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December 14, 2006

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Yes, and yes! I know what you speak of, Beth!


I encounter an urge, an inchoate one. Something wants to come to life. In what form? In writing, perhaps, or as drawing. Perhaps in the form of a poem, or a letter. Find the form that fits the mood. What I've found, though, is that the urge can be tamed (at least temporarily) with things that aren't even ordinarily considered "art." Sometimes it's enough to organize dinner for four, or to watch a thought-provoking film. Anything that can be done that involves (a) attention and (b) improvisation, is a good outlet for that urge. How can watching a film involve improvisation? By the viewer acting as assistant director the whole way through. Same applies to the sympathetic twitching my fingers experience when I see a particularly good painting. Attention and improvisation. Gardening counts. Cleaning the house (with apologies to Brother Lawrence) doesn't.

And these temporary cures, in a way, are best. Once one launches into a real major project (such as a book, or a collection of images destined to be shown together), there's an immediate unease that shows up and doesn't leave until the damned thing is done, which could be weeks or months. That's a cure that's worse than the disease, I think. But it has its own energy, and its what we do anyway.

At heart, I think, we're not "writers" or "sculptors." What we are is people who make things. Makers who happen to write, or makers who happen to sculpt.

That's why so many of us made our own little magazines when we were children, and our own blogs now that we are a little older than children. It's the making that counts, and if that's a polenta or a haiku or a novel, really, it's a difference (on some philosophical level) of quantity, not quality.

I'm sure someone will soon respond with special claims for poetry with a capital P!

There's the angst that comes when you feel inspired to write/create but don't have time...and then there's the despair that comes when you've not had time for so long, the inspiration/desire seems to die. The latter is what I feel at the end of every semester (like now...) It's as if the creative cupboard's not only bare, I've forgotten where the door is.

Do you favor any temporary cures, Lorianne? Because, sometimes, the idea that it has to be a big work can itself be debilitating.

Beth and Teju, I can't improve on what you've said here. Lorianne, I know that drained feeling -- it's the worst! Maybe after a few, full nights of sleep you'll feel creative energy returning. If not, I suggest an herbal remedy. ;)

Marja-Leena, I think we've all felt it!

I agree with what Teju says about "temporary cures" - in fact, today we went to a fabulous Japanese paper store and I came home with project materials I never intended to buy, but it's made me happy every time I've gone over to the table and looked at them! (So did the Persian chicken dish I made for dinner.) The shop owner asked me if I made books (meaning bookbinding) to which I truthfully answered "yes" - and if he had asked me more, I was prepared to say, "I'm just a person who makes things," which is probably the best way to describe myself. Teju, I wonder if you will feel the same way at 50 - that's what I meant about looking back and remembering how much time there seemed to be when I was 25 or 30 - it was so easy to put off the "big works" until later, and later, and later. Also, in my professional life it has felt like one "big work" after another - but for other people. On the other hand, I'm so glad not to be writing a thesis; my personal work is up to me now.

Lorianne - I hope you finish grading soon and can get back to your own creative self, with or without herbal treatments!!

"Teju, I wonder if you will feel the same way at 50..."

It's a good question Beth. At the moment, I feel as if I'm working at the limits of my ability--wrote a little book earlier in the year, and have made a good start to a second (probably more substantial) one. And, yes, there's that vague sense that the greater part of the career is still ahead of me. On the other hand, the knowledge that I'll probably never be proficient in a musical instrument, or in a sport, or in any language I don't already know, gives me enough of a sense that time's flying past. By those standards, I'm no longer young. So I find myself wondering: what else will soon go beyond the realm of possibility? And that brings a feeling of urgency to things. When there's a story that needs to be written, everything gets dropped, and the story is written. Consequences be damned. Which complicates my life immeasurably. So, much as I hate to admit it, I do pressure myself to do what I can with what I have now. Because if I don't do the work suitable to the now, I might find myself unready for the work necessary for the future.

Then again, 50 needn't be anything more dramatic than a mid-point, particularly in work like writing that requires patience and maturity. Penelope Fitzgerald was 65 when she *started*, and she ended up putting out eight fine novels. There's a part of me that wonders whether that, too, isn't a wise course: to wait as long as possible, wait until all the foolishness is leached out of one's system, and only then bring the ambitious projects to light. I certainly wish such a fate on some of my more loquacious and celebrated contemporaries. Can't quite get round to wishing it on myself, though I'm probably just as deserving.

Good Lord, I'm turning this into a personal therapy session...

Oh, that's OK! "Waiting" was right for me because my writing was so self-conscious when I was younger. Yours doesn't strike me that way. I just hope I have plenty of years ahead and that 50 is more of a midpoint, like you say. (And I'm glad to hear you admit that you do succumb to pressure now and then!)

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Who was Cassandra?


  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.

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