Artists must express themselves to live

I’ve got a T-shirt hanging in my closet, given to me one Christmas morning by my mother. It depicts a man alone in a room, hunched over a stack of papers, writing. Outside his window a crescent moon suggests a late night. Or perhaps even the wee hours of the morning. The caption reads, “Artists and writers, alone in their chairs, changing the world one line at a time.”

She knew I would love the shirt. And that I would understand it. And I did.

Art, for most artists, is a metal grinding, collision pileup of joy, suffering and compulsion. Writers cannot not write. I paraphrase Richard Bach who said that writing is some kind of alter ego that erupts from down below, grabs you by the throat and says, “I will not let you go until you write me down now in words.”

Yes, I do recognize the embarrassing confessed pretention in the T-shirt’s words.

On the one hand, how dare I dare to believe that my hacking away at this keyboard could change the world! It’s at once an adorable naivete and a breathtaking aggrandizement. Like when I look back at John Lennon singing “All we are saying is give peace a chance” to the Vietnam War.

Uh, John, it’s a little more complicated than that.

And yet, without this audacity, it’s likely writers wouldn’t write at all.

Writers cannot afford to surrender the belief that it matters to write. That it would be a betrayal to stop writing.

A friend sends me a writer’s quote. What he doesn’t know is that the writer in question is unknown to me. I somehow got through my education gauntlet without hearing (or perhaps without remembering that I heard) the name Jules Renard. So I jumped into research mode.

French born, 1864-1910. Died of arteriosclerosis. One source entry says “Jules Renard jotted down neat retorts and clever phrases, epigrams, things seen, the sayings of people and the look of them, descriptions of scenery, effects of sunshine and shadow, everything, in short, that could be of use to him when he sat down to write for publication.”

Wow. A virtual exact retelling of how I write this column.

My desk, my car, my kitchen counter is awash in frantic notes on scraps of paper. Like Polaroid snapshots scattered about, waiting to be organized.

The account continues: “(Renard is) best known for ‘Poil de carotte’ (‘Carrots’), a bitterly ironical account of his own childhood, in which a grim humor conceals acute sensibility.

“All his life, although happily married and the father of two children, Renard was haunted by and tried to hide the misery he had suffered as a child from lack of affection.”

Hmm. I’m starting to feel like this guy and I are twin sons of different mothers.

My humor is often grim. Certainly satirical and regularly acerbic, the latter being a polite way of saying bordering or sloshing over the border of mean.

I’m quite married to the idea that you gotta laugh or cry. Or hoist on a handy petard.

As Renard says it, “Not everybody can be born an orphan.”

Ouch. That’s icy.

Most humor finds its roots deeply bound to suffering. Or at least to absurdity. Again, to quote Renard, “Look for the ridiculous in everything, and you will find it.”

Yeah, that’s me.

Renard pops out lines like a gifted boxer in the ring: “Culture is what’s left after you have forgotten everything. … I don’t know if God exists, but it would be better for his reputation if He didn’t. … If money does not make you happy, give it back. … The only man who is really free is the one who can turn down an invitation to dinner without giving an excuse. … I am never bored anywhere; being bored is an insult to oneself. … If I were to begin life again, I should want it as it was. I would only open my eyes a little more.”

And, finally, the quote my friend passed along: “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to love it more and more.”

Ahhh. A smile blooms peacefully in my heart. Yes. When we surrender to the mystery — when we let mystery be mystery — suddenly, there is so much more room for humility and gratitude.

We can love.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@