Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Honesty Monday, January 31, 2011

So my resolution this New Year was perhaps a bit too broad. I had basically three different parts of my life I wanted to improve: my health, my career, and my creativity. All of these I found to be in some ways expressions of who I am, who I was, and who I want to be. For my health, I decided to make more of a concerted effort to follow a diet, which in this case was weight watchers, because I can simply count the various different things I'm putting in my body to hold myself accountable for my actions. I also wanted to work out more often in order to get into a basically "good" shape, and I didn't specify to myself how I would do it, other than guarantee I would work out at least three times a week, no matter what days or order they came in. For my career, I decided I would push myself to do things that scared me, including working harder than I've ever worked before, and be willing to make drastic decisions regarding my career path. Finally, for my creativity I decided I would read, write, compose, or practice an instrument at least once a day.

So far, I'm amazed at how well I've kept up with all of these things. And the reason, I've realized, is because I've been truthfully, brutally honest with myself. I haven't been as honest with everyone else, so I've decided to start sharing this stuff on the most public and potentially embarrassing place possible: the internet.

In the last couple of months, I've:

  1. worked out at least three times a week, in some cases five
  2. lost about fourteen pounds
  3. quit my job (because I realized I wasn't doing what I wanted to do and accepted a job closer to where I wanted to be)
  4. written three short stories, over thirty poems, three pieces of music
  5. practiced piano, bass, guitar, and tin whistle

In spite of all of this: I feel like I have not yet come close to the spirit of my resolution. Why?

I have lacked honesty. I have lacked truth and the ability to express it in my personal and professional lives. Recently, I read an interview with Francis Ford Coppola, and it's been running through my mind a great deal in the past couple of days. He said two things that really struck me, so I'll just quote them both and then go into why they're so important to this realization.

In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given to your children, inside and outside of the industry? Always make your work be personal.

And, you never have to lie. If you lie, you will only trip yourself up. You will always get caught in a lie. It is very important for an artist not to lie, and most important is not to lie to yourself. There are some questions that are inappropriate to ask, and rather than lie, I will not answer them because it’s not a question I accept. So many times we are asked things in our work or in life that you want to lie, and all you have to do is say, “No, that is an improper question.”

I wake up some mornings and wonder where I am, or more importantly how the hell I got here. I graduated one of the hardest music composition programs in the country in four years with honors and no debt, and I was so completely sure throughout that time that I would be destined for musical greatness that I never really paused to think about what that even meant. I saw myself living in a loft in the city with nothing but my bass to keep me company, hunched over scores, or perhaps against the glow of a flickering crt monitor plugged into a desktop on its last legs as I struggled to create my true art.

And here I am, sitting comfortably in a suede chair in the living room of my two-story home, staring at an embarrassingly expensive gaming laptop and writing about my wasted potential. I have become a parody of myself, and I couldn't figure out why for the longest time.

Now don't get the wrong impression, I'm not wealthy; I'm barely living paycheck to paycheck against a mountain of student and personal debt, some of which I inherited from my wife, some of which I racked up before I was responsible enough to not live above my means. I have this house because of a government tax credit and a loan from my parents, and I am on this laptop because my company was willing to finance it for a year with no interest for me. As a matter of fact, this comfy sofa is a hand-down from my parents (it didn't go with their new wood floor). BUT: I write code for 8+ hours a day, most of which thus far powers completely deprecated and inefficient systems in an industry I simply have very little to no interest in (disclaimer : anyone who works for any successful company in any industry knows their app is a kludge, and it's probably a very profitable kludge). Anyone who knew me from sophomore year of high school to my graduation from UNT would be amazed that I haven't spontaneously combusted in irony, or that the word "sellout" is not branded to my forehead.

But now I have to step back and realize exactly what has happened and who I've become. I'm actually sitting here, for real, and I can actually see and feel all of these things: so this is not the illusion. The dream of working on movie scores or video game music and being a respected musician was the lie. My true art would be laughed out of Hollywood or any "serious" game industry professional's office. Why? Because it's not honest.

I think the problem never had to do with me not having the skills or dedication. My ultimate, stinky, sweaty fear under all of those pretty and dressed up excuses was that I would be bound to a lose/lose conundrum. Either I would suffer for an eternity for no ultimate success or reason, or I would be vastly successful and hate myself for what I had allowed myself to become. I would have twisted the thing that has inspired my deepest reserves of personal passion and dedication into some kind of commercialized monstrosity in order to survive to make more, or I'd starve to death (which when you're married is actually killing two people, more if you have kids). And then it struck me: this sudden clarity came from my personal dedication to this new resolution.

I was honest with myself about my weight. I didn't feel attractive, healthy, or energetic any more. Being married, you stop worrying about attracting the opposite sex nearly as much, but deep down you're the same insecure squirming kid you were in the seventh grade, hoping that no one noticed you just pick a wedgie. And how better to better myself than to devote my time and energy to honestly doing the things I'd always wanted to do? I bought a heavy bag (which I've wanted since I saw Rocky as a kid), started hitting the gym and the exercise bike and I've felt leagues better because I finally told myself the freaking TRUTH: Nathan, you're a fatass. Do something about it.

I was honest with myself about my career. I got praise at almost every review, and was constantly being told by my co-workers that my input was needed and valued on almost every aspect of development. They told me that I was being considered for a senior position, to be a decision-maker on the system, and I was amazed at how much that failed to inspire me. I finally was honest with myself and asked a very important question: if you work these sixty hour weeks for another year and make it to a senior developer position are you still going to be in the same incredibly restrictive industry, doing business logic that makes people fall asleep when you explain what you do for a living? Being brutally honest, I said yes. So when a friend said his company was looking to fill a designer/front-end developer job, I had to admit it was time to make a change. A terrifying and potentially disastrous (for me) change. And I did.

I was honest with myself about my talent. I told myself for so long that I simply didn't have the time to work on new designs, write new stories and songs, and practice one of the more than ten instruments I have lying around in the house. I would pine for the opportunity to go and play them or sit down and write, and every time I would stare at a blank screen or just noodle around with songs I'd played a thousand times, and went back to playing video games or watching TV, letting my mind wander to things that were in no way constructive or helpful. For this, I have to thank my wife, who is now living her dream. I was playing a really hard guitar song on Rock Band 3 and said "I wish I had the real guitar controller... or even better that I was just playing guitar right now." She looked at me as though I had been replaced by some kind of 50s sci-fi monster and said "then... go play your guitar."

She has said something similar to me for years, but sitting at her computer with her tablet in her lap working on a commission made me realize: 1) Holy shit. 2) I'm an idiot.

So most importantly, I got really honest with myself about my life. No, it's not going to be easy. No, it's not going to be cheap, and it's not going to be fast. But I'm going to start working on myself a lot more aggressively. I'm going to start being the man I want to be, one step at a time. And the most important step, right here and right now, is being absolutely, breathtakingly, irrevocably honest with myself and everyone else. Da Vinci had Pope Alexander VI's son, and various other patrons to pay his bills as he created everything he ever wanted to. Charles Ives sold insurance to finance his career and support his family. I can't compare myself to such legends of the things I respect, at least not if I'm being honest with myself.

But maybe in a few years, I can say I even came close to that. Being honest, I may fail. I may end up fading into obscurity like everyone else who wanted to make their mark on the world. But being honest: I'm okay with that. At the very very least, I'm going to try. I'm never going to stop trying. Being honest with myself, I may not always rise to that challenge, I may have to put off this nebulous dream for years at a time. But living with purpose is a full-time job, and sometimes you need weekends off.