I was asked to write a piece recently in answer to the question: “What would you tell your twenty-year-old self?”
Now, I’m not one for looking back. Don’t get me wrong, I love to reminisce about the past, look at old photos, etc. But when it comes to things like “What would you have told your younger self?” I balk. It’s too easy to get lost down a blind alley of regrets, of “couldas, wouldas, shouldas”. It can be debilitating and can stop you in your tracks. I prefer forward motion.
But I couldn’t get that question out of my head. “What would you tell your twenty-year-old self?” I ran through all the different things in my head that I could possibly tell my younger self. And then, I realised something – it doesn’t matter.
My twenty-year-old self wouldn’t have listened anyway.
We hear all these clichés such as, “Youth is wasted on the young” and “You can’t put an old head on young shoulders”. But, why would you? Youth is the time when you need to experiment, to mess up, to make mistakes.
And there’s something else, which I don’t think my twenty-year-old self would have understood. It’s something you learn as you get older and as you “create” more and more. You begin to understand that the act of creation is an end in itself, something I don’t think my twenty-year-old self would have grasped. He wanted to be Bruce Springsteen, standing on a stage with 80,000 people in the palm of his hand. Or Norman Mailer writing the Great American Novel (and given that I’m not American, you can see how lofty my twenty-year-old self’s goals were!).
But what if all the writing was never published, all the music never listened to? Would it have been a waste of time? Of course not. Then, why do it? The short answer is, it’s not just about publication or recognition. Take someone like Kafka. He left behind a body of work that he wanted destroyed. Why – did he not think it was good enough? When he wrote it, did he not do so with an eye to publication? Did he just write purely for the act of writing? While we all yearn for publication and recognition, at the end of the day, we’re simply inspired to write. As a kid, I was always writing; stories, comics, novels that ran the length of a 120-page copybook. Then, I discovered songwriting. From the age of about fifteen or sixteen, to the age of about twenty-five, that’s all I did.
And how much of that songwriting and novel writing was done with an eye to publication or to people hearing the music? With the songs, I just wanted to write songs, and then, write better songs. And I wanted to say something, to wrestle with whatever was going on in my head. And I think that’s true of the novels as well.
So, what is it that the artist is trying to do with these acts of creation? What do they set out to achieve? They do it so that they can impart something onto people, impart some knowledge onto people. And not in an evangelistic way. This doesn’t make the writer a prophet, it makes them a philosopher. It makes them someone who works out issues in their work, not someone who makes pronouncements as if they know the answers to everything. Someone who works things out in their work and feels that the conclusions they draw – despite the fact that they might be incomplete or flawed – are worth imparting to the world, not as pronouncements, but as suggestions. Suggestions of truths rather than absolute truths.
So, back to my twenty-year-old self. As I said, I don’t think he was mature enough yet to understand all that I’ve just said. He was cocky, insecure, and probably simultaneously convinced that he was a waste of space and that he was the world’s next big thing. That’s what twenty-year-olds do. Telling him that by the time he was my age, he still wouldn’t be a world-famous rock star or have written the great American novel wouldn’t have helped. And telling him things that he might do differently to try to remedy this situation would be even worse. Ya throw the dice, ya makes your choices.
But, my twenty-year-old self – like me – was fond of aphorisms, those short, concise gems of wisdom. So, in that spirit, I will pass on an aphorism borrowed from Neil Gaiman who in turn borrowed it from Clive Barker.
“Never apologise. Never explain.” This piece of advice was given in the context of writing, but I think it equally applies to life. And when I say that, I don’t mean never apologise or explain if you’ve done something wrong. I mean never apologise to people for being who you are, or feel you have to explain yourself just because others don’t understand why it is you want to do what you want to do.
So, twenty-year-old self, one piece of advice: Never apologise, never explain.
Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician with a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. Derek’s short story “The Healer” was recently featured in Surge, an anthology of the best new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press. He is also a regular contributor to http://www.writing.ie where he writes his “Songbook” column. And because he obviously has a lot of time on his hands, he is currently working on his latest solo album.
Like most writers, he is fuelled solely by caffeine and self-doubt.