Some periods are creatively fecund, and some are not. After many years of being an artist, I have come to expect both the ups and the downs of a life in the studio. As I have observed many times on this blog, the nature of the work that happens there is the old Zen Buddhist adage, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Every day, the work of the work. The same before a painting comes together, and after.
Right now I am in a very rich vein. My sessions are starting very early and are lasting all day. Eight hours feels like two. My dreams at night are full of metaphors and images that address very specific technical and imaging issues that have surfaced during the day. It feels like every available channel is showing the same program.
This convergence is extraordinary, but it comes after several years of intense and painful struggle, the longest and most difficult period of my long life as an artist.
A good friend was surprised when I recently confessed to the extreme creative frustration I have been dealing with over the last three years. “I’m so surprised. You never let on that things weren’t going well.”
Which raises an important issue, one that concerns the private domain that is the creative process. Not every artist has difficulty sharing their day to day progress (or lack of it) as I do. But I recently had insight into another artist’s similar challenges in communicating that extremely inchoate and highly internal terrain. Joyce Carol Oates’ piece in the New Yorker, “A Widow’s Story”, is a memoir about the death of her long time husband Raymond Smith. In that account Oates makes an extraordinary comment:
Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in “Ontario Review”, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely…
For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.
In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?
It may be a personality proclivity that drives one person to seek comfort through intimate sharing and confessional conversation with others while another takes a completely different tack. I go silent when I’m stifled, frustrated or discouraged. One friend says I retreat into my private cave. Sounds like Oates is a bit like me in that respect. Another famous retreater type is Jonathan Franzen who went into hibernation from everyday life for nine years to write his spectacular novel, Freedom. Some of his quotes regarding that withdrawal are quite extreme, like “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”, and “Every good writer I know needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. And what the Internet brings is lots of vulgar data. It is the antithesis of the imagination. It leaves nothing to the imagination.”
What a phrase: Every good [artist] needs to go into some deep, quiet place to do work that is fully imagined. I’m not saying much, just nodding my head yes.