SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't follow your bliss--

William Blake, "The Genius of Shakespeare"
The idea of "following your bliss" seems to have successfully invaded all precincts of our world. I seem to meet it everywhere online, but I don't approve of its sentimentality, smarminess, and false illusions. No doubt I have mentioned it before. But my mentioning it hasn't stopped the flood of bliss-advocators. I'm like the little boy with his thumb in the dike, except that I'm not going to freeze to death (unless I go and stand in my Yankee back yard for an hour or so and tell the birds about the need to ignore the popular version of Joseph Campbell. But since they're making music with joy without any worry, I probably don't need to make that sacrifice.) Here are some stray quotes celebrated by friends and snitched from social media:
Find your passion, say 'no' to anything that is a waste of time and keep on going. Focus on what you love. --Rebeca Plantier 
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time. --Joseph Campbell 
I have quite mixed thoughts about this sort of recommendation. On one hand, I had an overweening, intense passion to read and then read and write as a child--fine, I've followed it, made lots of large sacrifices because of it. I gave up achieved tenure and promotion, dropped out of the helpful-to-a-writer academic machine, and in general slept less and had less of what people call fun than others because I wanted to pursue the glimmering goal of art. And I don't regret any of that because I still have a fire to make stories and poems. That's my kind of fun, a deeper and more curious pleasure than most. I'm grateful that I've been able to have so much of it, thanks to my own obsessive nature and a husband who likes to cook.

Did a black swan land on my head as a result of my fire to create? No. Do I expect to hear the whirring of wings at my back? No, not unless it's the whirring of Marvell's "time's wing├Ęd chariot." Yes, that could be what I hear... Would I be glad if a black swan dropped in for a visit? Sure. I love readers, and a work is completed each time it is read.

(Missed the black swan theory? In the words of Wikipedia, "The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight." A theory laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it was picked up and refined for writers by the Grumpy Old Bookman, whose writings on the scalding truth about the role of luck in the writing world had been an inspiration to Taleb. In literary terms, what happens when a book is anointed as lead book by a publisher and then shoved into the public's face is a bit of a black swan. The amazing success that overtook Jo Rowling's Potter books is a gigantic, morbidly-obese black swan. Black swan literary success, then, comes as a surprise, may have a huge effect, and is rationalized by people afterward.)

I know a lot of people who just don't fit that popularized, overly-sweet image of the hero following his bliss. (Here I should note that I have found Campbell's ideas about the hero's journey to be interesting, particularly when I am thinking about stories, which have a lot to say about human life but are not the same. If they were, they would be human life.) Some of the people who don't fit the pattern are people without a passion. And some of them are people who did or do have a passion.

Take the people I know who did not have a passion, who fell into something and became very good at it. I don't think that's a problem. In fact, I think it's great. We don't all have to chase a muse through hollow lands and hilly lands. I believe that becoming very good at something is plain old satisfying. A simple goal of becoming good at something is a better goal for a lot of people. It's not a little goal, either; it's a large, worthy one. The satisfaction that comes from slow accomplishment and a degree of mastery is highly underrated.

Here's a dramatic example: I have a friend who was a successful concert pianist, touring nationally. At some point, he felt that he would never be of the very highest rank, and that he simply didn't like the loneliness of the life. He dropped out and went back to school and eventually became a physician at a teaching hospital, where he is a different, more familiar sort of success and has plenty of people contact that eliminates the solitude of the single life. A smart man, he had been following his bliss and doing quite well in worldly terms. But bliss turned out to be less satisfying than the original advertisement. It didn't fit his life well. So he went through new training and became good at something else, something very different. I admire the strength of mind that made him quit one pursuit and set out on another path--a path that was not his bliss.

The popular "follow your bliss" goal is a sentimental mirage that has harmed others I know, particularly in the arts. The concept is supposed to lead the hero upward to heroic success. It's intended to be more than an internal journey. Anyway, people tend to be unsatisfied by being Hawthorne's secret artist of the beautiful. It's that pesky old human nature, never content! I know people who were unable to handle their lack of worldly success in the whimsical world of the arts, unable to come to terms with the way of the world and accept that there's an awful lot of luck in what happens, and that black swans don't plop down on most people's heads. Even though lack of success diminished and in some cases spoiled their affection for a pursuit, they were unable to change course and find another goal. I'm not sure what the answer would have been for these people, aside from an earlier understanding of the ways of the world (hard in an era that forces self-esteem down children's throats) and a clue that "follow your bliss" is an often-delusional path that may lead to a place that does not satisfy a desire to have one's art be known.

