The other day I was walking to the store to buy groceries. As I approached a park ahead on my right I heard a small voice emanating from the impending entrance and soon after saw that a young girl was standing on jungle gym equipment singing to herself.
She was maybe 7 or 8, the age before you’ve honed the full sense of shame and just how far your voice can carry in public. She clearly had no awareness that any passerby might notice her as she bent over in concentration swaying back and forth in pink high tops and purple pants to an almost trance-like beat within her. She raised her head to the sky and belted out words in her tiny voice as if her life depended on it. The song, a syrupy pop devotional, proclaimed a hunger for a romantic love that was clearly far past the understanding of someone her age. It was obvious however, that she wanted, nay needed, nothing else in the world but to feel that feeling that she sensed in the music. Her little voice strained to capture the fullness of an adult’s embodiment of love.
It was absurd and laughable, this. And also inexplicably cute. And I might have simply smiled to myself and kept walking had I not noticed something else. I might have kept going were it not for something that happened at the end of the phrase I happened to hear as I passed.
As this little girl made her way through a predictable downward cascade of arpeggiated notes – “So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove” – she hit a stinker. In this pattern mimicked from the radio or her sister’s ipod was one big nasty note that stuck out. I turned my head for just a second as I walked past and witnessed the full force of artistic anguish in this poor little girl’s face.
And that’s when I stopped. Just past the gates, out of her sight.
She let some fifteen or thirty seconds pass in silence, just enough time for me to almost begin walking again, and then took a breath to sing the phrase again.
“So give me lo-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ove.”
Again a bum note, different this time, earlier in the progression, but unambiguously not part of the intended effect.
And from the sounds that followed I can only presume she jumped to the ground and stamped her feet in rapid alternation to the frustrated bleet of “Ugh! UGH! Gah! GAHHH! AGHHHH! I never get that riiiiight! I. Can. NEVER. GET. THAT RIGHT!!!!”
Stillness for a moment. And then crying.
“Oh no,” I thought. “You’re in for it.”
Little girl of 7 or 8 that I passed on the street who I do not know and who I caught singing bad pop songs in the on park – you’re doomed. Doomed because there’s a secret that no one tells you when you first start making art. It’s a dirty bit of knowledge those tattered survivors fail to impart on the younger set: this feeling will never go away. You think you can’t do it now because you’re small and new. And while it seems tolerable that your level of taste starts out far higher than your talent, the truth is it never quite catches up.
That feelings you have in the explicitly “learning” phases of life – the ones that say, “I know I haven’t quite mastered this yet, but I know that someday, I totally will be like the people admire and imagine have landed. Yes someday in the far distant future I know that I’ll know what I’m doing.” – you think that disappears.
Sorry, it won’t. In fact, you realize one day that you don’t ever get to get there, whatever you’ve imagined there to be. And then maybe just like now, you also will cry and stamp your feet because you feel like you don’t know how to do what you’re trying to do. Eventually, you just get better at hiding it. You might feel a little cheated that no one told you that the feeling of inadequacy that you think comes from being a student is something that not only doesn’t disappear, but grows. That feeling of faking it is something that simply become a fact of existence punctuated by glorious and terribly brief periods of belief that you actually know anything about anything. And that you too will likely hide in plain sight in front of younger artists who might even think you have landed and that you will perpetuate this facade.
Little girl of seven or eight, let me give it to you straight:
Imagine whatever you believe the end point to look like. Capture a distant island of “artistic success” in your mind. You think you can see a journey. You think you are building a boat to that island. But that too is a mirage. And by the time you’ve sailed your ship that far out to sea you’ll realize that there is no there there. There’s just you and an ever expanding horizon of what is possible. That note won’t satisfy you in the long run little one. For a moment or two, but not for a decade or more. There will be other notes you’ll get hungry for soon enough.
And were it not weird for me to presume that this tiny blonde thing needed my life coaching…
Were it not odd indeed for a professional theater director of ten years to stop a child on the street to give her advise on a life in the arts…
Were this little girl not likely to be justifiably scared of some adult woman stopping her on the street and projecting her own insecurities and fears and failures onto the song that she heard and liked and doesn’t understand but just wants to sing because she thinks it will make her feel good…
Were all those things not the case, I might have walked back a few steps and looked at her and said: “Keep trying. You’ll get that note. And by the time you do, you’ll have found something else to worry about. And that is both the loveliest and most frustrating truth of the artist’s life – that if you really want it, you likely won’t ever really believe you’ve done enough. You will have pride and accomplishment and satisfaction. But you likely won’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.”
And then she would likely have looked at me and said:
“Lady, I just like to sing. And I’m eight. And you’re scaring me.”
She’d be right. But so would I.
But because it was odd for me to do all those things I just listened to her stamp her foot and start again. I thought of my day’s own frustrations and furious workings to beg a thing that seemed so obvious and simple to please already just come into being.
And I figured best to just continue on and buy some bread.