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A shelf of visual stimulants in my studio

The artistic value of hermiting and the need for isolation has been an ongoing theme on this blog, so of course I was intrigued reading Tony Perrottet‘s essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about writers, isolation—self-inflicted and otherwise—and the discipline needed to work. (Curiously, the piece is titled Serving the Sentence in the print version, Why Writers Belong Behind Bars online.)

Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, researched the life of that legendary “sinner”, the Marquis de Sade, and came to the conclusion that, based on output, “prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade. Other writers should be so lucky…By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.”

Other writers found their own way of creating isolation and inviting productivity. Annie Dillard pushed her desk away from the windows looking out on a verdant forest in Cape Cod to face a blank wall. Her warning: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” John Cheever worked in a dark basement of his New York apartment building. Edna Ferber of Algonquin Round Table fame looked onto the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”

Blank walls don’t serve the same purpose for a visual artist that they might for a writer. The eye needs to be fed, and sometimes it can be delighted by a twig’s shape or a pebble’s surface. But the demons of distraction for artists are still real, and as for writers they are ubiquitous, clever and constantly morphing. The 21st century has made it possible for them to find us whenever and wherever we may be working:

Being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.

Jonathan Franzen has famously described how he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for his latest novel, Freedom, he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue.

Honoré de Balzac had no ports to plug up, but he found other ways of staying focused on his work:

[Balzac] felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy—the modern debtor’s prison—remains an inspiration to us all.

Some artists thrive by living and/or working in artist buildings and by being part of lively communities of like-minded folk. Others need isolation, lots of it, and seek it with a spiritual hunger. Maybe it is just figuring out what works for you, be it a blank wall, the spur of poverty or a disabled Internet. For me, it is just quiet. Lots of it.

Robinson Crusoe Island

Has it happened to you yet? Have the plethora of responses to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, worn your interest thin? If yes, then this isn’t for you.

I am not yet finished observing and partaking of the phenom that is DFW, of the increasingly long shadow that has been building since his death by suicide two years ago. Watching the reach of his influence is like watching waves that impact waves that coalesce and become new systems with new patterns to discern. I can’t think of an analogous literary chaos theory quite this complex.

(Note: Not all of the reporting has been paeans to our dead hero. No less than Geoff Dyer has written My Literary Allergy in Prospect magazine, saying “the work of David Foster Wallace brings me out in hives.”)

Jonathan Franzen’s piece in the New Yorker’s Journey issue, “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude” is a paean of sorts. It features his escape-from-life journey to the island purported to have been the actual location of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe off the coast of Chile. But of course, being Franzen, it is oh so much more than a travelogue and birder’s journal. His commentary covers the history of the novel, its role in our cultural development and yes, some thoughtful comments about his friend David Foster Wallace. Before departing on this remote getaway, Franzen is given some of DFW’s ashes by his widow to distribute in that remote spot.

The piece is worth a complete read for its many fine qualities. One of those fine qualities is its willingness to fling open the doors of the perils entailed in the creative life. There are certain writers who, from time to time, will take their readers on a factory tour of their rag and bone shop. For some it is a need to elucidate their battle with their demons, be they depression, addiction, isolation. procrastination, prevarication. William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Les Murray’s Killing the Black Dog are elegantly written descriptions of each writer’s horrific battle with crippling depression. For Franzen it is a struggle with many of the same issues that DFW had in extremis and that, in the end, he could no longer battle.

In addition, there is that salient eye for the larger arc concerns that makes Franzen’s fiction so compelling. Here’s a sample of the Franzenesque vision that sees crossovers and implications in everything around us, physically and conceptually:

As the novel has transformed the cultural environment, species of humanity have given way to a universal crowd of individuals whose most salient characteristic is their being identically entertained. this was the monocultural spectre that David had envisioned and set out to resists in his epic “Infinite Jest.” And the mode of his resistance to that novel—annotation, digression, nonlinearity, hyperlinkage—anticipated the even more virulent and even more radically individualistic invader that is now displacing the novel and its offspring. The blackberry [an invasive species] on Robinson Crusoe Island was like the conquering novel, yes, but it seemed to me no less like the Internet, that BlackBerry-borne invasive, which, instead of mapping the self onto the narrative, maps the self onto the world. instead of the news, my news. Instead of a single football game, the splintering of fifteen different games into personalized fantasy-league statistics. Instead of “The Godfather,” “My Cat’s Funny Trick.” The individual run amok, everyman a Charlie Sheen. With “Robinson Crusoe,” the self had become an island; and now, it seemed, the island was becoming the world.

Leave it at that.

A recent shot of my studio table

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.