Despite what I've said, I don't happen to think that a life in the arts that isn't rewarded with huge success is a disaster, or even a major problem. And I don't say that because many of the writers and artists I admire for various reasons failed to have the kind of success the world admires and never met up with a black swan until after death, when it was a bit too late to enjoy the sound of those beating wings. I say it in part because I think being a part of the building-up of culture is a noble thing. It's a selfless thing, far away from the "self-esteem" school movement of recent years, far away from the me-focus of "follow your bliss" as it is commonly understood. We ought to admire it, though I don't think we do, at least in this country. Without the lives of the sea's tiniest residents, how can there be great whales? Without mice, how can we have eagles?

Entirely aside from success, the process of making art has its own rewards and pleasures, even if the artist is a Dickinson who knows few others involved in the arts or a Herbert, immured in the countryside, or a Melville, forgotten in old age but still not letting go of the thread of narrative. But what is a problem is this pernicious, me-focused "follow your bliss" myth that trips up so many, in and out of the arts. So don't think about following bliss. Think about becoming good at something . . .


  1. Here is a variation on a theme: It is so difficult to make decisions when thinking about the future. Only sober and objective reflection upon the past allows us to critique those decisions. Unfortunately, too many of us are neither sober nor objective often enough. Thus, we make bad decisions, and we then rationalize those decisions later. I'm not a for navel-gazing, but I wish I had been more sober and objective at every step along the way. (BTW, I am using "sober" in both literal and metaphorical senses.)

  2. Hah! Benjamin Franklin said that if passion is our horse, we needed to have reason for the reins. Pretty good advice...

    Of course, hindsight is so very much wiser than current sight.

  3. 'Follow your bliss' sounds awfully American to me; blissfully misguided. America - the home of the selfie?.And yes, I'm an American - but one who has lived elsewhere for most of her adult life.

    Long ago, I stopped using the word 'success'. There's far more important
    stuff to think about - and work towards. And no, I don't believe that makes me your mouse.

    1. Lee, you hit upon something important. "Work" is its own reward. I despair of people who do not work. And one's work need not be blissful or fulfillment of a passion. "Work" is simply a great four-letter word that too many people ignore.

  4. Hah, hah! Melville's mouse I'd be willing to be. Shakespeare's mouse! George Eliot's Middlemarch mouse.

    I have a lot more thought about all this but am having a big, riotous discussion with a painter friend. More anon.

  5. p. s. Lee, I think you think I have a bigger head than I do!

    1. I'm blissfully ignorant about head size. (And remember, my perspective is skewed by my eighteen years in Africa.)


    2. Hah! I do have a biggish head in literal terms, but not so much figuratively!

    3. Sorry, I meant to get back to you and didn't get round to it. All joking aside, I certainly don't feel you have a big head. Why should I? For the most part, we seem to agree on the pernicious, me-focus all too prevalent in the US - elsewhere too, I imagine.

      Personally, I'd rather remain a really small fish (or mouse). However, I'm willing to admit this desire for obscurity i.e. independence is probably a form of egoism.

    4. Perhaps every desire related to art that isn't lost in the actual making participates in egoism...

      I have a desire for my stories and poems to be read. But have sometimes wished that I'd gone with a nom de plume...

      Of course, it was impossible some years ago to be a writer without agreeing to all sorts of public performance. We are so concerned with the makers, not enough with the thing made.

  6. I often have a fairly scornful gut reaction to Follow Your Blissisms. I think you may have articulated some of the whys here. I always feel more sane when I read your posts. I think I should like a pocket Marly --or no, one that sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear.

    1. Alisa,

      Be sure you get the angelic Marly-on-your-shoulder and not the little devil!

  7. The notion of superior art arriving through 'bliss' rather than simple creative effort is one I have a lot of trouble with.
    I hear people say, 'Follow your bliss' but often have to reinterpret that as "Yes, it's mostly hard graft but we'll ignore that because then we don't have to give art enough real value'.
    Artists love to paint, so bliss is enough?
    Musicians love to create music, so that is enough?
    CEOs love working in business so….

    The airy fairy notions that have been embedded into the language of art is (to my mind) more damaging and restricting than enlightening. All that matters is that one is 'having a good time'? Well, creative culture would simply go down the drain if that were so. Art is a profession. It doesn't matter what discipline, the important word is 'discipline'.

    I would say that 'Bliss' is simply a fancy high-fallutin' word used to denote 'free' - or as near as. There may well be moments of creative joy, for sure, but that is a feeling of connection to everything (for many). 'Bliss' on the other hand appears to descriptive of individual pleasure.

    I blame Wordsworth -

    'I wandered lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.'

