For the past eleven months I have had nothing to say
Thoughts on the nothing and the everything that has been this year
At the beginning of the year I set up this Substack, intending to provide a little terrarium for the little meandering musings that had lately outgrown the fishbowl of Twitter. My ambitions were modest: once a month, I would marshal my thoughts, hone my ability to weave them into something coherent and possibly entertaining, and present the finished(-ish) product here, thus proving that I am capable of occasionally stringing a few words together.
I wrote such a post in January, and felt like I was off to a good start. In February, fresh off a productive recording session, I toted my laptop to my favorite tea shop, consumed several pots of expensive hot leaf water, and in between frantic dashes to the restroom, typed out an impassioned ode to music-making. In it, I compared the unique, hyperaware thrill of performance to the heady rush that comes with being aware of your own mortality.
It wasn’t a bad piece of writing, all things considered—I sent the piece to a trusted friend who gave me some syntactical and stylistic feedback, and was kind enough to tell me that it was “the most essential and distinctive crystallization of your unique written voice that has existed to date.” My little plan was to polish it up and post it to Substack at the end of February.
Then the virus did what it had threatened to do for months, and hit the shores of the US, and people began actually dying, and we teetered on the precipice of a mass baptism by death. I thought it seemed distasteful to post something so frivolous and callous—no matter how well-intentioned—as if to hit “post” would be to take death’s name in vain.
Little did I know that soon vainly invoking the specter of death would become a national pastime. Self-styled patriots would paint mask-wearing as a death of freedom, and the hypothetical death of large corporations would merit greater alarm and aid than the actual deaths of their lowest level workers. I have watched mutely this year as people saw actual mass death—not just from the virus, but from all the inequities that it laid bare and forced us to witness—and then turned around and claimed that any attempt to prevent those deaths of others would be a kind of death for them.
There is a fundamental tenet of music-making that is so basic, teachers don’t even think to teach it until something goes horribly wrong, and that invisible principle is this: don’t stop. It’s so basic it’s laughable—how much more distant can something be from those lessons spent calibrating harmonic suspensions, calculating how many millimeters to depress each pedal, drilling the exact angle by which one’s finger should approach the piano keys. And yet when it comes down to it, in the heat of the moment when memory fails, when a sticky key derails that painstakingly rehearsed passage, when a thousand uncontrollable factors converge, none of that high-minded, exacting training matters anymore. If something ever goes wrong, the teacher says kindly but firmly after that first public humiliation, don’t stop. Just keep making some kind of sound on your instrument, and get to the end. You can freeze and cry and process later, off stage.
This year, I have stopped. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to make myself noodle aimlessly around, waiting for the end, when I have no idea when the end will come.
I wrote, in my first and only Substack post of the year, that attention is the currency of the arts. I am obligated to keep your attention. Without your eyes on my words, without your fingers tapping my username, without sound waves I’ve created flowing through your headphones, I am nothing and no one. It doesn’t matter how sublime my playing is or how intelligent my scribblings are; if I cannot entice anyone to listen, there is a part of me that simply doesn’t exist.
Some time ago—and I genuinely have no idea when this was anymore—I stumbled across a guide for burgeoning influencers, explaining the nuts and bolts of commodifying attention. It encouraged its reader to set manageable goals—like gaining 100 followers a day—and to make note of the types of posts that resulted in this follower growth, and to then replicate those posts. Make a schedule, plan it out. Refine your formula. There you go, 20K followers, 50K followers, 100K followers, all within reach, yours for the taking.
Reading this guide, I had the dawning realization that this is what everyone else has been doing. I felt very much the same way I had when, in high school, my sheltered teenage self, wondering naively what it was like to be kissed, found out that some of my classmates had been sleeping with each other. It was that realization that other people have just been operating on a different level than you, that they figured something out you didn’t, and that there was no magic to the process.
I could easily do this too, I’d realized. Over the past few years I’ve made a lot of observations about posting on the internet: about what kind of tweets netted me 500 followers in 12 hours, what kind of tweets spurred blue check accounts to follow me and therefore anoint me with clout, what kind of tweets launched reporters’ requests into my inbox, what kind of tweets stirred the dark recesses of humanity to whip themselves into a frenzy, place words into my mouth, and then slaughter me on the altar of freedom of speech. The idea of intentionally recreating these events on a schedule exhausted and depressed me.
A part of me feels that I have squandered this year’s opportunity to demand more of your attention. A bigger part of me wonders if that was such a bad thing.
As significant dates floated past this year, I had the oddest sensation that while I stood on this timeline, this 2020, I could feel the other 2020 passing invisibly by. It felt like sitting on a train that has stopped for inexplicable train reasons, and seeing from my window the other train flying past, going in the same direction I’d intended to go when I boarded. It’s possible this metaphor isn’t that solid; it’s been a long time since I’ve been on any sort of train.
A trip to see my family in another country. The premiere of a new piano concerto—me! at the piano, playing with an orchestra, that people would pay to see!—in other cities. My wedding. These ghost dates, memories that could have been, these plans I had made and worked for and willed into being—brushed past me and I found myself yearning for that other timeline, that other train. When I finally accepted the reality of this timeline, this 2020, it was like realizing that I had completely boarded the wrong train in the first place.
