Sunday, February 24, 2013

Clearing Space. And Also Waiting.

            Thoughts on Chapter 4 of The Artist's Way.  Part four of twelve on creativity.

            Throughout The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron keeps coming back to one theme I find interesting partially because it is so practical and easily overlooked:  the physical arrangement of one's life.  The house or apartment you live in; the furniture (or lack thereof); your clothes.  All of these are re-arrangeable, and this re-arrangement could happen in a number of ways — moving into a new home or city; renovating living or working space; or simply rearranging furniture.  Cameron tends to stick to the simple:  getting rid of clothes you can't/don't wear anymore; changing your furniture or home arrangement; getting rid of junk and actually pulling in the objects you find meaningful.  In the fourth chapter she again discusses these things, and then of course brings up the dreaded topic of reading deprivation.
            It's not difficult to see how these ideas fit together.  And the first point I'd like to make is:  I'm 100% on board with Cameron on the topic of clutter.  Clutter is bad.  Bad.  Like, almost immoral.  I say this because I've noticed again and again that clutter affects me whether I want to admit it or not.  I spent years arguing with myself and others over this, but no matter how much I wanted to pretend that being messy is part of being an artist, or that I am the only human on earth whose brain is impervious to the effects of a dirty, disorganized home, it simply wasn't true.
            I should probably distinguish somewhat between living space and creative working space.  For some of us, those two overlap; others keep them separate.  Creative space can get messy when you're in the middle of something.  I'm mostly a writer, but I occasionally do crafty projects, and I'm not suggesting a painter or sculptor start worrying about the mess they're making.  What I'm talking about here is first and foremost where I live, but also my workspace when I'm done with a project or need to get ready for a new one.  I don't exactly believe in feng shui, but I think it's a great metaphor to get me to pick up my room.
            My point is, clutter affects me.  Garbage affects me.  Dirt and bad lighting and clothes I haven't fit into for years and piles of dirty dishes, all of these affect me.
            And then there is Cameron's idea of reading deprivation for week four of the course, which I am also pretty into.  I wouldn't quote Cameron on many things, but I think she is dead-on for at least writers when she says, "For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers.  We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up."
            As a writer, reading is essential to me.  Especially as a writer who has chosen to forgo the trend towards the MFA and instead rely on reading and writing and reading and writing and reading and writing.  But somehow reading the work that inspires me can also silence me.  After all, William Langland and Rumi get so close to speaking for my own heart; at times, they even manage a phrase or two that does speak for me.  And then of course, those who are most inspiring can also be the most silencing.  My Yeats/Eliot/Plath period was almost devoid of writing because I couldn't figure out what was left to be done.
            So I suppose the first thing I want to say is:  if you want to make art, clear some space in your life.  If your home is full of junk, get rid of whatever you can.  If it's full of stuff you don't think of as junk, but it's junking up your head, get rid of whatever you can.  If you have clothes and books and just stuff that you've been holding onto for years telling yourself you'll find a use for it...isn't it obvious?
            And yes, clear some space in your head too.  Going without reading for a week is Cameron's recommendation for those doing the Artist's Way course, and I did it then, but I'll certainly do it again in the future.  It's a great head-clearing tool, and since I chose to interpret it as meaning no internet (yes!  do it!  your brain so wants a break!), I felt like my head literally emptied out.  I'm sure that a slight variation like screen-deprivation could work wonders.
            I have only one caveat here, though.  I have noticed many, many times that when I do things to allow for creativity I start grasping for creativity.  It's understandable, of course.  If I've gotten so desperate to write that I've actually cleaned my apartment, then clearly my writing isn't going so well.  So I get hopeful — really, really hopeful — and start sort of clutching at things trying to get them to inspire me.  So my giant caveat is, in my experience, there might also be some waiting involved.  You might clear some space and not have anything show up for awhile.  I certainly don't think that means a person should or would even want to just sit around doing nothing; but I do think that if you clear the space physically and/or mentally and you don't instantly have the inspiration and skills to write a great novel or paint some brilliant something-or-other, you have no cause to panic.
            Clearing space for something to move in doesn't move anything in, and of course, you hardly know what you're inviting in when you radically alter your life.  Anything — anyone — might show up, and they often do it on their own time.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hipsters Did Not Invent Irony

            I recently finished Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.  I sort of wish it had inspired me in the same writer-oriented fashion that Cervantes and Bunyan did.  Both of those writers led to research and LOTS of writing, which obviously translates well to blog format.  Gulliver's Travels, on the other hand, has led to a quite different project.  I've actually started making a little book that will be something along the lines of Gulliver and Bell's Travels.  I might make a couple versions, but roughly speaking I'll end up with a small accordion book that includes pictures, postcards, collage-work, and words relating to places Gulliver went, places I've gone, and thoughts on travel in general.  If I ever master the art of scanning things or taking pictures, I might post some of it here.  But in general, it's not a bloggy project.
            However, there still remains my obvious duty of convincing you that you should also read Gulliver's Travels.  For one thing, it's short and could be read very quickly if, unlike me, you are capable of reading without taking pages and pages of notes and looking up dozens of references every hour or so.
            Also, it's hilarious.  And so, in lieu of sharing my own literary thoughts and responses to Gulliver's Travels, I thought I'd instead share some excerpts over the next couple of weeks.  And trust me:  there is so, so much more where this came from.
            And so, without further ado, here is a section from the first Book, A Voyage to Lilliput.  For those who don't already know, Lilliput is an island roughly equidistant from India and Australia, inhabited entirely by people who stand about three inches high.  Gulliver, having spent some time in their illustrious though tiny company, is struck by the wisdom of many of their social institutions:

            Their notions relating to the duties of parents and children differ extremely from ours.  For since the conjugation* of male and female is founded upon the great law of nature, in order to propagate and continue the species, the Lilliputians will needs have it, that men and women are joined together like other animals, by the motives of concupiscence**; and that their tenderness towards their young proceeds from the like natural principle:  for which reason they will never allow, that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him, or his mother for bringing him into the world; which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit in itself, nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love-encounters*** were otherwise employed.  Upon these, and the like reasonings, their opinion is, that parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children:  and therefore they have in every town public nurseries, where all parents...are obliged to send their infants of both sexes to be reared and educated when they come to the age of twenty moons...Their parents are suffered to see them only twice a year; the visit is to last but an hour.  They are allowed to kiss the child at meeting and parting; but a professor, who always stands by on these occasions, will not suffer them to whisper, or use any fondling expressions, or bring any presents of toys, sweetmeats, and the like.

The nanny in me sighs happily.  Finally, someone had the courage to say it.  And just to be sure you're also building your vocabulary...

conjugation:  a.  The inflection of a particular verb...  b.  Chromosome pairing in the first meiotic division...  c.  Getting it on.

concupiscence:  a.  Sexual desire; lust; sensuality.  SOMEONE PLEASE USE THIS WORD SOON!

love-encounters:  Okay, okay.  You get it.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Atheism for Artists: Practical Gains

            Thoughts after reading Chapter 3 of The Artist's Way.  Part three of twelve on creativity.

            Perhaps I should preface what I am about to say with the following:  I am weird about "belief."  I seem to have no difficulty "believing" in a god, and the next moment happily conceding that the universe is entirely physical.  I've been studying a lot of philosophical literature lately, and was stunned to discover that, while I identify strongly as a Christian, I don't really consider myself a theist.
            I'm not sure why.  It could be argued my mind is good at "holding opposites in tension with one another," or something equally grandiose.  Also, I love all things French.  Or I might just be indecisive.  But so as to avoid leaving the impression that I am arguing for a denial of the existence of a god, let me be clear:  I choose my beliefs, in the sense that I choose the best metaphors.  In other words, I don't buy that we all look at all the evidence, weigh it up even-handedly, and experience what we call "being convinced."  I clearly remember the moment I became convinced of evolution (as opposed to the seven-day creationism I was raised with).  I chose to switch allegiances because I liked the consequences of evolution.  The consequences I saw at the time were that it meant humans were part of the system.  Not something special that could step outside of the system and manipulate it.  Since then I have also become aware of some of the more chilling consequences of the theory of evolution — Richard Dawkins describes them with cozy brutality in the first few minutes of a Radiolab podcast.  But my point is, I like to toy with beliefs in my head and see what they do for me in certain circumstances.
            In Chapter 3 of the Artist's Way, Cameron asserts that we are more frightened that god exists than that he or she or it does not exist.  According to her, the majority of humans still "believe in God," (factually true, based on polls), or believe in a god, or however you want to put it.  I don't know why we continue as we do, and I don't argue that we should change or continue or whatever.  But what I remember of being an atheist was primarily this:  a profound sense of responsibility.  If there is no god, then I can't pray for something and wait for it to happen.  If there is no god, and my life sucks, I have to take ownership of that.  I may not be responsible for all the sucking — certainly a child is not responsible for being born into an abusive or dysfunctional home — but there's no one to turn to to fix it or blame it on.
            I get that Cameron is trying to encourage nascent artists.  I get that she's trying to give us all reason to hope.  And I want to encourage nascent artists, and to have reason to hope, too.  But my vision of being an artist is quite different from what she says in this chapter in particular, and I actually like experimenting with the idea of no god in heaven in order to get me to stop asking for things and start doing things.
            I want to be clear on this point, because I know some people who are artists still fighting their way out of the shell, and make no mistake:  fighting their way out of the shell kills a good number of animals before they even get into the world.  It's difficult and nasty and sticky.  But that's the good news!  It's hard.  It's not just hard for you because you're not talented or lazy or don't have a supportive enough partner.  It's hard work, for a million reasons.  You'll make ugly art.  You'll write meaningless stories (though they sounded meaningful in your head).  You'll embarrass yourself over and over again.  You'll spend money you can't afford to spend on classes that lead to dead ends and materials you'll feel are wasted.  And yes, there will be critics.  Some of them will say helpful things.  Some will attack you personally.  But while you might find it helpful to comfort yourself with God or gods or a Universal Spirit after the initial agony, my suggestion is this:  now take God out of the picture.  Pretend there is no one to help you.  Now what do you do?
            Seriously, what do you do?  Allow me to make a suggestion, taking the negative critic as an example.  If you're dealing with a critic that you think can handle him- or herself in a fight, you knock them down.  Then they'll knock you down.  Hit them again.  Proceed thusly.  After awhile the fight will end.  After several months of physical therapy and suicidal despair, you will make the best thing you have ever made in your life (unless you have kids, in which case, sorry; they're the best thing you'll ever make).  Congratulations.  Now you're an artist.
            To repeat:  this is good news.  The good news is that Cameron is totally and completely wrong when she says "Art requires a safe hatchery."  You may need to fortify the hatchery.  You may very well need to kick some people out of the hatchery.  But whatever hatchery you're in, you can be a creative person because you are a creative person because human beings are fucking creative.  It's what we do.  Those of us without kids might have more energy to pour pour into sculpture or food or poetry or even a job that might appear humdrum on the surface.  But we've all got it.  If God working through you is a concept that gets the work done for you, then go for it.  But please, for somebody's sake, don't wait for a safe hatchery; it will never, ever come.