    He did what? Exactly? Yes, it is beautiful. It's choc-a-bloc with bliss.
    It was around this time that artists became rarified creatures wholly separate from ordinary mortals and then - 'Bliss' was all the payment required.

    1. I like "creative effort" and discipline. Good alternatives... A calling is more demanding than bliss, and I like that ideas as well. And it's true, calling it bliss connotes free--in the sense of unpaid as well as pleasure!

  8. Looking over a batch of facebook comments, I think that I probably ought to say a little bit more… And also share more widely some interesting comments. Paul T says bliss “sounds so elusive and transient.” Margaret makes a “distinction between ‘bliss’ and ‘discipline.’ (And Gary says I am thought-provoking and ought to be a writer… Funny man!) Sienna agreed and sent a related Slate article criticizing the “Do What You Love Movement”: click here!

    Then there was an interesting exchange between Ashley and Alison, who said that “Ironically, what this trope often creates is whole groups of people who spend large amounts of time and emotional energy agonizing over whether or not they've found "their bliss" (am I happy? Yes? Could I be happier in an alternate universe? What about now?) which almost inevitably makes them more unhappy.”

    Ashley responded, “Ok. But I have always thought that ‘follow your bliss’ was good advice. I guess I never understood ‘bliss’ as ‘happiness’ at least not the lying on the sofa eating bon-bons type of happiness. I thought it meant doing what you feel you were always meant to do, doing something that will be worth the pain because it is so important to you. I think too often people trade who they really are for outward signs of success. Then, I guess, they constantly ask themselves if they are happy or not, because they have paid such a high price, they figure they'd better be.”

    Alison wrote, “I agree with you, Ashley that lasting happiness/bliss is connected to being who you are supposed to be/doing that you are supposed to do/making sacrifices for what is important. I also believe, though, that such phrases are often used in pretty narcissistic ways.


    1. “Personally, I shy away from a lot of that sort of language (which have many churchy variations) because I worry that such things are really the luxury of upper middle class Americans. The vast majority of the world's population will not have the luxury of a fulfilling vocation. There will continue to be store clerks and people who collect the garbage and people who just need a job, any job, so that their family can eat. There will also be many people around the world who take on a trade simply because that's what their parents did. I am blessed to have a vocation that I love, and I am grateful for that, but I don't want to speak as if their life and work is somehow less dignified than mine, even if every day, they count down the minutes until they're able to go home.”

      And I guess what I would say is that I agree 100% with both sides of this discussion. I don’t like the idea that work becomes following one’s bliss only for a few people, and I don’t like the idea that we should by implication denigrate what the people who don’t have the privilege of “following their bliss” choose to do or have to do.

      I also don’t like to think that someone simply has to find a bliss to follow! I feel pretty strongly that becoming good at a thing is a kind of reward, that we don’t have to start with a call. I also feel that even doing something humble as it should be done is a gift to other people, one that we sometimes forget to appreciate.

      I do not think that anything I said in the post disagreed with what Ashley has to say, though I think her idealistic words are by necessity limited to those who fall into two groups: those who have a compelling wish or call; and those can afford to answer that wish or call. To have a call is a sweet thing, and to be able to follow it is even sweeter, though I also believe there is (as Ashley would agree) a great deal of hard work involved. Sometimes it’s possible for even a very poor person to answer a call—my friends Jeffery and Clive were talking about outsider artist and former slave Bill Traylor yesterday, and how he made art now found in museums on cardboard with pencils and poster paint. I agree with Ashley that the call is powerful, and that it is worth pain (and any number of pains taken.) What she presents is the idea that if we don’t follow the call, we may end up somewhere else entirely.


    2. That is, we may end up a figure out Edwin Arlington Robinson:

      Richard Cory

      Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
      We people on the pavement looked at him:
      He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
      Clean favored, and imperially slim.

      And he was always quietly arrayed,
      And he was always human when he talked;
      But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
      'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

      And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
      And admirably schooled in every grace:
      In fine, we thought that he was everything
      To make us wish that we were in his place.

      So on we worked, and waited for the light,
      And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
      And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
      Went home and put a bullet through his head.

      Here are people without meat and without light, and here is the man that they envy. Clearly the people without light do not follow their bliss! And the blissful figure is Mr. Cory. He is one of those Ashley describes as people who trade who they really are for outward signs of success. And just as clearly, he is brittle and cannot question that swap.

      But life is not neat and tidy. We don’t all get to be artists following the call, even if we have talents. Some of us have to be the bank tellers and clerks and motel cleaners and auto body repairers. In the end, I am grateful for them in part because they do for me and others things that I cannot do for myself. I hope that some of them might even get to enjoy what I do in return, though the nineteenth-century days when laborers joined philosophical and literary groups seem to be long gone.

