Think of footprints in sand.
You might picture a lone set of evenly-spaced footprints, marking out a clear trail into the distance. If you’ve got a vivid imagination (or a fondness for landscape photography), your mental image might include a fiery sunset or moody grey clouds. The types of weather and color and plant life might reflect your temperament, tastes, and personality.
What that mental image probably doesn’t reflect is reality.
How many times have you been to the beach and created the only set of human footprints? Unless you are a very early riser, or have access to some private beachfront property, probably not as often as you might have liked.
Even if you are alone, and only notice your own footprints, they are almost certainly not the only ones there.
In reality, that wave-smoothed sand is marred. The tracks of many, many other creatures — barefoot, clawed, pawed, and shod — crisscross the beach in a heedless chaotic jumble. Sometimes the prints are tiny and you really have to stoop and squint to see them: songbirds, rodents, crabs, beetles. Others are hard to miss: the sand is pitted and churned up by dogs and other heavier creatures like you and me.
There are also some spots with so many tracks that none are individually distinguishable. The tangle around the drinking fountains, the public restrooms, and along the thresholds between concrete and sand show us the waypoints where nearly everyone, regardless of species or footwear or destination, has passed or will pass.
Yeah, okay, great. So what does all this have to do with art? Sure, beaches are a pretty typical place for people to want to hang out, lots of animals there too, blah blah blah. But I’m talking about footprints — the tracks we leave behind.
Every creator faces a blank page, and in our mind, it can become that imaginary expanse of untrodden sand. In the name of self-expression, we might take a stick and boldly scrawl our name or sentiments in large letters: “I WAS HERE”, “JOHN ❤ ALICE”, a snatch of lyric, a bawdy joke. Others might create elaborate designs: fantastical mazes or sandcastles or rocketships. Some of us might prefer to leave only a humble trail of footprints, for others to see and know that this way has been traveled before. Autobiography, biography, fiction, non-fiction, diaries, visual arts; we leave our marks in different ways.
But, for many of us, that expanse of imaginary sand can feel forbidding.
Sometimes our perfectionism keeps us from taking a single step. Better to enjoy that lovely sunset from the margins than risk marring the landscape with my mess. People will see and know. People might be upset. I will ruin this. I’m not good enough.
But, like our mental image of that empty beach with one lonely set of footprints, the solitude is imaginary. Abstaining from our own brisk walk along that shore will not prevent the sand from getting churned up. Staying on the sidelines will not somehow preserve the way for other, more worthy walkers. That blank page in front of us has been visited many times, by many people. Anything that you can say will be understood by someone; there is no place to which you can journey where no one can follow you. There are places, fulcrums, in human experience where everyone’s paths intersect, needs we all share — you are not alone.
This leads me to a second fear: insignificance. The cacophony of other footprints (voices and blogs and opinions and critics) can be overwhelming.My contribution will only get lost in the muddle. Be original or shut up. No one can hear me; no one is listening; no one cares; this has all been said before, done before, made before.
To that fear, all I can say is this:
The footprints we leave are not the point of walking.
What brought you to this beach in the first place? Is that ocean less beautiful because other eyes have beheld it? Is this fresh air less vivifying because other lungs have drawn from it? Is that threshold less significant because others have had to cross it?
It’s so easy to get sidelined by the footprints.
Did you only come here to leave your mark?
But you are a writer, an artist, a creator. So footprints are, of course, a large part of the walk for you. You can’t see a sunset without wanting to pay homage in adjectives, or photographs, or shades of carmine and vermilion pigment. Because you are an artist, art is the side effect of your experiences, the natural result, the footprints you leave in the sand. But you didn’t come here to create footprints. You came here to walk, to run, to dance, to explore.
There is nothing wrong with leaving footprints. But they should be the result — and not the focus — of our journey.
We get so focused on the end goal — making sure each footstep is perfectly aligned with the last, cutting through some “original” unmarred bit of shoreline. But people don’t come to this beach to see your footprints in the sand, anymore than you came here to make them. Just like you, they come to see the sky, the sea, the waves — that fraction of a heartbeat where the slanting sunlight turns a cresting wave into stained glass.
Every moment is significant if you are looking for a sign. The very fact that so many paths cross at any certain point is what makes that point worth our attention. First loves. Heartbreak. Fear of the unknown. The pain of loss. The fears of parenthood. The struggle to survive. The need to know and to be known.
In 1911, writer O. Henry penned a short story called “Makes the Whole World Kin,” about a burglar who ends up having a friendly chat with his intended victim about the rheumatism from which they both suffer. Instead of carrying out the burglary, the young thief ends up inviting the older man out for drinks, to which he agrees — and the thief picks up the tab. Our shared experience, in this case pain, links us at a deeper level than anything else can.
This is why art, born of the need to communicate our deepest experiences with each other, knits the whole world into a family. More than the excellence of our brushstroke or our skill with a turn of phrase, our experiences are what draw us together.
Years ago, I read an excellent novel: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Something is “remarkable” simply because people remark about it. Things don’t go unnoticed because they are commonplace — rather they become commonplace because they go unnoticed. The best art happens when artists notice, and share with us what they notice, and in so doing, teach us to notice on our own. The commonplace becomes remarkable when we remark on it. This “knack” of noticing comes easily to some; we might call those people artists. The truth is, every one of us is capable of learning this knack.
By reaffirming the significance, the remarkability, of our common experiences, we help to ennoble ourselves and others. By recognizing our similarities, we reinforce our humanity. It’s hard to burgle someone who knows exactly how much this blasted thunderstorm is making your arthritic shoulder ache — whose shoulder is really aching too — who offers you some tips on how to ease the pain.
You’re an artist, a writer, a poet, a creator, an engineer, a maker: a human being. It is your job to see things, go places, create, explore, notice — and if you are doing your job, you will leave footprints behind as you go. Make life remarkable by taking the time to ponder and remark about life. Make the world kin, by being kindred to it. Art will follow naturally. Your heart and soul will be changed by your journey, even if there is no one else on that beach to see your footprints. The art is in the doing. The footprints are not the point.
(Originally published on medium.com)