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6527212 August 04, 2010

The Real Deal: Ed McCormack

"A real artist has no choice and should be prepared to go down with the ship!"

Yesterday, the August 9th issue of Newsweek showed up in my mailbox with Mark Twain's picture on the cover. In the issue, Malcolm Jones writes about Twain's last essay in his article, "Our Mysterious Stranger."  The essay was written four months before the beloved writer died.  Jones says, "Twain meant to impress no one with that essay. Still, it is worth noting that, faced with an event that would have paralyzed most people, his first reaction was to reach for his pen and attempt what he had always done so successfully in the past--to write his way out of trouble."

Also yesterday, someone asked me why I write. For a moment I was speechless. I felt like an idiot. I couldn't think of why because it didn't seem like a real question. I was suspended in the thought of there not being a "why" because there was only me. It's quite different than asking a physician why she practices medicine or a teacher why he teaches. It's more like asking someone why they have to visit the restroom several times a day, why they have skin, or why their heart must beat all day and night.  

I finally pulled myself together and said that I write because it helps me understand myself.  While that is true, I'm not sure it's the full answer. Could I possibly decide that perhaps I don't need to understand myself? I guess that could happen ... although it won't. I also said that I've always had an overactive imagination--ringing as clear and visible as a bell. Could I possibly keep that all to myself?  Maybe I could try but I'd fail. I've tried before and if not on the page, it comes out in various self-destructive ways.

My guest today, Ed McCormack, suggests that the core need to be any type of true, down and dirty, nitty gritty artist has nothing to do with choosing a profession. It's a calling that can't be ignored.

By Jove, I think this wild-haired loner who hangs out endlessly with his wife and writes about art gets me. I know I get him. Professor Higgins would be thrilled. I've always wanted to be Eliza Doolittle. To be recognized and honed and polished into something beautiful that was all me to begin with.  As a little girl, I danced and sang, "All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air," while my mother screamed her back-up vocals.

After reading Ed's answers, I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath. I realized (once again) that I will never stop what it is I do. Of course, my desire is to ultimately be recognized in some way for my efforts, to share my work with the world, to sail across that sea of ordinary and emerge on the side of spectacular. But if my ship goes down during the trip, I'll stay until the end. I may never be a Twain but like him, I will keep on keeping on with it.

Tonight I feel good about that, martini in hand.  My confidence is blooming and despite the growth I still need, I know I've got something.  Where did it come from and why is it taking so long to mature?  I don't give a shit anymore. All I care about it that hot core in my heart that will never stop burning. It burns for all the love I couldn't find in childhood, for all the breaks in my teenage heart, for all the wounds and joy and suffering and adventure I once had and still crave. It burns words and colors through my aging body and spits out its beauty through my hands. I don't know who else will see it or find it appealing but it's lovely for me. It's all mine like nothing else in my life and I plan to cultivate it endlessly. 

Ed McCormack is a man who seems to live on his own terms.  One who understands the ship and the burning, and could care less for the manufactured themes of the day created by masses of average people with big ideas. He's hung with Andy Warhol and his factory crazies, and has written for Rolling Stone. He's a writer and an artist, art critic, editor, hoodlum.  He's currently writing his memoir, Hoodlum Heart: Confessions of a Test Dummy for the Crash and Burn Generation. So, yes, he's burned, too. He's crashed only to come back swinging.

Ed's wife, Jeannie, told me that Ed grew up in the Lower East Side of New York and goes there often.  Since that's where my art is at the moment, she said they'll drop by and take a look. Great!  But what if this guy who gets me takes one look and looks away, ushering me into that overwhelming sea of average? 

So be it.

I can take it because I know that I'm not finished yet. I'm a little filly--an Eliza Doolittle--prancing around my pen, enjoying my legs. I'm looking beyond the fence knowing that one day I'll run and run and run. I'll prance until my ship goes down or until I reach the spectacular shore where all fences disappear and the running begins. I'm 44 years old and I plan to live until 100. That gives me 490,560 hours. I'll not waste a single one.  

I often wonder how much the stuff of everyday life and relationships influences our ability to create meaningful writing, art, music, etc. However, many creative people spend a significant time alone. You've spent time with and have written about many other creative individuals. In your opinion, how critical is it for creative folks to interact/engage with the world and with each other?

In the normal course of events one will be around people whether one wants to be or not. I enjoy eavesdropping on them rather than meeting or knowing them. That goes double for so-called creative people. I may like their works, because if they’re any good at all, that’s the best part of them. But I try to avoid hanging out with them because that only leads to a lot of empty talk about matters artsy fartsy.

Then again, I prefer not to hang out with anybody besides my wife Jeannie because we sort of grew up together and can communicate almost telepathically, I should also add, if I haven’t already given that impression, that one of the reasons I ended up doing what I do is that I’m kind of misanthropic anyway.

For you, is writing and art more about creation or expression? It can be both but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer or an artist?

“Creation” sounds pretentious and “expression” sounds therapeutic, so neither term really appeals to me. But if I were to accept those terms as having anything to do with what I do, I suppose I’d have to consider them interchangeable.