    3. Ah, one of the great American poems. Students, by the way, always seem to "enjoy" reading and studying it. I wonder, though, if college undergraduates can fully appreciate its ironies.

    4. These days I can imagine them picturing Richard Cory as a Twlilight vampire. Glittering, you know...

    5. Well, some of them might picture him that way--just as some might appreciate it...

    6. What I've always liked about this poem is that Robinson doesn't try to explain Cory. We do. We like to make much of the ironies, but if you've ever known anyone who has committed suicide, you'll understand how inadequate explanations will always be.

    7. I'm still walking around and around one that broke my heart--someone who left behind teen children and husband. And not the first time I've seen someone do just that. So hard.

  9. I don't know where these ideas came from (that first, there is some sort of "perfect" occupation for which each of us has been designed, an occupation that will be aesthetically/intellectually/emotionally/whatever satisfying and will pay the bills; and secondly, that our personal happiness is the highest calling in life). They are dangerous ideas, ideas that feed into the American (at least) selfishness that so annoys me. Christ never said anything about happiness, did He? He talked about service and love of others. I'm sure every age has been a selfish age, though.

    I am aware that anything I do in the way of art is really for my own amusement first and foremost, and I give up other things for that. I am not entitled to "bliss" or reward for my art, because they are vanity even if I like to think I am contributing to the continuation of culture. What America lacks, overall, is humility. I love art, I love music, I love poetry and literature and beauty, but we are made, first of all, to love each other (and God, of course). I will be chided by someone, no doubt, for being pious now. Even so, being my brother's keeper is a nobler calling than being my own man. I try to remember that even when I'm revising a novel and shaking a fist at my day job.

    I'm just getting over a severe bout of flu, so perhaps I'm writing at a tangent to what you're posting about. Hope not!

    1. Oh, you're not on a tangent (and as I am crawling away from the nameles Yankee crud, I sympathize--and am glad you are better.)

      It is strange that with more than 7 billion people on the planet, we (some, anyway) are still able to have the highly Romantic notion that there is a perfect place for each one of us to act, and that our love and work can be precisely the same. I see that expressed often but can't imagine what sort of world it would be if we all did exactly what we claimed would fulfill us.

      Further, the idea that the world owes people who make things in the realm of the arts something in particular--like a living--is strange. Clearly some of the most wondrous things that have been made out of words have been gifts given that were basically not received, or not during the maker's lifetime--and many things of some degree of merit simply never find their audience. And that's something that every person who wants to create has to consider. I've been very bothered to see friends unable to deal with the fact that something they made was not properly "received"--that they were to some degree harmed by the belief that others would and should support what they do. That's not a Romantic idea, exactly, but it is also not a clear-eyed look at the world whose ways often involve luck and arbitrary choice.

      I do think there are questions of a religious nature that come out of the desire to create. Is sub-creation or the making of art (making something out of nothing, as a poem out of a mouthful of air, as Yeats says) somehow elevated because it holds up a mirror to creation? Does making something out of nothing participate in a higher life?

      Is creating culture in any way "loving one another"? (Indeed, are all the things we do to keep the world moving along its track a gift to one another?) I'm reminded of Makoto Fujimura's struggle to accept the materials of his own art (nihongan painting, using crushed jewels and precious metals) as acceptable before God and finding revelation in the broken alabaster jar of ointment, so costly and rare.

    2. I agree that the desire to create is important. I'd like to think that my work is soli Dei gloria, but I hold myself and my own motivations in suspicion. Too many "creative" people I know are just looking for canvasses onto which they can paint themselves larger than life, and I don't know about that. Not all creation is ego-driven, of course. I just don't know, and I don't dare let myself believe I am doing Important Work though, of course, I dare not let myself think I'm not doing Important Work. Mostly I try not to think about that, because I am not smart enough to figure it out. I believe with all my heart that art and man-made beauty is important, is a way of loving, and that we are--even in this fallen world--meant to be more than animals in the mud praying fearfully for salvation. Not that I believe in that dichotomy, either. (You see? This is why I don't engage with the big question of art!)

      I do believe that through art we can see ourselves anew, though naturally never wholly nor wholly anew, and that is a service to our brethren. It's tricky, it is. But at that level of service and love, art is no more important than the work of a crossing guard or a baker or a CPA, is it? You see how I merely paraphrase your beautiful final paragraph.

    3. I think that there are various gifts, and they are not all the same. The gifts themselves are not all equal. But they are, small or large, meant to be used and multiplied--not buried in us and forgotten.

