Overheard yesterday evening on the bus: a young woman and a slightly older man, discussing her dreams and hopes. Hard to tell what their relationship was – he was supportive to an indulgent degree, but not old enough to be her father, yet didn’t act or talk like a lover, either. I would normally want to be supportive too – I know what it is like to have dreams and hopes, after all! - yet I found myself increasingly irritated by her.
She was one of these people who think they are already perfect, and who believe they don’t need to pay any attention to the rest of the world. She wanted to be a singer, but said she didn’t listen to other singers “because I don’t like being influenced by other people’s music”. She also thought she had a book in her, but couldn’t tell her companion what sort of book she would write because she didn’t know what kind of book it would be, owing to the fact that she didn’t ever read anything, because “reading is so boring”. I kept thinking the guy would say something gentle about not living in a vacuum; but all he did was tell her how great she was.
Now, I realise I do not suffer fools gladly; it is and always has been one of my big faults in personal relationships. I am also aware that I am intolerant of people who seem to be getting buckets of praise and support for doing absolutely b*gger all; and that is simply pure envy, which is hardly something to be self-congratulatory about either. So I was getting thoroughly irritated - with this lass holding forth and being praised, when it seemed she had very little to offer except a big head and a conviction that so long as you are original that will be enough to make your fortune, and also with myself because I knew my irritation was so characteristically pompous. All in all a rather uncomfortable experience.
But it has made me think. She reminded me of the people I was at Art College with who if taken to an exhibition walked through it as fast as they could so as to get to spend as much time as possible in either Prêt à Manger or the nearest pub. I have no right to be prescriptive, I know, but it shocks me when someone wants to be successful in the creative arts yet has no interest in the continuum within which they are working. I don’t feel that the excuse of protecting one’s originality from contamination will really do; it seems rather a small fig leaf to me, given the scale of what it is being asked to cover. Excuse the mixed metaphor!
How is a would-be writer who doesn’t read ever to learn the first thing about how to write well - how to construct a sentence and a paragraph, how to put across a point or create a believable situation? How is an artist who doesn’t look at anyone else’s art to discover the medium and the technique that most excites them? How is the musician who doesn’t listen to music ever to get beyond singing in the shower? Setting aside the self-indulgence of my irritation for a moment, I simply can’t see how anyone really thinks they will get to be any good at anything if they try to pursue it in a vacuum. Isolation is one thing, and we are all creatively isolated when we start out, trying to find our voice and our way; but this cool refusal to engage with the rest of the world smacks to me of blind arrogance.
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