Unknown artist freakishly predicts extent of own crashing under-achievement!
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Decades ago, in my early thirties, I sat down to write a book that never got finished. I was going to call it An Insignificant Background Character. It was meant to be a masterwork, a paean to the ordinary and a tome of supposedly spiritual wisdom. So clever, I thought; yet how eerily like my own life it turned out to be. How perfectly it laid bare my delusions.
As the writing process rolled forward and the plot structure solidified, I changed the title to something ‘punchier’, (largely because nobody liked the original), and then loaded the formerly sparse narrative with sex, drugs and a millennium-hour catharsis. And hey presto, the re-branded, faster paced version found a publisher, and then – in a plot twist not unlike the overcooked, angsty drama of the book – said publisher went into receivership the very week my long awaited debut was due to be shipped. Thus, my much dreamt of entry into the world of literary luminaries and bestseller lists turned into a printer impounded pile of unwanted paper and, from there, like so much over-run, to pulp. The book’s overarching invisibility metaphor and the surreal fate of its central character had, it seemed, jumped right off the page. I had, by some ghastly prescience, foretold the bizarre circumstances of my own seemingly pre-ordained insignificance.
For, if in adolescent bloom, I had once pompously declared my life to be a novel, I was now appalled to discover exactly which one.
I was 36 by then, married with a sensible teaching job, living in a beautiful Victorian era apartment and loaded down with the twin shoulder chips of delusional vanity and persecution mania. The ‘last minute novel death’ fiasco felt like the confirmation of a curse. It happened because I was bad. Undeserving. Talentless. I had somehow been specifically and spectacularly singled out for particular misfortune. Fuck this, I spat in defiance, I’m not chasing this dragon anymore.
From the cooler perspective of years, I now realise how profound and positive those distant dramas of cascading disappointment turned out to be. They were, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of harmful fantasy.
But if I wasn’t going to be the enfant terrible of letters or the brash new voice of whatever, what was I going to be?
Like many before me, and doubtless since, I had arrived at that nigh inevitable, yet still jarring moment when it is no longer tenable to believe that breakthrough success is just another manuscript or cool idea away. The evidence had been gathering since my teens – failed auditions, reject letters, underwhelmed audiences – and I had finally yielded to the uncomfortable accumulation. I was nothing special and, more than likely, never would be.
(You bet I was pissed.)
Yet, for a few weeks at least, I successfully quit the keyboard. I knuckled down to my day job with renewed focus and started to plot how best to survive the Skinner Box of suburbia without recourse to hard drugs and simmering bitterness. In fact, strangely, I soon got used to it. If normal was the new normal, then I was going to get with the programme and stop tormenting my wife and others with displays of inept and doomed grandiosity. (I was gonna grow the fuck up, basically.)
It was during this period that I launched a Soviet style purge, finally throwing out the already dusty keepsakes of teenage ambition. Several hundred hand scrawled poems in three hard bound volumes – badly written since sixteen – and sundry bricks of assorted typewritten nonsense were all sentenced to the wheelie bin. True, it was a gesture made with manic melodrama, but no sooner had I frog-marched the past out to the kerb than I felt lighter. Physically so.
And yet, all the while, my ‘advance author copy’ of the fated novel lurked on my desk. A rectangular reminder of a ridiculous hauteur.
Though blinded by the spectacle of my own downfall, and relentlessly punishing myself with sinner/victim narratives, I had enough leftover sense to realise that, in the book at least, the anti-hero had turned his unwanted invisibility not simply into feel good triumph but apotheosis. What’s more, he had discovered that not being noticed was the key to a profound liberation. If I could concoct such neat transformations in fiction, surely I could at least try to apply something similar in real life?
Easier said than done. My behaviour patterns, and the narratives that informed them, proved both deeply ingrained and difficult to disrupt. For many years I was just acting the part of the guy who didn’t care, willing myself to let the various fantasies go. Only in the last four or five years have I actually stopped caring (and let me tell you, the difference is both unmistakable and profoundly energising). This is why I now have the spark, the clarity and the focus to launch into a project like As If You Were Listening. Because now I have neither the will nor the need to pretend. I am, at last, no longer trying to prove myself to myself, let alone anyone else.
To underline this, I hereby confess that my so-called creative life has been lived entirely under the radar. Sure, I’ve published a shedload of magazine articles, made some rarely seen rock videos and even been flown to China to make a documentary that never eventuated – but I have no profile, no prestige, and a distinct lack of social media presence. Although I have come close to ‘cracking it’ a couple of times…here I am in my room, still typing for the benefit of no one in particular.
Yet clearly there is nothing unusual about being unknown. Of all those who hone their craft and dream of bigger stages, most will do so without even getting close to the Warholian quarter hour. When I think of all the people I’ve known and worked with over the years, the vast majority make work for little or no audience, if indeed they still bother. Between us we generate the merest blip of internet notoriety and have learnt to satisfy ourselves with featured extra roles in low budget shorts and open mic nights at bars frequented by other unknowns. Furthermore, the few people I know who have made a bigger splash in their chosen field, (with one or two notable exceptions), still principally fly their flag in the wilderness. You get the point, right?
Clearly though – for here it is in ones and zeroes – I persist.
