There’s this song I’ve been playing into the ground for the last year.
It’s a recent song by— of all people— Public Enemy called “I Shall Not Be Moved.” I use it as my soundtrack, or as my summoning call, to work on writing.
One reason it works for me is that it sounds great: it manages to have an immersive quality and a groove to it.
But I think on some level, the words really resonate with me too, especially this passage:
Yall Aint Heard It
I Work It
The Senior Circuit
See Some Quit It
Cuz They Dont Get It
My Aim Is
Forget What My Name Is
Yeah I Aint Famous To Be Famous
…I Shall Not be Moved
So, why do the words feel so relevant to me right now? Let me explain.
I’ve had my most productive year ever as a writer, in terms of sheer output.
It’s all been in my medium of choice: fiction.
And it’s been awesome.
It feels awesome.
At the same time, there’s this little voice in me that asks, ‘What’s the use, Jon? You’re 45 years old. The time to start your writing career was fifteen, ten, even five years ago. But now? It’s just too late.’
I recognize this voice: I’ve used some variant of it on myself pretty much since my late 20’s— part of me never really forgave myself for not having a novel accepted for publication by the age of 23. I also have heard many variants of this self-talk from my creative coaching clients, especially those who are in their 30s.
Now, high standards and ambition can be good things. They push us to strive for something, to try to be the best versions of ourselves. But the flip side of them can be that if we don’t perform to our standards, we punish ourselves with extremely harsh self-talk.
If you’re John McEnroe playing tennis in the 1980’s, then that isn’t necessarily a bad thing— he’d sometimes play his best after unleashing a torrent of self-abuse— but for the vast majority of the rest of us, the self-bashing is paralyzing and counter-productive.
On top of that, if you’re like me and your art is sacred to you, then telling yourself it’s too late and you shouldn’t bother is like knowingly inviting a vampire (of the traditional malevolent variety) to cross the threshold into your house.
You’re essentially telling yourself that what you’re doing is fruitless and won’t matter, that it will essentially be meaningless— since, in my case, who would be interested in the work of an obscure, unestablished, irrelevant, yet over-the-hill artist?
And that is crippling.
Intellectually, I know why that negative self-talk is not true: there is no shortage of examples of artists who were unknown until they were older.
Algernon Blackwood was over 40 when his first book of stories was published. Blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee toiled in relative obscurity until they were discovered by the 1960’s coffee house circuit after their 50th birthdays. Philip K. Dick was mostly a commercial and critical failure until the last year of his life when his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was made into the Harrison Ford movie Blade Runner — he never lived to see his other stories and novels adapted into Total Recall, Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle, and The Adjustment Bureau, among others.
But, as I have reminded myself, those guys were constantly working on their art and completing actual pojects. They just weren’t commercially successful.
Then again, though, there were artists of some renown who didn’t even start working seriously on their art until later in life. For example, Grandma Moses didn’t start painting seriously until the age of 78, blues guitarist Moses Rascoe only first attempted a musical career after retiring from trucking at the age of 65, and there are numerous other stories I could cite if I wanted to go on.
I have shared examples like these with a number of my coaching clients, and it’s had a real impact on many of them. I have tried telling myself the same thing. But— as is the case with a some of my other clients— some part of me hasn’t quite believed what I said or internalized it fully.
And that brings me back to Public Enemy’s “I Shall Not be Moved.”
Chances are very, very high that Chuck D and Public Enemy are never going to reach the heights to which they once soared. Public Enemy was huge in the late 80’s-early 90’s hip hop world, but they have been more or less irrelevant for decades. In fact, I remember being surprised they were still making music when I found “I Shall Not be Moved” on YouTube.
And yet, they keep on going. Why? What purpose could Chuck D and Public Enemy have in making new music when it’s likely to be ignored and dismissed by the vast majority of hip hop fans?
I’d like to think the words to “I Shall Not be Moved” answer that question.
The way I interpret the lyric I cited above is as follows: Chuck D acknowledges his age, he knows he’s not particularly relevant anymore in the larger culture, and he could just give up or rest on his laurels and stop creating— since he most likely can’t ‘win,’ in terms of external success.
But for him, it’s about the work.
It’s about continuing to make his art. It’s about doing the work. It’s about learning and getting better at it.
And then doing it again.
Maybe he loves his art, maybe he feels compelled to do it, maybe he’s hoping for that breakout song or album (since Public Enemy is old school and still makes albums)— and if success follows, then fine, lovely, great.
But it’s about doing the work— no matter what happens.
Chuck D goes on to say:
Never Bitter But Better…
Say The Test
Is Being At Your Best
Is Living At Your Worst…
…I Shall Not be Moved
In other words, life without doing the thing that you love is an impoverished one. For me, living without writing— living without practicing my art— feels like living my worst. And it’s something that I did for several years, at one point.
So, when I listen to this song while I’m writing, it impels me forward. It inspires me. It urges me on to do the work.
Not to generate ideas, not to think about doing the work, but to actually do the real work.
No matter what else I do artistically or non-artistically.
“I Shall Not Be Moved” reminds me that I can no longer accept sacrificing my art for just about anything and everything else. It’s a signpost to me to practice my art and live the best version of myself every day.
If you’re not fully doing so already, I encourage you to do the same.
Every day. Even if it’s just for 20 minutes.
And you can start anytime— including today.