Following Tuesday's post on losing our way in creative projects, and Wednesday's post on the value of uncertainty, here is more advice for navigating the "Dark Forest" of art-making: when our plans collapse, our path disappears, and we must forge ahead into the unknown.
From Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn:
"As a creator, you need to respect, even savour, the magic of accident and care less about what is being lost [ie, the artwork as you'd first imagined it] than what is being born [which is sometimes quite different]. Remember that any work of art, in its becoming, follows the rules of evolution, not the rules of human construction: every form remakes itself as new information is discovered and internalised. Decisions build upon each other, steps lead to further steps. Soon enough the place of beginning is but a distant memory, and you are wandering into a new land where the possibilities are limited only by your courage and talent and imagination.
"When I feel myself lost in the midst of a project, I like to remind myself of the separate skills of the architect and the gardener. The architect designs and builds; he knows the desired outcome before he begins. The gardener plans and cultivates, trusting the sun and weather and the vagaries of chance to bring forth a bloom. As artists, we must learn to be gardeners, not architects. We must seek to cultivate our art, not construct it, giving up our preconceptions and presuppositions to embrace accidents and mystery. Let moments of darkness become the seedbeds of growth, not occasions of fear.
"If you would truly be an artist, you must believe that your art -- whether interpretation, object, or performance -- is bigger than the idea that gave it birth. The moments when you are feeling most lost are simply the moments when your art is seeking new growth. Embrace them. Celebrate them. They are the moments of magic when you are most open to creative possibility.
"And it is magic, when it occurs, that turns cold ideas into living art."
I agree with Nerburn, yet feel we must acknowledge that giving up our initial vision of a piece in order to cultivate its growth can be hard, even painful, to do. The vision in our head is usually so much better than the artwork we actually make: the shining idea brought down to the physical plane, bristling with mortal imperfections. How do we "trust the process" when the process leads from shimmering dream to earthy actuality? Ann Patchett addresses this subject in her essay "The Getaway Car":
"Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice [of writing], and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.
"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."
Forgiveness. Faith in ourselves and the work. Acceptance of fear and uncertainty. These are all skills we need to make art, acquired painstakingly over the years. (It is one of the gifts of ageing in this profession.)
The dark of the forest never gets any lighter, but with practice we learn how to see in the dark, and we carry on.
The sumptuous imagery today is by Lizzie Riches, a British painter and muralist whose work is regularly exhibited in London, Paris, New York, Chicago, and further afield. A biography from one of her galleries notes that she "was born in East London in 1950 and grew up near Epping Forest, where she first developed a love of natural history. She went to Camberwell School of Art and to Goldsmiths, but felt out of sympathy with the painting styles of the late sixties and preferred to develop her own visual language. Riches lived for many years in rural Suffolk; however, it was not the landscape that inspired her, but the birds, animals, plants and insects that she found there. Her interests have widened to exotic flora and fauna, and she is particularly fascinated by the relationship between human civilisation and the natural world."
Words: The Kent Nerburn passage above is from Dancing With the Gods (Canongate, 2018). The Ann Patchett passage is from her essay "The Getaway Car," published in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: The paintings above at The Gardener's Assistant, Fauna, Flora, A Personification of the Sense of Hearing, The Rose of Seething Lane, Silvanus: Past Present Future, and A Bird in the Hand by Lizzie Riches; all rights reserved by the artist. Many thanks to Brigit Strawbridge Howard (author of Dancing With Bees) for introducing me to her work.
A related post on gardening & art-making: "Harvesting stories," with thoughts on the cultivation of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin.