Being an artist or writer is emotionally, spiritually and intellectually demanding. If we are working with a sense of vision and integrity it is all the more so. But what when we are working not only without automatic fame and approval, but in difficult and extraordinary times?
The difficulty might be personal — chronic illness or bereavement or trying to care for a family and make ends meet. It might be political threat or living in a context where our race or gender is unwelcome. It might be the overwhelming sense of how far ecological degradation has gone and the struggle to witness to alternatives. And all of us are writing in uncertain times — in the midst of a global pandemic.
Whatever it is that is assaulting or swamping us, the ability to go on taking risks, making mistakes, and trying again is the essence of artistic integrity.
When the world is unravelling:
Make good art
In the book, Make Good Art, originally delivered as a speech to a class of graduating art students, the writer Neil Gaiman puts this succinctly and powerfully:
When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. … Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.
And of course, making good art involves not only learning and honing our craft (constantly) but also valuing your creativity with a passion that might seem a little crazy to those who aren’t artists or writers. To do this, we adopt some high risk strategies to protect our vision, strategies like:
- Giving our writing time and power even if it means we don’t do the laundry or turn down offers of something better paying.
- Writing primarily for the joy of it. As Ray Bradbury put it:
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work — which meant that life did not feel like work.
It entails making mistakes, over and over, but getting up from them and doing it all again. To quote Neil Gaiman again:
Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. Art.
Unlearn what you think you know in order to truly live
When the world is unravelling, we have to remember that the vocation to make art, whether visual, audible or in writing, is first and foremost about what it means to live. And we witness and connect most powerfully when we begin from self-compassion.
Sherwood Anderson’s advice to his son was that:
The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.
Making good art, even as the world unravels, demands that we make an extraordinary personal journey. The poet E E Cummings points out that it’s not lack of fame and approval that is the hardest thing for the artist, but her or his own internal struggle to find an authentic voice which involves overturning every pre-conceived idea.
The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.
He goes on:
Look into yourself … Art is not something which … you are not or which you are. If a thorough search of yourself fails to reveal the presence of this something, you may be perfectly sure that no amount of striving, academic or otherwise, can bring it into your life. But if you are this something — then, gentle reader, no amount of discrimination and misapprehension can possibly prevent you from becoming an Artist. … You will know that when all’s said and done (and the very biggest Butter Baron has bought the very last and least Velasquez) “to become an Artist” means nothing: whereas to become alive, or one’s self, means everything.
In other words. it’s not only the story we write, but the story of who we are that is transformed by diving deeply into our art and how we embody and live it. As Sherwood Anderson went on in his advice to his son:
The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live.
And this act of being alive is soul-saving, for ourselves, and for whoever we touch with our writing.
Pause and then …
Making good art, diving deeply into our writing, transforming our story by the work we do, takes us out of the dazed state that life can sometimes put us in, especially when there seem to be bombs going off constantly.
My family has a word for all the stuff that drains us to such a point that we stop wanting to create — ‘incoming’. Some days the press of political chaos, family or friends in pain, emergencies small and large (or seeming so), bits of the roof falling off, rude emails, plumbing disasters or just keeping the house and work going, becomes such a tidal wave of ‘incoming’. On those days simply being awake and alive enough to think creatively or write can feel like it’s too much.
Yet this is exactly the time when we most need the integrity to shift perspective, look fear in the face and refuse to obey it. We know that creating something requires a willingness to make changes, to let go of whatever is holding us back. We know it takes death for there to be a rebirth. Yet we keep fighting it.
I’m currently on the brink of a huge transition in how I work and live. I want it to happen. And yet I still persist in clinging to patterns that are not serving me but which are safe and comfortable. I try to kid myself that I can have this transformation and keep the old patterns. Why? Because change is scary.
We all feel fear. Sometimes it’s an important survival mechanism. So listening to our fear can be no bad thing. But we don’t always have to do what fear tells us to do. It’s a choice. And we can make that choice when life is throwing a lot of ‘incoming’ at us by refusing to become more and more frenetic and reactive, and instead taking time to pause.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning had a life that makes my idea of ‘incoming’ seem paltry. She had a rare condition that left her debilitated, weak, in pain and often bed-bound for long periods. For several years her contact with the outside world was only through letters. She lost brothers she loved and her possessive father disinherited her when she married the poet, Robert Browning. Yet she never dramatised her suffering, choosing instead to delight in her writing and in her life. As says in her epic poem, ‘Aurora Leigh’:
What is art, But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil.
If all the demands and difficulties that life throws at us, and all of the world’s unravelling are not going to derail us from our art and life, then we have to pause, slow down, breathe deeply and make a choice. Hopefully, we will choose to make good art, to unlearn whatever patterns are holding us in fear. We will choose creative risks, integrity, life.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.