Blake Morrison has published his review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in the Guardian. Reading a Brit’s view of this very American novel is refreshing. Plus Morrison is an insightful reader.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like most writers, Franzen is a mass of contradictions. His fiction is generous and expansive, but it’s achieved through monastic discipline: no children, no holidays, several years spent working on each book (seven for The Corrections, nine for Freedom). He has a great ear and eye for contemporary speech and manners, but during spells of writing The Corrections he sat in the dark with earmuffs and a blindfold. He’s up-to-speed with technological developments and how they’re changing the world, but he doubts whether anyone with an internet connection at the workplace can write good fiction. His literary taste is sternly high-minded but he claims not to understand how anyone can enjoy reading Samuel Beckett. He thinks of fiction as a “form of social opposition”, but his prevailing tone is sociable, ironic, forgiving. He’s widely acclaimed for having written the first great novel of the 21st century, but the form of that novel – state-of-the-nation social realism – looks back to Dickens and George Eliot.

Most of these contradictions, especially the last, aren’t contradictions at all. The 19th-century novel had, at best, a moral complexity and social range that allowed readers to understand the world they lived in. And although Franzen knows that television, radio and the internet have supposedly replaced fiction as “the pre-eminent medium of social instruction”, he doubts whether they can offer what the novel does. “More than ever, to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,” he has said, books being the place “where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world”.

An earlier post about my response to Freedom here.

I just finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Even though yet another blog post about the literary sensation of the moment is not contributing much to the collective forward motion of our cultural understanding, I can’t NOT spend just a little time talking about the book.

The reviews have been unabashedly glowing, so much so that another storm system developed around claims of gender bias in book reviews and asking why it is that we (all of us) seem more interested in male writers than female writers. I don’t mean to dismiss these questions. They are similar to the concerns raised by the Guerrila Girls regarding the visual arts back in the 80s, and increased awareness of the (mostly) invisible bias favoring male painters and artists resulted from their efforts. But that isn’t my topic today. The book is.

I loved Freedom, and I’ll tell you why. Or at least some of the reasons why I couldn’t put it down.

1. Franzen captures the peculiar confusion and complexity of life since 9/11, most of it under the very unfortunate watch of Bush/Cheney. It is the time capsule portrait of life in the US in the aughts. Poignantly so.

2. He steps into Big Themes with bravado. And even though he doesn’t handle all of them with mastery, he’s not a fool and stays afloat. So here is a story that deals with relationships, parenthood, family, heritage, depression, politics, liberal and conservative blindspots, ecology, save the world-itis, fidelity, money, misuse of power, war, class warfare, suburbanism, honesty, loyalty and forgiveness, among many others.

3. His character development does not feel gender-skewed. His men and his women are complexly drawn and not cartooned. Sometimes they are endearing, sometimes infuriating, sometimes desperately familiar in their human frailty. But my allergic reaction to the ease with which many male writers repeatedly miss the mark on female sensibilities was not triggered once.

4. His protagonists, like all of us, are cripplingly flawed. In fact I felt no sympathy or attraction to his female protagonist until the last 100 pages. But by god you want them to figure it out. Desperately. I wanted each of them to measure out the black holes in their souls, put up some police barricade tape and steer everybody else clear of the sure disaster that would ensue should someone overstep the edge. The humanness of the story touched me deeply.

5. Franzen doesn’t preach. He doesn’t offer answers but reveals how complex every decision we make actually is. This book is about the question, How should we live? I would feel manipulated if he thought he had the answer to that, but I am moved by how much thought he has given to that question and incorporated that thinking into a beautifully written novel.

Excerpt from Freedom:

In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job, and how to protect a bike from a highly motivated thief, and when to bother rousting a drunk from your lawn furniture, and how to encourage feral cats to shit in somebody else’s children’s sandbox, and how to determine whether a public school sucked too much to bother trying to fix it. There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be? Did your 240 sometimes not go into overdrive when you pushed the overdrive button? Was it better to offer panhandlers food, or nothing? Was it possible to raise unprecedentedly confident, happy, brilliant kids while working full-time? Could coffee beans be ground the night before you used them, or did this have to be done in the morning? Had anybody in the history of St. Paul ever had a positive experience with a roofer? What about a good Volvo mechanic? Did your 240 have that problem with the sticky parking-brake cable? And that enigmatically labeled dashboard switch that made such a satisfying Swedish click but seemed not to be connected to anything: what was that?

And thes two final paragraphs from Sam Tanenhaus’ review in the New York Times:

Franzen’s world-historical preoccupations also shape, though less delicately, his big account of the home front — the seething national peace that counter­poises the foreign war. Himself a confirmed and well-informed environmentalist, Franzen gives full voice to Walter’s increasingly extreme preachments on the subjects of overpopulation and endangered species. “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!” he declares at one point, in a rant that goes viral on the Internet as his dream sours into a nightmare vision of a land in which “the winners,” who own the future, trample over “the dead and dying and forgotten, the endangered species of the world, the nonadaptive.”

The apocalypse, when it comes, clears the way for a postlude, set in Minnesota, that is as haunting as anything in recent American fiction. In these pages, Walter, “a fanatic gray stubble on his cheeks,” seizes hold of the novel, and Franzen makes us see, as the best writers always have, that the only pathway to freedom runs through the maze of the interior life. Walter, groping toward deliverance, mourns “a fatal defect in his own makeup, the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated.” But of course it is no defect at all. It is the highest, most humanizing grace. And it cares nothing about power. Like all great novels, “Freedom” does not just tell an engrossing story. It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.