Chris DeLine

Cedar Rapids, IA

Uncrossing My Wires

Published in Blog.

An enduring idea that’s been crippling me recently is that I should be acting to serve some vague goal I have in my mind, assessing everything I do in order to figure out if it’s truly helping me achieve some larger purpose. You know, convoluted adult stuff. The problem is that I’m constantly getting my thoughts mixed up in the process: There are separate goals that might not have anything to do with each other, and I try to connect them, leading to confusion; and there are separate goals that actually do have something to do with each other, and I fail to make any connection, which also becomes confusing. Somewhere in the middle of it I found myself in a nowhere land of being “conflicted about being conflicted.” Basically, I’ve had a lot of wires crossed and haven’t been able to make much sense of anything because of it.

I’ve been having a hard time living in the moment, and because of it there’s been a lot of anxiety building up inside of me. It’s not that I struggle with living for right now, not concerning myself with a future that hasn’t happened or a past that doesn’t exist, but that I live too deeply in the moment and forget what the hell it is that I’m trying to do — that “larger purpose.” Waking up in the morning with a blank slate is one thing, but constantly forgetting both yesterday’s triumphs and yesterday’s failures when trying to fill it is a tough way to go through life. This week I unexpectedly found some new readers for my little blog here (a great thing!), but with that I was again swayed from my focus.

I wrote about this confusion and lack of direction, and one of my friends sent a nice message, encouraging me to keep going and “stay schemin’!” They were inspiring words, but in reality that’s the kind of thing that has left me conflicted before, and really confused this past week. I grew up with the entrepreneurial spirit firmly embedded in my make-up, nurtured through my adolescence until I eventually sought a degree in the field. Then with a higher understanding of textbook principles I shot off into the “business world,” rising from the ashes from a couple of failed “straight jobs” with a surprising opportunity in the form of an “income generating small business.” Finding new ways to stay schemin’ has long been a default.

There are a lot of crossed wires here that go back a long way, but this year I’ve become increasingly sensitive when it comes to my writing and the conflict between the hustler and creator that live inside of me.

In 2005 I started a music blog because I liked music, not because I liked writing about music. English class in school was always tricky for me, and moving from Canada to the U.S., and having to then adopt a variety of new spelling and grammar rules, didn’t make things easier. Early into my first college English course the professor called me into her office, sitting me down to ask about my near-complete lack of fundamentals. It wasn’t too hard for me to learn new rules because I only had a tentative grasp on them to begin with, but I still continue to struggle with grammar, structure, and instances like whether it’s grey or gray and practice or practise. But when my blog got a link from a wildly popular website, readership blew up and I reacted by trying to write better (or at least more!). I didn’t do this because I loved writing, I did it because I felt it’d help legitimize whatever it was that I was doing. Default took over.

I was listening to a band the other night that brought back memories, reminding me of when I would listen to them in my bedroom in junior high, playing pretend disc jockey and making mixes for myself. Even then that entrepreneurial default was well-established though — I’d buy music from pawn shops or used record stores, copy what I wanted, and either re-sell the albums to kids at school or back to the stores… leaving me with an absurd amount of music for any pre-Napster era listener — but over time that default somehow led me from having fun with music to bearing a harsh resentment over not having a “career” as a legitimate music journalist as that blog continued to grow. But not only was that profession never my dream, it was never even something I really wanted to do in the first place. There have always been signs of this, but in playing Clark Griswold with my mind, trying to unravel and make sense of 250 some-odd strands of emotions, feelings, and desires, it wasn’t too hard to cross a few wires and miss the obvious.

In order to make a living you have to build on past achievements, and rarely does success in one field translate to another. Not a single editor I had asked me about my grade point average, and likewise, I got nothing but awkward smirks in the few occasions that I interviewed for a “straight job” as a “professional music blogger.” Over time I forgot about never wanting to really do the music writing in the first place though, and in starting with that blank slate each day it just sort of worked out that it became my personal occupational qualifier: Yeah, I was a Customer Sales Representative, or whatever, but I was also a “music journalist”! Riiight. There have been some seriously crossed wires for quite a long time here, but because I was making some money from it, everything seemed to be okay. But I grew tired of it, found a job late last year, and moved on from the blog.

