What Matters: Seb Shaw On Living In Your Own Head and Navigating Tragedy From An Early Age

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

My name is Seb. I’m 56, and as far as the powers that be know, I am a stable and productive member of society. 

What is the thing you like doing most in the world? 

Formative—living in my head. 

When I was younger, I had an ethos to try and live my life like a cartoon character. That was a deliberate decision I made as a teenager when I was just completely lost, and everything confused me. I didn’t know who on earth I was, let alone what it was that I wanted to do. Apparently, knowing who you were going to “be” or what you would “do” was of great concern to others when I was growing up. Cartoon characters seemed to have it all; there didn’t seem to be permanent negative consequences or any great sense of responsibility in being a cartoon character. They always seemed to be doing fun or dangerous or exciting stuff. They seemed like a great role model or vessel to take on for a while. I think this enabled me to roll with the punches, and somehow through a series of chance encounters and coincidences, I managed to drop out—another decision—and I ran away and joined the circus.

The cartoon character analogy has served me well. It’s very flexible, and the characteristics have proven remarkably malleable—circus versus corporate life. It’s just a different costume or persona. 

As I get older—being in the wilderness on the water in a canoe or kayak makes me really happy. 

The further away from masses of people and the hustle and bustle of work, the city, and the associated chaos, the happier I feel. I do love the city, and I love to be around people and activity. But being in the middle of nowhere with close and trusted family or friends, living as close to the edge as possible in the most extreme weather in the most exposed fashion where you have to think about basic needs, is where I feel complete. When you push off into wilderness water, you are physically leaving all the “stuff” behind, and it’s so simple—it is what you are doing. Days on the water and nights in the wilderness are where it is at for me.

Every day—laughing. 

Group laughing, solo laughing—laughter is the best. Especially improvised humor in social situations like at a dinner party or poker game or fireside gathering. Something where the comments and threads of conversations come together, collectively flow, and suddenly spark follow-up jokes and asides which build and get sillier or more surreal or just plain funnier. Laughing until it sorts of hurts, golden lines following golden lines, everyone in the same groove. And then the next day you think, ha! That was good

What is the first memory you have of being creative? 

Drawing? Although I think this is somewhat predetermined as an activity between parent and child. When I was a kid, a really little kid, my dad used to wheel my pram to a traffic island, and he would sit and read a book, and I would sit up in my pram and identify all of the cars that went by. That was in the late 1960s. It wasn’t that I knew what each brand of car was, but I could identify a car, lorry (think truck), and motorbike. I was about four. Cars were a shared obsession with my dad, and most of my drawings focused on designing cars. 

(This is kind of like a therapy session, my dad died in a car crash in 1970 when I was six years old. I was in the car with him, and I survived, but he didn’t. I already had an interest bordering on obsession with cars and used to draw racecars all the time.) 

Below is a picture I drew as a kid from when I was around six that my mum kept and my sister found after she died as she was going through her stuff. I am still obsessed with cars. I no longer draw them, although I have been lucky enough to own some I obsessed over as a kid. Schedule another session with Mr. Freud, please.       

But my first independent creative endeavor was whistling. I learned to whistle like a musical instrument. There was all the volume kind of whistles with fingers in mouth and epically loud whistles that could create great echoes. I perfected the loud, the subtle, and the “Hey, I’m over here” whistles, but the whistling I liked most was to whistle The Beatles. Their songs have such good melodies that you can interpret them in whistle as you stroll along. I used to whistle my way to school; I hated school, but whistling took the edge off. I whistle while I walk the dog or when I am paddling down a river or driving a car. An unintended but welcome consequence is that people tend to leave you alone while whistling. 

What is your biggest regret? 

Constantly feeling I am inadequate and that I have to seek shelter or belonging in the shadow of other people. 

How have you gotten over heartbreak? 

No self-pity here, but I got dealt a pretty shitty hand early on when my dad died. The last thing I saw of him was his feet as he was wheeled into surgery. The docs were stitching my face up since I had busted through the windshield of the car we were in and he was driving. I landed in a thorn bush by the side of the road, which was lucky for my mum because she followed me out of the windshield and landed on top of me. I was picking pieces of glass and thorns out of my head for several years after. My friend Edmund has the stitches from my face—and a gathering of thorns that emerged over time from my head—in his macabre collection. Well, at least he did, but that was five decades ago. My dad? He wasn’t so lucky. He hit a concrete pole head-on. I don’t think I had much idea of what was going on, but I remember his feet sticking out of the end of a gurney in the emergency room. That was the last time I ever saw him because you didn’t let kids go into those parts of the hospital at that age! That pretty much broke my heart. That kind of heartbreak never goes away. I wish I had got to know him some more. I’ve tried piecing together a composite of who he was and the bits that make sense to me I hold very dear and close to my heart, but over time it gets difficult to separate reality from myth. But, hey, that’s not uncommon. You find coping mechanisms that help. Time heals, but that kind of thing leaves a deep scar.  

Romantic heartbreaks are another thing. Good god. I have always been hopeless at those. I have done the grinding self-pity-based melodramatic route with high dudgeon, and woe is me. The dark bags under the eyes and sunken cheek methodologies, the “if I remain visible and distraught they must take me back” approach. It doesn’t work. Time does it, and then if you are lucky, you find “The One.”

What makes you cry?  

Sad crying—sudden random events that trigger a spontaneous emotional response. Movies, books, plays, conversations, chance encounters that throw up an unexpected connection to a deeply embedded incident in the past. Happy crying comes through laughter when you hit that completely random improvised phase where whatever anyone says in the group builds on the humor of the comment that was said before and keeps the momentum going. Rolling laughter fits can reduce me to tears of pure joy. Everything falls into place, and the world makes sense through laughter and absurdity. Finding out friends have cancer makes me cry every time, too. 

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?  

Not long. It’s like a dopamine hit. It’s great while you get that high, but it rarely lasts any length of time. I crave it, and then when I get it, I move on to try and do it again.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you? 

I have absolutely no interest in seeking solace in any kind of afterlife espoused by organized religion or the romantic construct of heaven. I find this utterly absurd.  

However, I like to think that somehow an intellectual or emotional presence is left out there in the ether. Why does the afterlife have to be collective? I think it is very personal. Apart from memories, I experience the afterlife through physical objects that are left behind. Things that belonged to somebody close who is no longer with us can evoke a sense of that person when they’re gone. Whether it’s a photograph of someone who died too young or a painting by someone who passed when they were older. I can get a sense of that person or feel a little bit of a connection through that artifact. But pearly gates and St. Peter is nonsense, and even Google doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer on who greets you when you go to hell. 

What do you hate most about yourself?  

Caring so much about what other people may think about me. My receding hairline is right up there too. 

What do you love most about yourself? 

I am going to skip this one.  

What is your absolute favorite meal? 

Marmite on Toast.