I have been doing this for eight years now, as of June 1st, 2005.
What shape do we expect the decades of our life to take? In my twenties, I lived in 10 different cities, became the first member of my family to graduate from college, marched through a few serious relationships, abandoned the religion of my youth and completed writing 3 (of 4) novels.
But so much is left undone.
If my twenties were a movie (or, better yet, a season of a TV show), it would definitely be ending on a cliffhanger: 10 Cities / 10 Years is incomplete, my ongoing real world education progresses, I continue a Ted Mosby-esque search for a lasting relationship, and my goal to merge my Humanist worldview with my literary aspirations has yet to produce a book deal.
That feeling of incompleteness is what motivates most us to keep going. For me, the thought that someone else might take up the mantle of 10 Cities / 10 Years if I failed to complete the journey has kept me on the path, both in the project and in life. That state of noncompletion, though, can feel like a weakness, or even, on the worst days, abject failure.
After all, I’m about to start a new decade of my life and the list of my accomplishments is relatively short.
I can’t imagine being a Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook at 19 and turned it into a billion dollar business by the time he was 23, or a Swift/Beiber-type musician who will always be best known for the songs they did at a young age, no matter what they do with their aging career. Sure, some of these teenie-bopper artists transition into adulthood with their careers intact, but for every JT or MJ, there’s a dozen Britney Spears and whoever else was in N*Sync.
That’s not to say that any of those people can’t or won’t do important things later in their life, only that their names will always be associated with something they accomplished when they couldn’t even legally drink alcohol. Now, most artists, inventors and creators in any medium would give their entire careers to have one success that brought them world-wide recognition (if not renown), so there’s no reason to pity the Zuckerberg/Beiber/Swift-s of the world (that, and they’re really, really, really rich).
The truth is, most artists are burdened by this, no matter how successful they are in their careers. Due to our limited cultural attention span, for a large percentage of the population Radiohead will always be the band who wrote “Creep,” Michael J. Fox eternally remains Marty McFly and F. Scott Fitzgerald is unjustly known exclusively as the writer of The Great Gatsby. Each of their respective fans will love them for much more than that, but in the shorthand of our collective consciousness, an artist can only be known for one thing. Some artists embrace their legacy, others spurn it.
It will be my great fortune in life if I can achieve some sort of national (dare I wish, global) recognition for this extended literary project. I’ve gone all in on this whole ‘man of letters’ thing, so I either make a career of it or I’ll be signing autographs down in front of the 7-11 dumpster.
It’s perhaps unbecoming to publicly hypothesize about future success that hasn’t been achieved, but don’t fool yourself: Every artist you know spends a good portion of their time imagining what life will be like if (when) the world finally acknowledges their talents. Even those guys who sneer at pop artists and talk about how they will never compromise their art for financial success are dreaming of grandeur because either a) they’re full of shit or b) they have delusions that the world will magically transform and suddenly start rewarding integrity. No one works to create anything just so it can go unappreciated or unseen.
If 10 Cities / 10 Years grows into a book and launches my career, it’s likely nothing I create will ever break out from underneath its shadow. Knowing my personality, I can imagine that will frustrate me in my latter years, when I’m sure to be doing the best work of my life. But if that’s the price I pay to be able to pursue my ambitions as a career, so be it.
Whatever comes of 10 Cities, though, I have no intention of ending there. I have dozens of novels in me, as well as ideas for movies, TV shows, plays, and countless other art forms that I will never not aspire to master. Despite the epochal shifts through my twenties, those ambitions haven’t changed one iota. I might have stopped believing in heaven, but that doesn’t mean I stopped believing in the everlasting life of the artist.
Maybe it’s nothing but pretension, a delusion that was endearing in a twenty-year-old but is pathetic in a thirty-year-old. But the greatest art in the world was created by men and women with just such delusions.
So we beat on… oh, you know the rest.