Another friend shot me a message last week opening discussion about how artistic expression is perceived as a commodity by the general public. Regardless of his intention, I was reminded of how confusing that can be and how I sometimes forget what it means. When I was a kid cultivating my music collection I was pretty idealistic in my view of musicians. (David Lee Roth-era Van Halen was an early favorite — that should say it all, really.) Now, factors like time, age, and maturity have done a lot to change that perspective, but I’ve also developed a strong cynicism for musicians after interacting with so many of them under the lens of business. That’s very much a two-way street though: Sure, I’m tired of bullshit attitudes and artistic entitlement, but my own motives also played a huge part in my changing views. If I didn’t get a good interview or an exclusive bit of content to premiere, then I wouldn’t get the pageviews and the advertising revenue that I needed to keep the wheels in motion, leading to more of that harsh resentment. Quickly the evolution went from blogging about music I liked, to focusing on gaining new readers, to actively seeking “content” to further monetize an opportunity. I’ve become a little numb to what it means to have one side create something, and the other enjoy it simply because they like it. I needed to hear those words from my friend not to remind me that I should relax my aggressive stance on creative-types though, but that maybe I should relax my aggressive stance on myself as someone who’s creative.

In a blog post the other day Seth Godin set the challenge, “Are you going to invest your heart and soul into something that’s important or waste it selling something you’re not proud of?” In my mind Godin’s message rang not entirely dissimilar to my friend’s, but more piercing was a second question that followed: What happens when art becomes commodity to its creator? If I write only to make money, chances are good that I’m not only writing about subjects that fail to move me, but that I won’t be doing good work because I’m creating for reasons that don’t inspire me. This writing, as I’m doing here, might not be “art,” but sometimes it’s the only form of expression I have — sometimes it’s the only way I can even begin make sense of what’s inside of me. But if I start at the bottom of the “music journalist” ladder again, writing on subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about, it’s going to read like I’m writing about subjects that bore me for outlets I don’t care about. And that’s going to impact how I write here: “art” or not, the results will suffer.

In an interview with Fiona Apple earlier this summer, she was asked about what the catalyst for her new album was.

“No one was urging me. Other people might be angry that their record company didn’t give a shit about whether they had a record out, but I am very happy Epic didn’t because that would have just made me go away and not want to do any of it. If people were like, ‘You gotta come out with something,’ it’d be like telling me to take a shit. Even if you tell me to, I can’t.”

In the exchange that followed, the interviewer joked, “So what you’re saying is that your music is shit?” “That’s my metaphor for the day,” Fiona said in return. “This is the stuff that I really needed to get out, this is the excrement of my life, the excrement I was trying to exorcise out of me.” When I write here I’m exorcising some shit from out inside of me. When I’ve been paid to write though, it’s mostly only just been shit. Sometimes there are separate ideas that might not have anything to do with each other, but sometimes there are separate ideas that have a lot to do with each other.

When I quit my job this past spring I was given some really great advice. I was confused about what I was doing and had hit an obvious emotional low, feeling like I’d just given up the last real career opportunity I might ever see. During a visit one day a family friend took me aside and told me that despite what I was feeling, I was lucky. I wasn’t lucky because of my confusion, obviously, but I was lucky because at least I’d quit now rather than 20 years down the line, only to then realize that I’d dedicated my life to something I didn’t care about. That hit me, but I didn’t really consider how broad a stroke the message carried until last week’s breakdown.

Ever since I started making money from blogging there’s been this monkey on my back, like if I was working a straight job I was giving up on my “dream,” and if I was doing the music blogging, I was negating my “future.” (I mean, I went to school to become my own boss for chrissake — that alone is sort of a paradox.) But just because I got to be my own boss, through combining that entrepreneurial default with a longstanding interest in music, didn’t mean that I was any better off than sitting in an office doing something else I didn’t really care about. I had simply sold myself on the idea that it was what I needed to be doing. (And, truth be told, if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with writing.) Now, it’s not like I don’t like writing about music — there are days I really enjoy it, so long as I stay about a mile away from the business-driven drama that can come with it — but to continue on that course is only going to give me the same feeling that’s inspired me to walk away from every job I’ve ever had. It finally hit me that I can’t do it.

