As a teenager, I spent a ridiculous amount of time listening to Joni Mitchell’s live album, Miles of Aisles. As she’s preparing to play a song, the audience begins shouting out favorites, in hopes she’ll play one of them. She pauses, and says (as a testament to how I wore out the grooves on that LP, I can still quote these words verbatim today):
That’s one thing that’s always, like, been a difference between, like, the performing arts, and being a painter, you know. A painter does a painting, and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.
So all of this came to mind when someone called my attention to my thesis, on the Process Work Institute website, that I wrote in 1986. (The website says 1992, but it was 1986. An important point for me, because in 1986 I was 27 years old).
Writing, like painting, and other non-performative creative arts, is a one-shot deal. You write something. You paint something. And there it stands, for eternity. What you have is a permanent reflection of yourself at a given moment of time. For me, my 27 year old self is there, frozen in time. My style has changed. My thinking has most definitely changed. My mind has changed, several times over, in fact. But none of that matters. Because that piece of work is out there forever.
It’s hard for me not to cringe. Not because it was so terrible. It was a good effort, and even today, occasionally people tell me they found it useful. But I cringe because I can’t relate (or don’t want to relate?) to the me who wrote it.
Now here’s where things get interesting. My reactions can’t be trusted. Because logically, won’t the same thing happen in another 30 years? Won’t I look back at this very post, when I’m in my 80s, and cringe? Won’t I continue to develop past the point I am now, and won’t my 85 year-old self cringe and say,”Geez, what was I on about?”
To me, this shows two contradictory things: that we continue to change, and at the same time, stay the same.
We change our minds. Life experience changes us. Our knowledge and wisdom increases—to the point where we look back and see another person. I’ve heard 8 year olds start a sentence with, “When I was younger…”
But we also don’t change. I look back at that manuscript, and though how I wrote and how I sounded has (hopefully) matured, what I was interested in and working on hasn’t altered. In fact, I’ve only become more and more interested in it.
We don’t just leave our earlier selves, evolving and improving our way forward, but we also reconnect with them. We come full circle. I notice—besides all the cringing—that I’m returning to the things that have always pulled me. Returning—or maybe it’s integrating, because I’m not sure I ever left.
That little manuscript was an early me, a mini-me. Though I may have a different hairstyle, it’s very much what I’m writing about and thinking about now. It makes me think that my cringe is less a cringe about something I don’t like, and more a cringe of recognition of the deep truth, that no matter how far we go, we always find our way back to our original passion.
Footnote: On a recent radio interview with Joni Mitchell, she said she never thought of herself primarily as a musician, but as a painter. And after years of singing and songwriting, she’s now primarily painting. She’s come full circle too.