      But the persons who hold the gifts . . . those are born equal. (Whether we become unequal if we sleepwalk through life and choose not to use our gifts, I don't really know.)

      And I do believe that the sub-creation of art is one of the things that allows us to live a larger life (as opposed to portraying ourselves as "larger than life.") Art can be a key to becoming more than we are, whether we make it or experience it. In that way art is a gift to us, maker and receiver. The striving to make something good and honest and even beautiful is, in itself, an act that helps to enlarge our sensibilities and to better us. And it's why we have to be careful about what we make. Or so I believe.

      So I do believe that we are doing important work when we make art; I believe that making or experiencing good, honest art changes us and helps to change the world, both of which no doubt need a change for the better.

      I also feel that art is one of those activities that, practiced rightly, allows us to forget ourselves--to get lost in a fruitful way. In that way also it is not about making ourselves "larger than life" but about seeing, losing ourselves, disappearing into something else, and finding ourselves anew and changed.

  10. Not possible to make art when thinking about the future. All there's room for, is the art. The art is everything. I'm not even particular 'happy' when making it. I'm just existing the only way I know how. Making art is much the same as eating. If I don't do it, there's trouble!

    Most artists don't enjoy great success. They muddle along just about surviving. Lying in bed at night... like most people, artists and non-artists... I worry about paying the bills alongside fretting about whether… when the game is over and I've made all the paintings and illustrated all of the books I'm capable of… anything of any lasting value will have been achieved. That is not bliss, or even following bliss. Walking into my studio and standing at the easel is not bliss. It's sheer bloody existential horror to stare at a canvas that's not going well, and know that you have to battle it into something that you or anyone else will ever want to look at. It's not fluffy or lovely or bliss-filled. It HURTS. I'm sure writing is the same… or at least I'm sure it's the same for you, Marly. If anyone ever told me with smug satisfaction that I was 'following my bliss', I would very firmly show them the door and kick 'em out!

    Bliss? Ah, now bliss a brief moment of calm. A warm sleepy Jack curled in my lap, steaming hot chocolate in my mug, and a book open at a page that I may or may not get to the end of before I nod off.

    1. Oh, that's good!

      I'm completely with you on the "existing the only way" we know how. And often that way is a very strange way in which we exist and don't exist--we are overshadowed and lost sometimes, and other times it is a slog to get from point A to point C. Then there are the weird moments when one tinkers an hour on some minute element, only to dump it and the whole area around it. Ah, it's infinitely various! I guess it is, in fact, as various or more various than any thing we can pursue in life.

      I think everyone fears the ebbing--that suddenly what you have will be gone. Poof! And it does happen. It's one of those things you just keep setting aside. And hope that one's brain and body stay healthy, and that the fount where words and images start doesn't turn into a mudhole.

      Yes, I'm very fond of contentment, and would be very happy to be sitting there with you with an identical mug. It would have to be a cat because all we have left is cats, and a book--maybe my new Leonora Carrington book, which will surely arrive today...

    2. I guess that the closest thing to "bliss" that I know is what Tom Disch called "the lyric gush," when a poem pours out whole. But you only get that sort of thing with any regularity by being alert and attentive and keeping faith--following the up-and-down, hard-on-your-feet path.

      So even that isn't what I would define as bliss--some degree of power pours in, and then it flashes away. And "lyric gush" is one of those experiences where art washes the self away...

      So I'd say that it's a life commitment to have those experiences (a thing most people wouldn't connect with the blithe and joyful), and when you experience that gush of language, you are transported and in some sense abolished! Then you are abandoned at the end.

      It is, however, a marvelous, wished-for sensation.

    3. The 'existing the only way I know how' doesn't apply to me, so perhaps I'm not really a true artist. It's a choice I've made. Yes, for years I wanted to write - since childhood even - but never had the discipline to finish anything, to overcome the first difficulties I encountered. But of course I could do something else (and have). And it's certainly not a question of bliss. The 'flow' is special but rare. Other times, it's more like a challenging puzzle. And I happen to be rather obsessive about challenges, once I've focussed on them.

    4. Maybe you were just good at more things than I was! Although I have other activities I like... I expect there's no one way. In fact, I expect we don't need to pay attention to what other people say (and particularly when what they say rises to sloganeering, of course. As "following your bliss" does...)

    5. Nope, I wasn't very good at much - except baking bread. It's the one activity that still sustains me, too.

    6. And sustains everybody else, too... Nothing like a lovely, fragrant loaf of bread...

      You know, I admire a good number of people who set out to do something they weren't naturally inclined toward . . . and they did just fine.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.