A Portrait of the Artist as a Not Quite Young Man

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.

Young Success

Mark Zuckerberg Time Cover

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.

My Success?

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.


My Twenties


I turn 30 this year.

Such milestones inspire retrospection, a look back on the decade that was and contemplation of the decade that will be. What have I accomplished in my twenties, and what will I accomplish beyond them? What did I fail to achieve, and will those achievements remain out of reach?

When measured against my literary heroes and influences, it’s hard not to feel the burden of time. After graduating from college, I gave myself two years to publish my first novel to be on track with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who published This Side of Paradise at the remarkable age of 24. Well, my 24th year came and went, followed by 25, 26 and so on through my twenties without a published novel to my name, let alone a work that would elevate my name among the Promising Young Novelists.

Though I have a few publishing credits to my name, a smattering of short writings does not a career make.

It would be easy to see the impending mile marker of my life as a monument to unfulfilled promise. When comparing myself to artists both living and dead, it requires little effort to find examples of those whose output by my age eclipses mine. I will never ‘catch’ Fitzgerald, though my ambition to write at least one Literary Classic hasn’t abated. If one’s goal is to join the storied lineage of the great novelists, it helps to know one’s forebears. But such knowledge can be as burdensome as it is enlightening.

On the cusp of a new decade, I’m learning to not spend so much energy comparing my achievements with those of other writers and artists. It’s a fatal mistake to willfully live in the shadow of another. I have followed my own path, and my twenties have been as uniquely crafted as any literary work.

Two weeks after graduating, I moved across the country and began a journey that would evolve into 10 Cities / 10 Years, a travelogue as much about exploring my twenties as it is about exploring America. Now having spent more than seven and a half years living in a new city every year, I am a mere two cities (Boston, NYC) short of fulfilling my decade-long goal. This project has fully shaped the third decade of my life and when I reexamine this decade I can only hope it will be with a sense of accomplishment. 10 Cities / 10 Years may be nothing more than a gimmick I attempt to ride it to a career, but the project is also an earnest endeavor to write a definitive (albeit idiosyncratic) account of vicenarian life in America in the new century.

When all is said and done, my twenties will almost certainly turn out to have been both the most difficult and the most rewarding decade of my life. I doubt I am alone. It is, after all, the period of our lives most ripe for change and discovery.

The 20th century relegated the twentysomething population to careers in specific fields with defined expectations. Times are changing, though, and my generation (and younger) are looking for fresh careers, often creating them from scratch where before no such opportunities had existed. Just as the business world adapts, so must the artist. We set out upon new frontiers, with no guarantee that financial or artistic success awaits us.

In the 21st century, the artist’s greatest struggle is setting him or herself apart from the pact in a society where every wannabe critic can look online for someone who did it ‘first’ or ‘better.’ An Italian painter in the 17th century didn’t have to worry that a contemporary in another region of Europe (or even his own country) was creating work in the same style and with the same subject. But today, an artist in any medium is immediately shouldered with comparisons and once those associations stick they’re nearly impossible to shake.

This is the burden of living in the interconnected century. The internet is a wonderful tool for exposing us to new art and ideas and bringing niche works to a larger audience, but just as technology expands the world for the consumer, it diminishes it for the artist.

What is a young artist to do?

One can only hope to make an impression, but what does that require in this modern consumer culture? The demand for sensationalism grows and while this hunger for the execrable is nothing new (let us not forget people used to watch lynchings), it is a commercial impulse that can undermine creative integrity. You may have inside you a truly unique, personal work of romantic fiction, but suddenly the big money is in flaccid S&M erotica for the easily titillated. It sure is tempting to chase after the zeitgeist.

An artist’s mission should be to redefine the zeitgeist, to undermine it and push it in a new direction. It’s not possible for every writer, photographer, musician, painter or what-have-you to achieve such lofty heights, but the pursuit is what sets the artists apart from the hacks, those just seeking to cash in. I may succeed in my ambition for literary relevance, or I might not, but I’m hot in pursuit.

Art or commerce is the defining choice of our twenties.

I spent the first half of my twenties pursuing Fitzgerald’s legacy. Now, on the verge of a new decade of my life, the only legacy I’m concerned with is my own. What I accomplish will be the result of talent and persistence with a healthy dose of pure damn luck.

Which, as it so happens, are exactly the elements it took to survive my twenties.

Self Cliche