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.


  1. Imagine there's no heaven...

    You've hit upon some big truths here, sister.

    Art is hard.
    Everyone is creative.
    Never wait.

    This seems like simple advice, but like much simple advice, we have a lot to cut through before we can get to it, if we remember it at all. And something always seems to get in the way of it, so it's not so simple after all.

    We wait, because art is hard. We don't believe everyone is creative, or at least that we are not included in "everyone," because art is SO hard. Unless it's not, on certain blessed days. And then we are tempted to wait for one of those days again.

    In the mean time, life is so full of distractions, even when there are no children around, even when God doesn't become an excuse. It pays to write these simple notes to ourselves, just so we don't lose the simple advice that cuts straight through to the best kind of life.

  2. Art is so stinking hard!! Sometimes I feel like I must be making a mistake, uselessly complicating things, because when the moment of inspiration hits, it's practically effortless. But then you're left with this discombobulated half-formed monster of a piece, and you have to finish it. There is nothing easy about finishing it.

    I will say that I seem to be getting a handle on my own process as a writer, and that helps a lot. I feel like I can trust myself more now than I did in my twenties. But I had to go through more years than I care to think of agony just to figure out what that process is. And of course, I'm sure it will change in the future. Nothing alive ever stops being alive, unless it's dead.

  3. Hi Terra Leigh, I just discovered your blog through facebook and clicked on this post because I was interested in how you would link atheism and art. I've gone through my own spiritual searching and have reached similar conclusions. I completely agree with you that we don't choose what we believe for having reasoned it out. We change our beliefs, if we change them, primarily because it feels right. I'm not saying that I think there's no objective truth, just that we human beings are very, very good at coming up with rationalizations.

    For me, my actions matter more if there is no god to make things happen. It's up to me to make things happen. I've found that sense of responsibility empowering. Though I don't consider myself an artist, I think the same process of taking a beating, then getting back up and having another go at it, applies no matter what you're trying to accomplish. You have to fight back the internal and external critics. But I'll grant you, creative work is especially hard in that way.

  4. Thanks, Christine. I often feel almost frightened of how good I am at coming up with rationalizations. And frequently not even for things that I will like, or will make me happy in the short run, but just actions and behaviors that allow me to keep re-enacting the same, comfortable patterns I've grown accustomed to.

    Taking responsibility and empowerment seem so important to me lately, and it worries me that acting as if there were no god/God/gods makes me do that. I find myself far too eager to shirk responsibility when I pray.

  5. Interesting post. I've recently been handed the Artist's Way, and I'm willing to give it a go. I'm not at all sure of what or where I'm going with my writing, acting, singing and other creative processes these days; If I'm going anywhere at all... so, even doing the morning pages has been great for me. I've had a morning writing discipline in the past, and a love it. The problem is that I just don't believe in god. Every once in a while she makes the book atheist-friendly by quoting something smart from Carl Jung or offering a substitute for god like acknowledging yourself as a part of the Universe. But, it's a hard time. This person here... -> <- ...replaced the ten commandments, oops, I mean core principles with her own ideas.

    Anyways, not sure where I'm going with all this, except to get some support as to whether or not I can even do it, and how I can avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

  6. That link is great! I especially enjoyed the modified #4: "Our lives are a manifestation of creative energy; it benefits us to align our own efforts with that energy for as long as we are able." It's just such good common sense. Also, #9: "It is safe to open ourselves up to creativity, insofar as anything in life is truly ‘safe.’" If I recall correctly, I also had to revise the ten core principles, and I think that was one of the sticking points for me.

    I think it's interesting that Phoenix entirely rejects the externalization of creativity. I actually know a few atheists who agree with me that the *metaphor* of a muse or something that comes from outside you sometimes feels the most accurate. But the most useful thing I found when working with The Artist's Way was to make it mine. So any- and everything that felt inauthentic, I revised. I refuse to chant something over and over that feels false to me, and certainly doing so wouldn't help anyone be more authentic to themselves (something that feels like an obvious prerequisite to creative work). So yes, I'm a big fan of making things work for oneself.

    The only hard thing about The Artist's Way, in my opinion, is that to really get something out of it you have to work your ass off and spend a lot of time on it. It's serious personal work. In all seriousness, I was mostly able to do it because I'd recently had my life upended by a break-up, and an accident that left me unable to walk for two months. So I had a lot of free time, and decided to put it to good use. Not that I recommend getting in any accidents to give yourself the free time. :)