Thursday, September 10, 2009

Turning Away from Words 2

It feels exactly like when you have sprained or broken your ankle, and even though you're off the crutches, out of the bandages, it still hurts to put your weight on it. That testing of the injury that you cannot resist, till you have to back off, and give it more time to heal. Later, after there's no more pain, you have to still give it time: it's not really healed. I have many athletically-inclined friends who need to be reminded, even though they know better, that when an injury feels fully healed, it's not, and they'd better not push it for another week or two, else they will re-injure themselves and have to go through all that again. It's a measure of how impatient jocks can be, that they recurrently forget to give themselves time to heal properly.

So it feels, lately, when I have an experience that marks me day, that is significant or resonant or powerful—and I realize that journaling about it had become habit developed to please others, and that in fact, I really didn't want to write about it. Or even talk about it, or tell about it, with my friends. So I don't write about it. Today, I had a day that had a lesson about sensuality embedded in it, a profound and affirming lesson with implications for my future life; and I don't want to write about it.

I realize that I'm not a Writer, as some would put it, because my immediate response to experience is not necessarily to write about it. I'm not a Writer, because I don't need to hear myself thinking out loud to know what I feel and think and believe. Faith is a non-verbal process; words come only as justification for, or explanation of, faith, because they cannot define it. I'm still learning about faith, and what to have faith in; nothing already described will suffice; I need to figure this one out for myself. I'm not a Writer because I don't respond to all meaningful experiences by wanting to write about them; lately, I feel like I've been straining to try to write about things, because somehow that had become expected of me. Either I had imposed that expectation on myself, in a way that had become habitual, or I was imagining that someone might actually want to read what I might have to write. I'm not a Writer, because just now I refuse to write about anything if I feel anything like the twinge of a healing ankle sprain when I think about writing about something. I refuse to push it. I refuse to force it. I know only too well how forcing it, pushing it, makes bad art rather than good art. So I won't do it. Today, I had an experience that taught me a life-lesson, but when I thought about writing about it, I felt that healing-ankle strain feeling in my head, and chose not to push against it.

I think a lot of bad art is made to fulfill expectations—either the artist's or the expectations he feels pressuring him from others—rather than made for its own sake. People think of themselves, I'm a Writer, so I have to write about it, and they push themselves to write even when they have nothing to say. A great deal of bad poetry published these days is perfectly-crafted little gems from people who really have nothing to say. There's no content there; it's all surface showmanship and sleight of hand. Most such writers haven't lived enough of life yet to really have anything to talk about. So we get lots of poems about the angst of relationships, and why the world isn't as perfect a place to live as we imagined it to be when we were young. Most such pseudo-literature feeds the immature. It is itself a product of emotional and intellectual adolescence, and has little mature experience to build wisdom upon.

And it embodies a great deal of impatience about the creative process itself: it tries to harness creativity under the rules of craft, and drive it faster than it wants to go. We live in an impatient, accelerated culture now, when instant gratification is sought in all realms of life, even in art-making. This is a mistake only exacerbated by the way the arts are taught now: at university factories whose purpose is not contemplation but the generation of finished products. People with degrees are produced annually who have been taught to value the production of art-products more than the process of discovering their own art-processes. Product is after all quantifiable and therefore measurable and categorizable, while process is not. There is no patience in a product-oriented approach to art-making, in which one finished work becomes stale the moment it is released into public view. The cult of the original artifact furthermore diminishes the possibilities of what can be learned by dialoging with the artistic past. Artistic post-modernism isn't about recycling the past so much as it is about ironic mockery of its lessons.

if I'm turning away from words, now, it's because those fields need to lie fallow. They've been over-worked, and need to rest. Will they be tilled again? Almost certainly. Yet I don't care to think about when, or how, or even if they will be tilled again: I'm content to believe they won't be, ever, or for now. It doesn't matter. My creative farm has numerous other fields. It's wise to let some weeds grow, sometimes, and just forget about them. They'll still be there, to be re-worked, even if you let them go wild for a long time. Whose woods are these? We think we know—but in truth we don't own these lands anymore than we own the sunlight that falls on them.

One of the greatest poets of silence and inwardness, Rainer Maria Rilke, was clear about how art arises from silence. Rilke writes, many times in his letters, as in the Letters to a Young Poet, how solitude and living the questions is the way to proceed. He cautions against trying too hard, against trying to write too soon, before one is ripe. He says again and again that one must be patient, and wait for the moment to arrive, in which the work will become its own fruition, and take on its own life and urgency. It is all about waiting for the fields to become ripe.

Rilke writes:

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty—describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don't blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world's sounds—wouldn't you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. —And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can't give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn't write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I as of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

—Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

Rilke urges us to ask, in the darkest hours of our night: must I write? I am not a Writer, because the answer is, No. But I am an artist, a Maker, because the answer that rises up within me, in those darkest hours, is that I must make art. I must Make something, whatever it is. In fact, I've known this for long enough to have developed the rich habit of daily making. Photography is frankly easier for me to do than composing music. Writing is even easier—so easy, perhaps, that it is too easy, too facile, not trustworthy precisely because it is easy. I value composing and recording music so highly precisely because it the hardest thing for me to do. Well, in one way it's very easy, because it's as natural as breathing. But in another way, it is the most naked thing I can ever do, the most self-revealing, the most exposed, and the most difficult to do because it leaves me no avenue of concealment of subterfuge. Music is what comes most directly and clearly from within my own solitude and silence, and I am at my most exposed and vulnerable when I am making it.

