Fallow periods & crop rotation
I’ll get back to poetry, as I usually do, when the music needs less of my attention. A lot of poet friends don’t understand this, or don’t seem to believe that I can really work this way; but then, only one or two of them that I know do any other creativity activity but write, whereas I have always operated in multiple media. (Their lack of understanding is also not my problem.) If I can compose or assemble a piece a day for the next few days, I will feel back on schedule.
I'm still being creative every day, in some way, if not always in the same medium. It can look like burps and skips to an outside observer, and with poetry I definitely do seem to do it in clumps with long periods in between (which is why the poem-a-day exercise doesn't work for me), but in fact I'm doing something creative every single day, just not every day in poetry.
I am always amused when poet friends insist their artform is the highest calling, the highest artform: I find that to be pretty much dust and bull. Music is far higher up the chain of sublimity, in principle and execution, for me. There's so much music can do and say that other artforms can’t touch. It’s the closest to the original language, the original sounds. The first sounds any of us hear are our mother’s heartbeat, when still in the womb. (The ear develops weeks before the eye.) We are conceived and born in rhythm. Music is pure sound, without linguistic content or meaning. Poetry, with all its graces and strengths, remains bound by its requirement to communicate sense and meaning; a poetry devolved into pure sound for its own sake becomes indistinguishable from music, as it no longer carries linguistic meaning, and can’t be called poetry anymore. (I except so-called Language Poetry from this approach towards musicality, because it’s mostly just crap.) Music is far more abstract, and can contain emotional content, emotional sense, but be totally devoid of linguistic sense. Which, then, is the more primal, more rooted, most universal art? Of course, there is a zone of transition there, between those realms, so it’s not cut and dried—there is, for example, text/sound poetry, which dwells right on that borderline. It is also true that all artforms can contain emotional narrative, if not logical narrative, which is one way in which art connects with us, and has the power to change us. Sound is immersive, though, in a somatic way that sight is not; sound completely envelops us in a total-direction field; sight tends to remain directional and focused.
So, I'm in a fallow period with poetry right now, but am working over inanother field, too.
And, you know, there's no problem with "down time." If you need a day off, to recharge, take a day off. I give myself permission to take days off when I need to. They often don't coincide with weekends or other traditional "vacation" times, though; for me, they happen when they happen. Usually because I'm tired out after doing something strenuous. I might have just returned from a photo and camping trip, or a family reunion, or might just performed a major concert series. So, when feeling exhausted by life, I might watch a movie, or read, or nap.
Quiet time is a Very Good Thing, and it's part of the cycle. There's always room for silence.
And then you get back to making things. Because you have to: because you must.
The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating. —Pearl S. Buck
I cannot divide life, cannot divide what is within and what is without; I must give all of you the whole, if I am to live with you and with myself. I have always written just what I felt, just what I thought; and thus, my dear friends, I split myself up and remain always the same. —Goethe
All my life, people have been telling me "just pick one artform, settle down, and get to be great at that." All my life, I've been fighting the battle against that, which to me seems like a real narrowness of mind, and pointing to artists, musicians, and writers who have all done more than one thing well. I point to a group of people who I view in many ways as mentors and role models, who set a standard that I aspire to, even if I fail to achieve: Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, John Cage, Gordon Parks, a few others.
Because I know it's possible to do more than one thing well, and since I do more than one thing well, this sometimes feels like a battle against prejudicial expectations. The prejudgment lies in the assumption that people can only ever be good at doing (only) one thing. That's simply not true. Even among "ordinary people," like your average farmer or salaryman, I have met numerous individuals who excel at their hobbies as well as their professions. I think you can do well whatever you feel passionately about, whatever you care about. Perhaps the key is passionate engagement, and deep interest.
Now, listening to and watching a documentary on Joni Mitchell, titled Woman of Heart and Mind, I hear a terrific quote that says it all for me, that describes exactly how I feel about the process of creativity, and says it as succinctly as anyone has ever put it:
Anytime I make a record, it’s followed by a painting period. It’s good crop rotation. I keep the creative juices going by switching from one to the other, so that when the music or the writing dries up, I paint. You rest the ear awhile, and you rest the inner mind, because poetry takes a lot of plumbing the inner depths. I mean, the way I write anyway, it takes a lot of meditation. Without the painting to clear the head, I don’t think I could do it. —Joni Mitchell
A similar quote from another mentor, John Cage:
As I get older my interests multiply rather than lessen in number. I'm interested in indoor gardening and I'm interested in macrobiotic cooking. My latest interest is the collection of rocks. Now in all my travels I collect either small rocks or, if I have the facility, big ones. I'm not only interested in collecting them to have them in my garden, but I've turned them into the makings of etchings and of drawings and now even into the composition of music, so that my songs are simply made by drawing parts of the rocks.
I think that growing old in a happy way derives from self-employment. If you are self-employed, you will see each day as useful, no matter how old you are. Most people accept jobs that are not interesting in order to make money. In other words, they think that money is important and life is not. What we need to do is to be willing to die for what gives us life. I knew that I loved music and that I was willing to die for it, so I didn't approach music as something that would make me money. If I needed money, I would take a job that would make money, such as washing dishes or distributing fliers or something like that. I wasn't well-to-do until after I was fifty.
For people who were employed all their lives at a job they did for money, retirement is actually a good thing, but they will have to adjust to the self-employment mentality. Better yet, prepare for it before you retire. Everyone who went to school learned how to read and write, therefore I have the idea that everyone could work at being a poet. Now, that would be a good job in retirement. You could spend your life writing poetry, and you could begin while you were employed as a secretary or as a computer programmer. You could put aside a little time each day in which you employed yourself to be a poet. Then when you lost your job or were retired, you would know that you could go on writing poetry. And if you didn't like to write poetry or didn't like to write music, you could make a drawing. My drawings are made by drawing around the stones I collect. I don't have to know how to draw. The rock teaches me where to put the pencil. —John Cage, quoted in The Ageless Spirit, ed. Philip L. Berman and Connie Goldman
My crop rotation is: music, visual art (photography, collage, Photoshop painting), poetry & essay (creative non-fcition) writing; also, land art sculpture, weaving, typography, a few other things.
What's your crop rotation?