Man and the creative beard

"It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of rad hair." - C. Dickens

"It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of rad hair." - C. Dickens

The closest I've come to an edict for creative fulfillment is this: Don’t dwell on accomplishment, but let yourself bask in the afterglow of risk taken. My stint with a months-long beard stands out for shear humiliating obstinacy.

Facial hair and creativity are entwined for men who fancy themselves creative. I think it’s because the beard is symbolic of the solitary pursuit, reinforcing a separateness that jives with the romantic picture of creativity: a lonely genius toiling nobly, a swarthy adventurer. Hemingway, basically. The creative beard isn't as destructive as stints of drinking or drug taking, but I’m convinced it sprouts from the same escapist impulse. It sets you apart and also makes your auto-isolation okay, like the fulfillment of some onerous but masculine duty. Clerics wear the lodestone of their otherness in twirling locks and bushy bristles, and so do poets, artists, and buccaneers. Dumbledore didn’t have peers.

My bristly red shock started at the end of a creative funk, and so the decision to let it grow felt causally linked to the reemergence of a creative fire. I was reading a lot of John Muir and feeling penned in and anxious. Then, one night, a few drinks in, I realized that my dusting of stubble was longer than usual. I thought for a bit, Googled some choice beards, had what felt like an epiphany, and then made the revelrous decision to let it grow.

John Muir, bushy-bearded denizen of the wild trip.

John Muir, bushy-bearded denizen of the wild trip.

The next few weeks, I felt total mastery over fate. It’s a trope that women do drastic things to their hair during stints of uncertainty, a cut signaling a retaking of control in the face of buffeting winds. The beard is a longer game, but the daily affirmation adds up to the same kind of bold rebellion. 

The problem with the beard, as opposed to the wild haircut, is that it expresses itself exponentially as time passes. At first it’s an accessory more than a characteristic. Its impact relies on other components: the attitude, the clothes, the setting. But very quickly it becomes the defining feature, an identity unto itself, and it’s at this point that the reasons for growing it become harder to pin down. The mantle of being a guy with a big beard becomes less attractive. And with anxiety you start to hide behind the beard, losing confidence and inadvertently cutting ties with your pre-beard self. Your ploy to defy convention leaves you trapped and alone. So it worked. Sort of.

There wasn't an awkward period so much as waves of awkwardness. Depending on mood or on the angle of whatever reflection I’d catch, I'd see a free-willed rascal, a bumbling woodsman, or a crazy person. One minute I was a picture of rugged certainty. The next a wild-eyed loner sucking his mustache. At worst I saw myself as another proto-adult with moderate coverage, a dude who had waded beyond his depth and looked for all the world like a poser. Sometimes, overcome by a welling fury or lost in anxiety, I unconsciously pulled hairs out two at a time. I often resolved to shave the thing the moment I got home. But then I’d look at the account of time banked and talk myself down. Just one more day. 

I stopped seeing myself. I became the beard. I watched other people interact with the beard. There was a kind of detached tickle at the double takes and side eyes, the uncommented thoughts. People I have known forever, and who had recently chided me gently about "the project," stopped laughing.

Long after the beard had become my dominant feature, I relaxed into an unexpected ease. It bordered freedom. I have always cared about how I look. It’s vanity, but no source of confidence. Now, undeniably, something had changed. I no longer felt undercover, like the beard was hiding me. And neither did I feel the beard was an expression of any particular aspect of myself. I simply felt comfortable, absent self-reflection or abuse. If there was a creative benefit to the beard in the long run, it was in the relaxed focus of this period.

One morning I sheared the thing off without much thought. It was an odd end after holding out against so many earlier impulses. But growing it no longer felt like a challenge, and I no longer felt strongly one way or another. It was never a very good beard—I looked too much like an old friend of my dad’s, a guy whose social awkwardness had merged in my mind with his scraggly beard. And I was watching too many videos about beard care, trying out beard oils. I began to wonder what I would look like without it, and so I plugged in the clippers and lopped it off.

My chin felt indescribably small.