bits of that evil plant. Fortunately, I had girlfriends willing to pull them out of the embarrassing places I couldn’t see. And you have friends like that too.
So do your work, Dear Readers. Do your work.
Will I go back to Kingman to hunt again? Hell yes. Screw you resistance. I now know what the cactus wrens and thrashers know. You just have to understand how to navigate the cholla — and if you misjudge your path, the spines don’t hurt that bad – but it’s best not to sit in it.