“I reached out for something to attach myself to—and I found nothing. But in reaching out, in the effort to grasp, to attach myself, left high and dry as I was, I nevertheless found something I had not looked for—myself. I found that what I had desired all my life was not to live—if what others are doing is called living—but to express myself. I realized that I had never had the least interest in living, but only in this which I am doing now, something which is parallel to life, of it at the same time, and beyond it. What is true interests me scarcely at all, nor even what is real; only that interests me which I imagine to be, that which I had stifled every day in order to live.”
Writing a novel — actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs — is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV’s so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it’s damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.
I know that I stopped thinking about extreme grief as the sole vehicle for great art when the grief started to take people with it. And I get it. The tortured artist is the artist that gets remembered for all time, particularly if they if they either perish or overcome. But the truth is that so many of us are stuck in the middle. So many of us begin tortured and end tortured, with only brief bursts of light in between, and I’d rather have average art and survival than miracles that come at the cost of someone’s life.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
“It is 6am and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, and the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written.”
Who needs the muse when you’ve got a proper habit?
Mary Oliver wrote over 15 poetry and essay collections over her writing career. Her prolific output rested on a simple rule of showing up and filling up the canvass every day.
But she was also jotting down notes all the time, out and about, in nature where she felt freest.
Oliver’s poetic vocation called her wherever she went, as she engulfed the world with an insane curiosity. Slow and deliberate, she let her notebooks bleed into the world.
Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up in your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.
4. Everyone needs a dragon day. In the middle of my burned-out period of the challenge, I started sculpting little dragons out of clay, just for fun. I did this on Sundays, which is my permanent day off from painting (thirty-in-thirty challenge or not, I still wasn’t planning to paint on Sunday). When I was talking to my sister about how I was feeling so uninspired about painting, but so excited about making cute little dragons, she started calling Sundays my “dragon day.” And I liked that idea so much that I now call Sundays my dragon day, whether I’m sculpting a little dragon or putting together a photo album or baking a new yummy treat. A dragon day is a day when you refill your creative well; it’s a day to do anything creative that you want, just for fun, with no expectations that anything will come of it other than the joy you get from the act of creating.
This reminds me of the author Tim Wu’s piece in which he observes that today’s Instagrammable edited real-life era has pressured people into hobbies only where they can excel. Instead, he implores people to enjoy a hobby for the hobbies sake.
The exploration of imperfect creativity produces a raw pleasure one can’t find in meticulous planning.
Iconic Latvian photographer Philippe Halsman shot some of the most famous portraits of all-time for every major American magazine, including credits for more than 100 Life Magazine covers. He shot the Albert Einstein photo for Time Magazine.
But he’s also renowned for one of his side projects in taking black and white images of popular faces in mid-air “jumpology.”
During a six-year period in the 1950s, he’d request an off the cuff photo of a celebrity artist, author, scientist, or film star jumping into the air. He captured nearly 200 portraits of celebrities including the Marylin Monroe, Salvador Dalí, and Aldous Huxley and published them in a book aptly titled Philippe Halsman’s Jump Book.
“When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears.”