What most inspires you to write?

For the most part I write to find out what I think. Also I suppose, to give form to all the surrounding chaos and to maybe construct a more perfect self, because I meant what I said earlier about whatever art we make being the best part of ourselves. The rest, to borrow a felicitous phrase from that nasty old bastard Ezra Pound, is dross.

I also prefer writing to being a social beast because frankly my social personality bores me. The very things that other people seem to be impressed, or at least entertained, by now bore the piss out of me. But when I’m alone I find my own company quite charming, Odd, isn’t it? But there you go.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

When I realized that there are no rules in art; anything goes. Another revelation was when I gave up alcohol and drugs about 20 or so years ago and discovered that they had been hindering, rather than helping, all along. And I suppose finally giving up my old Luddite’s loyalty to the manual typewriter and seeing how much easier it was to write on a computer.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?
 
You can do more than one thing, but not equally well. I can both write and draw but not with the same concentration. You have to cultivate your primary obsession.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Yeah, there is a very big difference. Setting a table can be creative. But to make art, real art, you need talent.

Gallery and Studio reviews the work of many top artists. What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

That’s easy. What makes an artist stand out today is to draw energy from life rather than from other art. There’s too much of the latter today and it enervates rather than energizing, resulting in art that’s incestuous, inbred and not very interesting.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Do you have any advice for those struggling to make their creative mark? Is there ever an appropriate time to face reality and find a new focus?

Whose “reality”? What does “success” mean in relation to art? I never thought of art as a practical pursuit to begin with. It should be a way of life—a calling, if you will––rather than a career choice. I’m afraid I don’t have much patience with art yuppism. If it gets to the point where someone has to find a “new focus” he or she shouldn’t have gotten involved with art in the first place. A real artist has no choice and should be prepared to go down with the ship!

Harlan Ellison said, "No writer ever hits a slump. As Algis Budrys (who is a helluva writer, and who taught me about half of what I know) once said to me: You don't slump, you just reach a plateau. Then you have to get your wind, and readjust your thinking and your synapses, and get set to write better, with more maturity, with greater passion and purpose. He was right." Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the issue of blocked creativity?

Jimmy Breslin once answered someone who asked why he thinks the Irish literary tradition had declined and he answered, “Like most writers today they’re blocked because they have a loaf of bread stuck in their brain.” I think he had a good point there.

W hat is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I’ve never gone in for mottos or mantras, but my wife, Jeannie, says that art has always been the motivating factor of my life and my mother used to claim that I was born with a pencil in my hand. My own thought about it is that I am otherwise unemployable.

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6527212 March 02, 2009

Leave Me Alone: An Aberration Story

... if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

As a teenager and young adult, one of the ways I described myself was, "I don't run in herds of girls." With that in mind, let's kick this off with a vocabulary review. The term loner is defined as a person who is or prefers to be alone, esp. one who avoids the company of others.

That's it. Period. Over. Done.

It doesn't mean strange, weird, deviant, lacking in social skills, or susceptible to a life of crime. Now, the majority of loners are introverted folks.
The term and the state of being introverted happen to be highly misunderstood. Introverted means to turn or direct inward. Again none of that life-of-crime-weird-neighbor-stay-away-from-them-killer stuff. So if loners are minding their own business, enjoying their own company in their own little neck of the woods, content as snugly little bumps on logs, why does the rest of the world insist that they somehow painfully scrape themselves off the log, run outside, give a shout out to the world, and join the party? Is that fair?

One of my favorite reads of 2008 was Anneli Rufus' book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto. It now has a permanent home on my short list of all-time favorite books. According to Anneli's research, famous loners span every era and realm. To name a few: Albert Einstein, Anne Rice, Michelangelo, Barry Bonds, Isaac Newton, Franz Kafka, Stanley Kubrick, Janet Reno, John Lennon, James Michener, Emily Dickinson, Alexander Pope, Hermann Hesse, Paul Westerberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kurt Cobain, Haruki Murakami, Gustav Klimt, Charles Schulz, Dan Clowes, Piet Mondrian, Saint Anthony, H.P. Lovecraft, Beatrix Potter and Joe DiMaggio. As a journalist and the author of several critically acclaimed books, and a lifelong loner, Anneli wrote Party of One as a way to expose mainstream culture’s anti-loner prejudice. But she also wrote it to show the ways in which loners have not just survived. They have actually changed our world. They have not just saved civilization; they had a heck of a lot to do with creating it.

With that said, being a loner is an aberration that can cause suffering and hardship. The ongoing societal pressure to somehow magically detach from that comfortable log can be unbearable. Many loners go through life feeling as if they're considered second rate citizens, corporate leaders, mothers, teachers, etc. because although they strive to do their very best at what's thrown their way, they continue to lack what society insists they give: extroversion, togetherness, comradeship, life-of-the-party behavior, and plain ole' conversation.

What Anneli illuminates in Party of One so emulates the concept behind Aberration Nation that I just had to invite her to join. I was thrilled when she said, "Sign me up!" Anneli is pleased to share some of the key points of her book, as well as insight into her own experience being a loner. You can read more online content from Anneli on her Psychology Today blog, Stuck.

