Taking the quieter path

Woodland gate

From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:

"It is only when we can believe we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it -- and I do and always have -- then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it. I have become convinced since that horrible review* (unimportant in itself) that it is a message, however deviously presented, to tell me I have been overconcerned with the materialistic aspects of bringing out this novel, the dangerous hope that it become a best seller, or that, for once, I might get a leg up from the critics, the establishment, and not have once more to see the work itself stand alone and make its way, heart by heart, as it is discovered by a few people with all the excitement of a person who finds a wildflower in the woods that he has discovered on his own.

"From my isolation to the isolation of someone somewhere who will find my work there exists a true communion. I have not lacked it these last years and it is a blessing. It is free of 'ambition' and it 'makes the world go away,' as the popular song says. That is what I can hope for and I must hope for nothing more and nothing less.

Bluebells and wild orchids

"Thinking of writers I cherish -- Traherne, George Herbert, Simone Weil, and the novelists Turgenev, Trollope, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, all of them modest, private, 'self-actualizers' -- I see that they are all outside the main stream of what is expected now. The moderate human voice, what might be called 'the human milieu' -- this is supremely unfashionable and appears even to be irrelevant. But there have always been and will always be people who can breathe only there and who are starved for nourishment.

Curiosity

"I am one of those readers and I am also one who can occasionally provide this food. That is all that really matters to me this morning."

Woodland window* The "horrible review" was of Sarton's novel Kinds of Love in the Sunday New York Times


Madeleine L'Engle on writing and courage

Morning coffee 1

"It's a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand."

 - Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal 3: The Summer of the Great-Grandmother)

Morning coffee 2

"If I never had another book published, and it was very clear to me that this was a real possibility, I still had to go on writing. I'm glad I made this decision in a moment of failure. It's easy to say you're a writer when things are going well. When the decision is made in the abyss, then it is quite clear that it is not one's own decision at all."

- Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal 1: A Circle of Quiet)

"I write for the child in everybody, that part of us that is aware and open and courageous. It's also that part of us that isn't afraid to explore the mythical depths, that vast part of ourselves we know little about and which we often fear because we can't manipulate or control it. That's where art is born."

 - Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswicks Journal 3: The Irrational Season)


Sustainable prose

ThresholdThreshold

From a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review):

TTW: I think that we're going to be forced to think about the Other in much more compassionate and meaningful, practical ways. And not out of altruist impulses, but for our own survival....Perhaps it is no longer in our evolutionary interest to think in terms of the survival of the fittest, but rather, the survival of compassion.

JB: And you see that happening more through writing, through being in the land and breaking down that boundary of separateness.

TTW: That's the impulse that I write out of. What would it mean to write sustainable prose?

MH: What is sustainable prose?

TTW: I honestly don't know, I am simply asking the question. If that's where we're moving as a species, if that's what we need to start thinking about -- how to live in sustainable communities, how to create sustainable economies that don't exploit the land and the people but rather extend our compassion and imagination to foster new cooperative solutions, then wouldn't that be an interesting structure to overlay a narrative? We are really talking about the need for new stories in our culture, stories that allow us to reconsider our lives.

ContemplationContemplation

MH: You often write about the importance of story -- certainly for us as individuals, but also for communities. I find that really interesting to think about -- how cultures are shaped by the stories that are told. For example, the American story of expansion and exploitation. Maybe it's time to change the story we are telling.

TTW: Exactly. That is one of the impulses we are seeing in memoir -- the old stories don't work for us anymore and we are desperately trying to find the stories within the truth of our own lives. Maybe that is also the impulse driving creative nonfiction right now...or maybe it is as it's always been. We are simply hungry for good stories, fiction or nonfiction. Story is the umbilical chord between the past, present, and future; it keeps things known. Stories become the conscience of the community, it belongs to everyone. When we think of what it means to be human, it is always answered or explained through story....

One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready.

PresencePresence


Dare to be Foolish

Howard with DoE

I've been thinking about another aspect of "finding ones voice" as a creative artist: developing the courage to let that voice be heard -- despite the personal nature of art, and the things that our art reveals about us.

For women in particular, schooled for centuries to be the "invisible helpmeet" (what Virginia Woolf called "the angel in the house"), daring to speak and be heard can be a fearful prospect even while we professionally seek it out; but some men, too, suffer silently from the writer's/painter's version of stage-fright: the fear of putting our work, our soul, out there, having it judged, and appearing foolish. So we then hold back, or tone the work down . . . or worse, we don't create at all.

The simple truth is that being a creative artist takes courage; it's not a job for the faint of heart. It takes courage each and every time you put a book or poem or painting before the public, because it is, in fact, enormously revealing. (Delia Sherman once likened the publishing of a novel to walking down the street buck naked.)  Worse yet, what our work often reveals is not the beautifully-lit, carefully-presented surface of our creativity, but the darker shadow-play at its interior. That can't be helped. But the good news is: that's precisely where the best art comes from.

Fool and cavelier

While our intellect chases its bright and lofty visions, our  most original, powerful ideas tend to rise from muddy, murky depths below: from the clouded waters of the subconscious; from the baffling landscape of nightmare and dream; from the odd obssessions, weird fixations, and uncanny flashes of intuition that rise up from those strange parts of ourselves that we know and approve of least; from those places most likely to make us feel ridiculous, and exposed.

The muse, if we follow her far enough, and honestly enough, demands that we bare it all: our angel wings and our asses' ears. It doesn't matter if we're writing genre fiction and not memoir; it doesn't matter if we're painting fairy tales and not self-portraits.

"All art is autobiographical," said Federico Fellini; "the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

Fool 2When Ellen Kushner and I were young writers together in New York City in the 1980s (that distant, different pre-Internet age), Cynthia Heimel published an essay called "How to be Creative" that we adopted as a kind of Call to Arms, passing a dog-earred copy around to all our friends for many years thereafter. First published in The Village Voice, the essay contained the exact advice that earnest, anxious, ambitious young writers and artists like us most needed to hear.  I haven't been able to find a copy for you to read online, but here's another quote from the author of our Sacred Text (as Ellen and I referred to it) that pretty much sums up the article in question:

"When in doubt, make a fool of yourself," says Heimel. "There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap."

Three decades later, this is still the best piece of art-making advice I know.

Howard Gayton & Geoff Beale performing with Daughters of Elvin, Northern Ireland

I hereby pass the [paraphrased] words of the Sacred Text on to the next generation of writers- and artists-in-training:

Don't be afraid to be weird, don't be afraid to be different, don't worry too much about what other people think. Whatever it is that's original in you and your work might sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. That probably means you're on the right track, so just keep going.

Dare to be foolish.

Fool and flower

Pictured above: Howard (Fool), William Todd-Jones (Bear), and Geoff Beale (Cavalier) performing with Daughters of Elvin in Devon and Northern Ireland.

A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).