In yesterday's post, Wendell Berry argue for the importance of love (that old-fashioned word) in maintaining the bonds of community; and what could be more important when facing the challenges of a global pandemic?
Today, I'd like to focus on love as a vital part of the art-making process too. Love is the fuel that keeps us creating in fearful, uncertain times -- despite isolation, despite worries for loved ones, despite the desperate loss of income, despite projects halted and performance tours cancelled, despite theaters, studios, galleries, classrooms and concert halls shutting their doors. I see so many artist friends struggling right now and yet they keep on going: working at home, working online, working in any manner they can. In a world grown dark, their art provides sparks of light, and they do it for love.
Novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong once wrote:
"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.
"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely to be rewarded with wealth, publicity and homage; but tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'
"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."
A couple of years ago when I first read those words, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money,' " I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for Erica Jong to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table." But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.
We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.
Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, visual artists, performers -- not the size of the paycheck our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to live on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.
And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?
No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. No, I don't make my living entirely from writing; I also work as an editor to get by. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won a clutch of awards in my field, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.
I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do as well, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.
The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.
"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."
I know this to be true.
"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."
This is why all over the Internet you see artists offering their work for free right now (stories, concerts, workshops, and more), an outpouring of creativity to brighten the gloom, turn straw into gold, and strengthen the ties that bind us all. Those on the front-lines of fighting Covid-19 (doctors, nurses, medical staff), as well as those keeping vital services going, are the true heroes of these challenging times -- but I'm proud of the arts community too. And I am grateful to every one of you who continues to tell the world's stories, re-imagine the future, and keep wonder alive.
The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.
Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.
Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.