In another article about Fiona Apple’s new album the author explained how her view of the commercialization of her music had changed. “Let’s not be too precious,” she said, responding to a question about a song she’d licensed for the movie Bridesmaids. “Give me money,” she chuckled. Artistic expression isn’t only perceived as a commodity by the public, but if you head down to Music Row, you’re going to find that it’s perceived as a commodity by many in “the industry” as well. Combine that with a self-realization that you, the creator, have unintentionally allowed your work to become a commodity, and it’s enough to make anyone go off on a rant about how the world is bullshit. That’s hardly what Fiona was talking about years and years ago in her notorious VMA speech, but regardless, that’s sort of how I felt the other day. I just couldn’t put my finger on why.

“If you’re this successful doing work you don’t love, what could you do with work you do love?” Tama Kieves

While Fiona’s had the luxury of being successful enough to drift in and out of seclusion to make the music that she wants (rather than, say, hitting an office to ghost-write for disposable pop singers), she’s adored because she refused to let the commodification of her music get in the way of making art that breathes both her passion and her personality. I’m sitting here, typing away, thinking about all of this and still the default weighs me down: If I don’t want to do a sales job, have my soul crushed by another customer service position, or start at the bottom of the ladder again writing about music, how can I make a living off of doing anything?! Maybe it’s “precious” to think that anything’s above commerce, but in putting that first I know I’m doing myself a disservice. Even if it drives me to becoming flat broke, I think I have stop believing that the paycheck matters so much.

“Many people have read your expressions of ideas, thoughts, opinions, experiences,” another friend told me. “And they’ll keep reading to see what DeLine is up to now. That makes you happy — it has to!” “Many” being a very loosely defined term here, that friend is right. In the span of two days I brought together a bunch of feelings that had been building up inside of me, driving me nuts, and I presented them as best I could from my soapbox to whoever would listen to me. And then something unexpected happened: a number of friends reached back out to me offering input, lending thought, and sharing in discussion. Not to sound like a vaguely nauseating Hallmark Movie of the Week here, and I don’t know if I’ve found what I’m legitimately trying to accomplish in life in a mere matter of days, but I think I’ve found the door that I need to step through do get there. This answer speaks to what that last friend said, and it speaks to being ready to actually admit to myself that I have another default that needs to change.

“In reality, I have the first draft of a short book written, but I haven’t been able to knock it out because I’m tired of reading it… In reality I don’t know what the next step is.” Well, in reality I spent quite a lot of time this past year researching and writing a first draft of a project that now online as a series of blog posts. In reality I’ve been putting this together a memoir written about my struggles with depression, drinking, and a search for happiness, but I stopped pushing ahead because it wasn’t as good as I knew it could be. Rather than trying harder though, I shot the idea down and told myself that I’d just worry about me for a while.

In reality I absolutely hate the basics of A.A. (see: “memoir”), but I started going to meetings about a month ago because I just needed safe people to talk to. In reality all of this was bubbling up inside of me and I had no where else to go. In reality I’ve been trying to deal with all of this while continually blanking my own slate ever since I was in rehab four year ago, and even after everything I’ve been through I still couldn’t figure out whether I really wanted to stop drinking. In reality, I told a close friend that partying isn’t what I came back to Nashville to do, and in reality, it was only a matter of time before I pulled a Memento and re-positioned myself into a spot where I again cleared the slate, allowing another blackout in the name of socializing. In reality I’m more scared to put this out there than I was to write and release all my stories months ago because now I have some friends who I’ve had drinks with who don’t know this side of me, and others who think I’m “better.” But to move forward and let a lot of it go, I have to capital-O Own It rather than merely concede that an issue exists and that I’m trying to figure things out.

Having sat on this idea for a few days I can see how putting all of this out there might be seen as some sort of grand self-indulgence — or maybe just more talk. In reality I do talk a lot about wanting, about doing, about vague passions, and about larger pictures. But my plan is to finish this motherfucker and put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through. If you’ve read this far, I REALLY appreciate you caring enough to do so because right now I haven’t been able to think of another way to better position myself to start uncrossing all these wires and start Owning honest change in my life.

Now all I have to do is remember all of this when I wake up tomorrow.