Thus I'll give Rilke, in his better wisdom, the last word:

Art too is just a way of living, and however one lives, one can, without knowing, prepare for it; in everything real one is closer to it, more its neighbor, than in the unreal half-artistic professions, which, while they pretend to be close to art, in practice deny and attack the existence of all art—as, for example, all of journalism does and almost all criticism and three quarters of what is called (and wants to be called) literature.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

There are many who would say that for most of my life I've not been a writer since the amount of time I spent writing is only a fraction of the rest. Even now, once you take away my non-fiction writing (which takes up a huge amount of my time) I actually write very little. This is because I find I have very little new to say. To my mind writing is more like riding a bike than playing a piano. Writing is an extension of speech and speaking is a lot easier than playing the piano; I don't need to practice speaking daily nor do I need to practice writing daily; I do not expect to forget how to do either in a hurry.

What is the point of writing apart from content? I've just finished Black Spring by Henry Miller which on the whole I enjoyed apart from one story in the form of a dream sequence. It's technically brilliant in its execution but it has nothing to say. It's like one of those cadenzas of Paganini's or Hendrix when he doesn't know when enough's enough.

There is, of course, the argument that when you just fiddle about you stand a far better chance of discovering something than when you sit there doing nothing. And that is true up to a point but I'm never doing nothing. I simply reject 99% of the stuff that passes through my head because it's either of no interest (and it's never going to be of any interest) or I've covered it before (and I've not nothing new to say).

There are writers out there who would be in despair having a novel half-finished for three years but not me. There was a gap of two years in the middle of my third novel and when I returned to it with a new voice the book was so much better for the break; I expect that to be the case this time. When I wasn't writing that novel I worked on a collection of short stories. Now it's poetry and a little bit of flash. I don't have as broad a palette as you. If I did I'd be off with my new camera or working on that string quartet I'm never going to write.

Ease of expression is not something to feel guilty about. Be grateful that something in this rotten ol' life is easy and make the most of it. For me the poetry is easy. I don't write a lot but I don't sweat over it, not like the prose.

4:45 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm aware that this was a bit of a rant, or diatribe. I'm perhaps hyper-aware of the paradoxes and ironies involved in ranting about writing by writing about it.

So I appreciate your perspective on this.

The bicycle analogy is a good one. I think we all go along with speech that way, pretty much taking for granted that we will always have it available to us—and thus we also tend to take writing for granted, too. But sometimes something happens, and we can't talk so easily any more: which is called aphasia.

I became aware of aphasia, the loss of facile speech due to medical issues, when I ran across the collaborative work of Sam Shepard and Joe Chaikin; Chaikin was a great actor-director in the New York avant-garde scene, and after a stroke Shepard helped him learn to talk again. The story of all this is given, along with the plays the two of them wrote together during and after the process, in Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard: Letters and Texts, 1972-1984. This is one of the best books on the creative process I've encountered, BTW, as well as containing one of my favorite contemporary short plays, Tongues. (I know you like Beckett, and I predict therefore you'd like this.)

My Dad had a little aphasia, along with Bell's palsy, after his bout with viral encephalitis in 2003. I've had two or three friends who have had mild aphasia due to strokes or the side-effects of chemo; I'm thinking of my one friend who always had a bit of a stutter, and during chemo it was worsened. He never seemed to mind that I'd guess at the word he was stuck on; he'd nod, and we'd go on chatting.

Content and fiddling: The rejection of coherent content, and the foregrounded process of fiddling around, are pretty much what the currently fashionable "post-avant" poetry trends are all about, it seems to me. I'm not the first to point out that LangPo and John Ashbery share a tendency towards meaningless logorrhea. I'm not one to privilege content over form, but I also don't privilege the LACK of content, as the post-avant seems to. I like to discover content, and I'm open to chance processes and the artist discovering content just as the audience does.

But my unfashionable approach is to use the MEANS of "contentless" writing as a way of opening the mind to archetypal and mythopoetic connections, rather than to debunk meaning all the way, in the fashionable post-modern manner. (Which is its own dead-end, to be kind about it.) I find that the gods creep in through the gaps that we leave open in the weave: imperfections of the artist's method, and relaxation of Control over the materials AND the meanings leave spaces for the Dreamtime to enter in. So while I might share some tools of the post-avant, at times, my purpose is mythic rather than superficially language-oriented.

I take your point about ease of expression, and not worrying about it. It's just that there's a fine distinction between facility and just being facile, ease of working and being superficial. I don't ever want to be facile, or superficial, which is exactly my dispute with the (intentional) surface-oriented methods of LangPo, as I understand it.

9:56 AM  

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