Dear Colin Hay, (an open letter)
As artists we seem to spend our time soaring in the blue sky or sunk in the belly of some whale or other. From the outside it might look like the blue sky times are when we are successful, in demand, and the times in the belly of the whale come once we’ve fallen, once we’ve lost all we fought and struggled to attain. But is that so?
I just watched your biopic “Colin Hay, Waiting For My Real Life,” and found it as deeply moving and inspiring as you might hope anyone would find it. And the experience of watching it felt comfortable, and all too familiar.
I too had a dream, and I dreamt big, and like you, I dug in my heels, obsessively worked and made it happen, though in a much smaller universe than the one you inhabited. For a while I was inking characters like Superman and Green Lantern, illustrating Dungeons and Dragons manuals, and doing illustrations for Lucasfilm. And, man, like you when you were on top I felt like this was going to be a forever thing. After all, I’d paid my dues, done my homework, and it was only right that I was where I was.
But it wasn’t a forever thing for me either.
It all fell apart, no fault of my own… now what? Who the hell was I without that dream? That’s the danger, isn’t it? If you identify yourself as your dream, what do you do when the dream is over? Who are you?
Well, none too surprisingly, I too fell, into alcohol, it seems so many of us draw the same lines and sing the same blues as our work as artists, our lives as artists… hell, our identities as artists, run parallel lines, toss us about in our little ego boats, dashing us into the same rocks, humbling us, but hopefully, if we have the wisdom, all that grinding against the rocks buffs off our rough edges, shows us who we are beneath the big dreams. The spotlight comes from outside, but as artists, our light comes from within, and it’s on the way down and in the flat prairies where we find out who we are, where we shine on our own or sink into darkness. Granted, some of us have to spend some time in the dark before we realize that the light was never coming from the spotlight. The light was never out there.
With or without the dreams, we’re still dreamers. As one of my Indian friends once said to me, straight from the Gita, “Don’t think of the fruit.” All we’re entitled to is the work, never the audience, never the fruit of the action.
And so like you, metaphorically speaking, I learned to play my heart out in smaller halls. And as you joke on stage, somewhere deep down we know it’s not better, but we also know it’s better than drinking, and it’s best to just keep going. And it’s best not to think about it. And moreso, it’s best to keep growing larger as artists even if our audiences grow smaller. Do they define us? Does their size define us?
Besides, what else are we going to do?
It seems you’ve created your best work, regardless of the size of your audience, and I’ve done my best work, regardless of how small or local the print run. There’s an irony in all this, the people who love our best work, the people who are still with us, honestly, they’re the ones who also have realized that the light is not upon us, but shining from us.
I’ve been working on my own story, returning to a character I had created all those years ago, it’s like going home again. I know the audience will be small, but who knows? Your audiences have certainly gotten bigger, maybe not 1982 bigger, but bigger, and maybe mine will be too. So many people respect you, and respect is a vein that runs deeper than fame. Funny, but even as my audience has gotten smaller, the love and respect my students and fans show me seems to have gotten bigger.
I related to your story in so many ways. I felt so many of the same things, and lost so much and so many people along the way.
You are an inspiration, and that’s more than most people give, it’s certainly more than most people get.
The sky is very blue from up here… ins’t it?
Justine Mara Andersen
p.s. This is the email I would have written to him after seeing the movie, if only I could have found an address. And… it’s my review of the film… see it, and listen to this man.