We've all known or heard of shifty folks referred to as loners. You're a self-proclaimed loner. Can you define for us what that really means, and shed light on why it can be perceived as an aberration.

A loner is someone who genuinely enjoys being alone. It's as simple as that. He or she savors his or her solitude. The "shifty folks" situation is usually the result of misdiagnosis: Criminals and/or the mentally ill are seen to spend a lot of time alone, and are thus (wrongly) dubbed "loners." I draw a distinction: Those people are not alone because they WANT to be. Most of those serial killers described in the papers as "loners" want very much NOT to be alone, yet are patently avoided by others because they are so difficult to be around. Being alone a lot against their will makes these individuals even more miserable, angry and/or dysfunctional. But such people aren't true loners, despite how eager the media is to slap that name on them. True loners are not sad or sick or lonely or misanthropic. We just don't feel the need to be around others all day. Preferring to be alone is generally perceived as an aberration because we live in a very crowded, social world. Loners comprise a small minority. Everything in society is geared around togetherness.

Society seems to reward the outgoing and extroverted among us. Have you always been comfortable with your loner status? Have you ever tried to not be a loner, and if so, how did that go?

No, I wasn't always comfortable with it. In this culture, it takes real courage to "be yourself" as a loner and feel great about it. Like many loners, I spent many years feeling like a freak. People were always accusing me of being weird, selfish, hateful, whatever--and some well-meaning soul or other was always trying to bring me "out of my shell." That's just a form of intolerance.
In high school and college, it's especially hard to live easily as a loner. One is thrust into group situations constantly--in school itself, in classes and in the clubs that one joins in order to have a more impressive resume. Social pressures are constant, as folks of that age so frequently hang out in groups and one is cast as a gross loser if one does not participate. It's hard to put up with that and maintain any self-esteem at all. At that age, being more vulnerable to criticism and teasing, I went out and did the group thing--and thus constantly felt drained and fake and ridiculous.

Why is being a loner consistently perceived as a negative? It seems like a case of group think. Do you believe loners have advantages that go unappreciated by our society? Why can't people seem to focus on the positive aspects of being a loner?

It is perceived as negative because it is unusual, and because society is by definition social. Compared to really sociable types, loners have certain abilities--the ability to tolerate silence, and a certain self-reliance and creativity that come from always entertaining ourselves rather than passively relying on other people to entertain us.

How did you learn to cope with the desire to spend more time alone than with others?

I learned to cope by graduating from college and moving into my own apartment--thus no longer being constantly surrounded by others who expected me to talk with them and do things with them.

At the core, I'm also a loner. Although I've learned to cope, it seems that the world is filled with extroverted people who fly through situations that make me cringe. They shine in high school and corporate America, sometimes despite their less than stellar intellect. This can be extremely frustrating to an intelligent loner at times. Have you observed this phenomenon?

Being sociable does make up for other weaknesses someone might have. Being able to engage others in friendly small talk greases the wheels sometimes. It's frustrating but it's true.

A passage in your book, Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto, has become one of my favorites: Artists hear what no one else hears. They see what no one else sees. They say what no one else says. They must. And to do this, they traffic in the slippery yield of their own souls. They bring to earth the wrack and lode of depths that only they can reach and still come back alive. Do you believe that true loners generally have a greater capacity to tap into that inner sanctum where art is created? What can you tell us about this based on your own experience and your research?

Readers have emailed me that I focused too much in the book on artists and the artistic temperament. But yes, creative loners have more access to that inner sanctum -- by sheer virtue of the fact that loners have less distractions in their lives than sociable types do. Loners don't have their hours filled up with talk. While researching the book and investigating the lives of famous creative loners such as John Lennon and Franz Kafka, I saw again and again how their craving for long spans spent alone was a crucial part of their artistic process.

As a loner you may have found yourself in some awkward situations--that may or may not have also been painful. Despite it all, have you come to see beauty in being a loner? From a personal perspective, what are the positives you've come to appreciate?

It's often awkward, as in most aspects of life one is expected to socialize. It's beautiful, as you put it, in the sense that being a loner is just another way of being human. Mainstream society fears and loathes loners, pities loners, and misunderstands loners. But if someone is perfectly content living in a way that doesn't harm anyone--that's beautiful.

What would you say to parents who recognize that their child is a true loner? How can they best support and foster their child, helping them to live up to their own personal potential unfettered by societal directives?

Just don't pressure him or her to be more sociable than he or she can bear to be. Sure, a few basic social skills are pretty much mandatory in this world. We all have to get by, so we all need to know how to conduct a standard conversation and be polite. But parents often make the mistake of thinking a child's solitary nature is a sign of maladjustment, or something that needs to be cured. Therapists too often think this as well, so shuttling a solitary child off to therapy is not always a great idea.

If you could tell the world anything about being a loner, what would that be?

It's not freakish. Loners aren't bothering anyone. They ask only to be pretty much left alone. Why must society be so scared and intolerant?


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