Delusion, vanity and sheer habit doubtless still play their part in this remnant determination. I do, after all (perhaps absurdly) still believe I have something worth saying. Worth giving. An idea, an insight, a moment of beauty. So, I am yet to fully abandon my creative and philosophical mission, to entirely disavow the notion that my unique* portal of existence may, in some small way, offer a revealing and ultimately compassionate perspective on what it means to be human.
However, stepping aside from messianic hubris and noble struggle, what I now operate on is a cocktail of humble acceptance and carefully distilled, lovingly aged selfishness. Or, to be totally upfront, I write for myself. As though you absolutely, definitely weren’t tuning in. As if you never gave a flying fuck about any of my half-baked, homespun philosophies or prettied up prose. Long before social media platforms created super-charged echo chambers for the masses, artists were polishing up mirrors for minority audiences of one.
- Ta dah! Welcome to yourself, Paulie. Enjoying the view?
Since you mention it – yes actually, I’m loving it these days. All those apparent failures, the near misses and last minute stumbles, the festivals who said no and the producers who passed…all of them lead me here. To the point where I can honestly say that I have stopped ‘trying’. Once, I really wanted to be a writer. To be a contender. Now I just write. And be.
Because, like the protagonist in the novel formerly known as An Insignificant Background Character, I have discovered that the absence of audience infers a magnificent latitude. The unheard are free to spout whatever they choose. The unseen walk in liberty.
I realise this runs counter to the current orthodoxy – all that stuff about connecting and communicating and making work for the audience – and also that it flies in the face of cultural megaphones that define success in terms of wealth, celebrity and star ratings. Yet, having been sensible and followed the rules for many years, having compromised core values for the sake of imagined audiences and commercial imperative, and having endured the reductionist mantras of the marketing mavens, I am barely any closer to fulfilling the socially approved KPIs that delineate ‘successful artist’ than I was when I wrote my first book at ten. For all my best efforts, (however misguided, shoddily constructed or poorly timed), the promise of audience engagement has long rung repeatedly hollow.
Therefore, I have scrapped the touch points and stopped trying to resonate. After all, why bastardise your own work and second guess your creative instincts? Why, if silence is the most probable result, speak in a fashion other than fearless, and why placate an audience that isn’t there? Surely these empty seats are a cue for a bolder expression. After all, it’s not like you have anything much to lose.
Stripping audiences out of the equation will strike many as denuding art of its core purpose, of reducing it to little more than solipsistic noise. Whilst this is undoubtedly a risk, (and can indeed be co-opted as cover for arrogance and entitlement), it also clears the airwaves for deeper purposes. For motives not seeded in approval seeking, fear of failure, or the conceited didacticism of saviour posing.
For a social/hierarchical species like ours, it is difficult, if not impossible, to extricate ourselves from the foundational input of others. Our very notion of self is, at least partly, a social construct. The I is triangulated with the Not I, and our inner voices often parrot outer voices. To speak at all, of anything, is to acknowledge the co-entailment of identity we all share. Therefore, to do art or promulgate one’s ideas is to test oneself against the sounding board of the human herd. Is to feed off echoes.
And so we learn to temper our voices, to mould the form to fit the space. We shave the edge off danger, aim for the middle, boil everything down to a pithy take-out. It’s a pragmatic, risk minimising adaptation. Mostly, it works just fine. Except when it doesn’t.
Therefore, as a textbook example of the failed artist trope, I have recently learnt to de-couple the process of my work (which is where the real joy lies) from the mandated objective of your applause. From the controlling, reductionist dichotomies of judgement.
However, drilling further down, it soon becomes apparent that the judgement I have silenced is not yours but mine. I was the audience I shrank from. Me and all my internalised, self-pathologising monologues. Who the fuck do you think you are? What makes you so special?
In the end, as if somehow granted permission by the silence, I have given myself licence to speak – and to relish both the act and the effect of the unfettered voice. As an insignificant background character, I operate entirely free of the critical gaze, or of the need to create returns for the investors. More than that, because I have now recovered from the fetish of legacy, from the ego-driven impulse to leave something behind, (like so much existential graffiti), I have mellowed into the kind of actor who bestrides the stage and delivers their rendition without ever reading the notices or watching the souvenir video. I simply act, as guided by the compass of instinct and accrued knowledge, and in this I retain the very real possibility of moving in truth.
For if you shall not see me, I shall go as I may.
Perhaps, by some deliciously ironic mechanism, I have come to this beautiful liberty point by getting up and leaving my own show. Once I stopped watching – hovering over my every move, massaging everything into a shape pre-determined by received ideas about good literature, responsible adult and so on – the act of art making ceased being a ritual of self-performative narcissism and became a kind of surrender.
Just like every other raindrop, I too will tumble from a spring in the hills, through twists and turns, to a well in the sea. My choices are either to swim against the tide, salmon-like, for one desperate fuck before death, or to soar towards the ocean on the back of the river. To go down the mountain with something approaching the ecstasy of falling. To sing as badly as I wish without ever assailing sensitive ears.
So yeah, this is me, I guess. The balding, squinty eyed guy singing silly songs flatly in the shower. Dancing around in his underpants. Thankful for the fact that nobody is paying attention.
* Even if my aforementioned uniqueness is merely a mundane corollary of the evolutionary process, it is still a rare and particular prism that affords a view not found elsewhere. It may only be fractionally different from the one you employ but, in raw data terms, it is nonetheless a unique and specific iteration of self-aware consciousness. In other words, an individual life. Make of that what you will.