Brian brought home a copy of the The Portable Anton Chekov yesterday and without comment handed it to me with the book open to page 597.

“Read this,” he said.

All of those who are near to me have always treated my writing with condescension and have never stopped advising me in a friendly manner not to give up real work for scribbling. I have hundred of acquaintances in Moscow, among them a score or so of people who write, and I cannot recall a single one who would read or regard me as an artist.

“That’s Chekov,” he said.

I’m not sure now what to make of the fact that Chekov was told repeatedly to give up writing. I think it’s supposed to inspire me that he kept writing and had a day job and now he’s Chekov. But I don’t think so much of the end-product of his effort, meaning that a hundred years later he’s Chekov, the “master storyteller,” rather I think of all those days he had when someone showed no interest in his writing. I imagine he might have gone to lunch with a friend and when he said, “I’m writing a story,” the other person, tasteful and elegant, might have looked back with a face as blank as a sheet of paper and said, “Do you still do that?” I wonder, if, in that very moment, he still felt inspired.

I’ve been teaching Tolstoy’s Confessions and he tells a story about a friend who lost his faith. When he was twenty-six, his friend went on a hunting trip with his brother and, as was his habit since childhood, his friend knelt before his cot to say his prayers. He brother watched him and when he was finished, the brother asked, “Do you still do that?” They said nothing else about it, but as Tolstoy writes, “from that day on S. stopped saying his prayers and going to church.”

Having faith in writing or playing music is a lot like having faith in God. We need faith that writing and playing music is still meaningful even if everyone else around us says it isn’t. It’s funny that other people’s responses to our creativity can be so damaging especially because oftentimes it’s so lightly said. “Do you still do that?” isn’t the same as saying, “You shouldn’t do that.” I could handle that. It would make me feel determined and revolutionary. Rather “Do you still do that?” suggests, as Tolstoy implies, that writing or the music is a holdover from childhood, a childish habit like thumb-sucking or gum-chewing, which should be given up once we become adults.

Brian even went through a phase when he gave up playing or writing music because he thought he was “grown up now.” It was shortly after we moved to Louisiana so that he could begin his first job as a professor and as we moved our things into the small house we rented, he began to shove guitars under the bed. The amps, once a visual feature of the living room, were placed into a corner out of sight.

“Guess it’s time for me to be an adult now,” he said.

And, for the first time since I began to live with him, I no longer heard him play guitar. He was a professor now. He was going to teach and research. That was in August. It lasted until December. The longer he went without playing the more agitated he would become with issues at work. He began to sit on the couch mindlessly staring at the television, chewing on one of his fingernails.

In December, when I was out of town, he set up mikes and amps and guitars in the dining room and began recording songs that we play now (“Rosie,” “I Bought You a New Sweater”). It was as if a dam exploded inside him and when I returned from the trip, a few days after Christmas, he handed me a tape cassette filled with songs he had recorded during the three days I was gone.  Weeks of material had been recorded in days.

‘Why did you stop playing that year?” I asked him a few years later.

“I thought I was supposed to. I thought when you grew up you got ‘serious’ and stopped playing music.”

Ironically, for me, it’s been the reverse. The older I become the more important it is for me to write and play music. The insanity that results for me and Brian is much worse than facing down the blank-faced person at the dinner table who asks mildly, “Do you still do that?”

Yes. We still do that. All the time.

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