“Pleasure is the pleasure of the powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation. The morality of the poet’s radiant and productive atmosphere is the morality of the right sensation.”Wallace Stevens
“[…] in your life, if you’re a good artist, you have one good idea. But if you’re a genius, you maybe have two good ideas.”Marina Abramović (quoting her professor of art history), quoted in Mason Curry’s Subtle Manouvers newsletter (11.07.22)
“[…] part of the solution is not being so precious about ideas and accepting that they’re just a starting point. The other part—maybe the bigger part—is learning to tolerate discomfort. Is that, in fact, the most important skill for any writer? (Or visual artist or musician or fill-in-the-blank creative person?) It might be. Because so much of the process is just really, really uncomfortable. It requires butting up against your own shortcomings over and over and over.”Mason Curry, Subtle Manouvers newsletter (11.07.22)
“Just work hard, and you will evolve into yourself naturally. Don’t choose who to be—grow into yourself through hard work. All will be revealed. I guarantee that if you paint a still life, it will have your personality in it. You have to trust that. The best things I saw by you today were your self-portrait drawings, because they had no artifice. . . . If I was you, I would strip away all your flashy gimmicks and dare to make “plain” paintings. You will be original, you have to take it on faith. You know what to do. You’ll get where you need to go with time and hard work.”David Hockney to artist Duncan Hannah (quoted in Mason Currey’s newsletter Subtle Manueuvers, issue ‘Seven Lessons in Being an Artist from Duncan Hannah’)
final resting place …Michele L. Harvey
the wind decides
dregs in our glassesFrank Hooven
you lay your day
on top of mine
someone’s newspaperJack Cain
drifts with the snow
searching the cupboardFrank Dullaghan
for the answer
to why I opened it
“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.
Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. […] All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.
Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can.”Roxane Gay, ‘Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?‘
In a letter to his friend, fellow writer Robert Wallsten, John Steinbeck included some writing advice that I read many years ago and ever since then that advice has been part of my own writing process.
One piece of advice he gave was to:
“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
In general writers tend to dread first drafts because for some the stakes are too high every time (their identity as writers!) but I’ve learnt to love first drafts because, since I know I’m going to cut or rewrite most of it anyway, my focus is more on the amount of words rather than their quality. I think Steinbeck is right to say that when you suspend any judgement upon your writing until after the draft is done you relate to the words differently and out of that relationship comes more natural writing.
In his book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkeman quotes the Finnish American photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen on the topic of artistic originality. Conventional wisdom presumes that originality is something you either have or you don’t, but Minkkinen proposes an alternative view through the metaphor of Helsinki’s bus routes.
In Helsinki’s city centre there’s a particular bus station and every bus that comes out of that station follows the same route for a while but, past a certain point, they diverge and go their own way. We can imagine ourselves as one of those buses and each bus stop as one year of our artistic career. Whatever our craft may be, we all want to be recognised but, if we take a shot for recognition, we may be rejected because, for one thing, our work isn’t original enough.
Discouraged, we get off the bus and hail a taxi back to the station where we board a new bus, try a new style or craft, and soon the same thing happens again. What to do?
Minkkinen advises this: Stay on the Fucking Bus.
It’s the separation that makes all the difference, and once you start to see that difference in your work from the work you so admire (that’s why you chose that platform after all), it’s time to look for your breakthrough.
Suddenly your work starts to get noticed. Now you are working more on your own, making more of the difference between your work and what influenced it.
Your vision takes off.
And as the years mount up and your work takes begins to pile up, it won’t be long before the critics become very intrigued, not just by what separates your work from a Sally Mann or a Ralph Gibson, but by what you did when you first got started!
You regain the whole bus route in fact.“Finding Your Own Vision“
Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio show This American Life, made the same point:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.“What Every Successful Person Knows, But Never Says“
Stay on the bus.
For years I’ve had a mild yet persistent interest in writing a play. I like the limits of the stage just as I like the limits of haiku because when there’s only so much I can do behind a closed curtain or on a page with three lines those limits become creative restrictions. And yet I have thoughts that there’s no point writing a play unless it’s guaranteed to be produced. What are those thoughts? Why is it so important to have a guarantee before starting?
A while ago Alan Jacobs wrote a three act play based on the friendship and correspondence between J.R.R. Tolkien and W.H. Auden. I have no idea if the play is any good because I don’t yet have playwriting standards (the mark of a true amateur perhaps?) but I admire that he gave it a shot and then published the play on his website as if to say it didn’t need to be produced by a stage company to be validated.
Sometimes I find that rather than trying to identify what feelings are holding me back from starting, in this case, a play, it’s easier to group them together under the umbrella of ‘resistance’. Could those thoughts be fear disguised as reason? Yes. Could those reasons be valid? Yes. But I suppose, if I really wanted, I could find a good reason not to do anything if I thought about it long enough.
Perhaps the creative impulse never “makes sense” because it doesn’t always lead to money and recognition in an artist’s lifetime (or ever) so I may never find an airtight reason to fulfil that need. And yet, it still makes me happy and I still need to do it, with or without guarantees.
entering the forest enters youRuth Holzer
one coyote –
the entire mountain
howls moonlightSandi Pray
of windPeter Newton
the room is white
until that red appleElizabeth Searle Lamb
a screendoor’s quiet
rain and the sound of spoons placed
carefully awayBurnell Lippy
It’s not that words themselves are slippery. Their definitions more or less stay the same, but instead it’s the meanings we use words to find (and later express) that are slippery because, more often than not, we don’t know what we want to say until we have something down on the page (or screen) and go, “nah, that’s not it.”
In his latest blog post Alan Jacobs quoted the German philosopher Heidegger on the nature of art which I think applies to us:
“What art is we should be able to gather from the work. What the work is we can only find out from the nature of art. It is easy to see that we are moving in a circle. […] It is said that what art is may be gathered from a comparative study of available artworks. But how can we be certain that such a study is really based on artworks unless we know beforehand what art is?”
And on it goes.
I think the very slipperiness of writing, where we exert ourselves to discover meaning, makes it creative and I think this is apparent if we compare this ‘creative’ writing to writing we may find in some workplaces where meaning comes ready-made in the form of abbreviations and jargon. When we create our own meanings, in whatever form, that makes the writing creative or, at the very least, interesting to read.