It took an embarrassingly long time for me to fully accept that there was no return to normality, no saved checkpoint at which we could start over. I watched the Other 2020 silently unspool in the background, waiting foolishly for the junction where I could leap into its unspoiled calendar pages, and too late realized that it had already been lost.
I am not lacking for ideas for things to do, ways to adapt. I am fully capable of live-streaming my playing, of recording and uploading home performances, of filming creative vlogs, of writing essays and blog posts, of continuing to learn music in preparation for the day I can step onto a stage again.
I weakly entertain these ideas, and then find to my frustration and horror that the creative well is simply dry. I keep lowering the bucket, and jumping in to dig further, and finding nothing but darkness and dust and all my strength gone.
My entire life, I have heard one consistent message about creating: it’s the act of making something out of nothing. I believed, wholeheartedly, in this idea, and every time I made something—music, a painting, a story—I would confirm that yes, I had through some mysterious alchemy made nothing into something.
I no longer believe that creating is making something out of nothing. It’s making something out of everything.
To make art, to express yourself, to free a piece of yourself so it exists outside your body, is to take in as much as the world can possibly offer you and then to synthesize it, distill all that everything, extrude this record of your existence as your work, and then to offer it up to become a part of someone else’s lived experience. At its best it’s a marvelous mirror of the secret workings of the cosmos. At its worst it’s a human centipede of infinitely recycled shit.
What is this alleged nothingness that is supposed to be the artist’s sandbox? It doesn’t exist. Since I was born I have been experiencing something, which in the limited viewfinder of my consciousness is actually everything, and I have spent my entire life collating that everything and turning it over and over in my mind and my hands and offering up a small piece of something in tribute to how I felt that everything.
For the past eleven months, there has not been much everything to draw on, and I have felt my energy being sucked away from the luxury of self-expression and into the thousand extra background processes of existing in 2020. Oh, the things I could have done with the energy I invested in figuring out how to obtain groceries without potentially killing other people, and in getting frustrated at people willfully refusing to understand racism or science. What else could I have accomplished with the time I spent feeling bad for feeling bad, contemplating my own privilege and complicity in a system in which feeling bad accomplishes nothing?
“Normal life” for me is a cocktail of novelty, of reliably spontaneous ups and downs, of long walks and long drives and long flights, of gazing out over oceans and cityscapes, of random interactions with friends and strangers at home and thousands of miles away, of grappling with strange pianos in other cities. All of this, these experiences I am privileged to call my everything, sloshes around in my mind and through some strange process comes out through my work, part garbage and part gold.
I have tried to make something this year. I have attempted to make music, I have attempted to write, I have attempted to spur that creative mania in which ideas flow forth. I have been surprised, again and again, by how impossible it is to actually make something out of nothing.
I realize, writing this, that I’m in danger of giving the impression that I have spent the entire year in a protracted personal crisis, when that’s not really the truth. I have had high and low points just as much as anyone has had, and I don’t want to suggest that my low points have been anything comparable to anyone else’s, when I really have spent most of the year couched in cautious gratitude.
I’m really just trying to say that I truly do feel that I have had nothing to say. It is an uncomfortable situation to be in when you’re supposed to always have something to express. It is especially embarrassing when you’re supposed to have the training, the intelligence, the passion, to always be able to express something. Too many times I’ve had the dangerous thought that if I don’t have the capacity to express anything during such an intensely fraught and emotional time, maybe I’m just not a “real” artist. How many times have I been exhorted not to stop, to keep going at all costs, to continue making sound, to overcome the weakness in me that begs to get off the stage?
And yet, something about this year has made me stop and decide, for once, to be quiet. To listen, to read, to observe what others have to say, and to sit in the uncomfortable feelings that come from all of this. I think one of the things that has been most internally unsettling about this year has been the sense of helpless passivity. I’m used to the illusion of being in control, of feeling as if I have an active hand in creating my experience, in steering my way through life and choosing what it is I’m going to do and what I’m going to feel.
It turns out that my ability to express myself is wholly dependent on this mirage of control. It’s been shattered by the reality of this year: despite my wholehearted attempts to be a good person—to do good, to help those around me, to not wish harm on others—breathtaking numbers of innocent people have senselessly died, others have staunchly denied having a hand not only in this widespread death but also in a system revealed time after time to be rotten with injustice, and people gifted with privilege and a platform have chosen to deny and divide and to cause further harm just to prove to themselves that they have that power.
I don’t have anything to add to all this noise. All I can do is wait and hope that at some point, the world will be better, and I’ll have something to say again.
Maybe next year.
"Offering up a small piece of something in tribute to how I felt that everything" really nails how the creative process feels. Thank you for those words.
I think that's a long-term, as well as a medium- and short-term, truth. Which indicates to me that meaning-making from 2020 will indeed emerge...when we're ready. What is "ready?" No idea. When we've processed enough to see some patterns? When the hard work keeps being asked of us, and we've gained just a little more strength to do it?