Hell Bent on Agony

“I’m in love with my mobility, but sometimes this life can be a drag;
Like when I noticed your nobility and how my leaving only held you back.
I remember one occasion- you were drinking,-when you asked me to the coast,
But I was hell bent on agony back then, so I missed the boat.”

– “Starkville” by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls


I was listening to some Indigo Girls music the other day when the track “Starkville” came on. The line “but I was hell bent on agony back then” caught my attention. I know the feeling. More precisely, I remembered the feeling. I think many of us with an artistic bent go through the agony phase at some point, usually when we’re old enough to know that things don’t always work out the way you want, but too young to know what to do about it.

There are a lot of artists, musicians and otherwise, who make a career out of this phase. A handful get so wrapped up in it that they become self destructive and never make it out the other side. Others wallow in it their entire lives. Most simply give up on the arts and go about building a “normal” life. And some allow the changes to occur that lets them redefine themselves. I consider myself as one of that group.

Life’s priorities shift as you get older. For artists, a group of people who are thoroughly in touch with what is going on in their heads and hearts, this can be traumatic. One day you feel strongly about romance, or world crises, or something; and then you wake up and find yourself knocking on the door to middle age and are horrified to find that you just don’t feel as strongly about these things as you used to. All these things, the fuel for your avocation, just don’t have the octane they once did. Now what do you do?

An artistic life is a structure, a building on which you spend your whole life making additions. You can’t live in the basement forever, but it’s a necessary part of the whole. So the first thing is to own that previous disposition. It’s part of what made you an artist in the first place. Ultimately, however, it’s just the foundation. It’s always there, and you can visit it from time to time, but there’s more to a life than that. Come upstairs, turn on a light, and see what else there is.

I’m not going to go into detail about what is there. That’s going to be different for everyone. Some possibilities for the aging artist come to mind: mortality, parenting, responsibility, nostalgia, or even art itself. The trick is to find something new, new for you that is.

Or to use a different analogy, think of it as a garden. The old concerns might be used up, but they’re still useful as fertilizer. Throw ’em on the compost heap. They become the food and fuel for new ideas and new directions. For instance, those old ideas of romance become the basis of new ideas of faithfulness and companionship, or perhaps regret and loneliness (such as in the aforementioned Indigo Girls song). Your new creation doesn’t have to be sunflowers and morning glories; it can be thistles and poison ivy if you want.

The point is that a loss in creativity is not a given for the aging artist. It’s inevitable that the things that used to give you drive are going to lose effectiveness as they wear out. We can all think of many promising artists who fizzled out because they were not able to let go of the old material. They usually fade out in a whimper as they keep trying to be 23 years old when they’re over 40. It doesn’t work. Eventually your voice changes and you have to get used to singing in a different register.

I truly was “hell bent on agony” at one time. In fact, I really enjoyed being that way, if “enjoy” is the right word. It was the dark sunglasses that I used to view the world, and back then it helped me make sense of it. I find myself being much sunnier today. No one’s ever going to accuse me of being “cheery”, but I don’t spend my time plumbing the depths of my soul like I once did. I suppose the idea is that you don’t have to be hell bent on anything forever. Course corrections are allowed, just keep going.