Either Magic or Insanity
I haven’t been cooking, and I haven’t been writing. The sum of these two havents is me, living with a slight fear in my bones. More like anxiety, which I generally choose to ignore and laugh about, kicking soccer balls with tiny boys, going for a pint with my friends. But in the back of my mind, it stays there, that little question about whether I have run dry of inspiration, creativity, and spunk. Perhaps it is that same voice that prowls around me persistently, and will never let me stop, even if there is nothing worth delivering to the world. Oh, shut up, she sometimes says. But speak louder, she says the next day. Eh, such a fine mess is an artist. A restless heart. A wild mind.
Last year, when I was quite seriously re-birthing myself, from a violent test to faith and heart, I wrote almost constantly. A day was not right if I did not envelop myself with words and questions, books, paper, pens, and the stop-and-go tapping of keys. I woke in the night, if that is what it took. It flowed. Which worried me, too, as I wondered if I needed depsair and turmoil in order to create. Was sadness and uncertainty, and the hope that is born of that, my only muse? Yikes. Surely not. But as I fear, I remember what Nikki Giovanni has said of poets: “We are beyond loneliness.”
I go out. I run through the neighborhood, slowly being wrapped in orange and black décor. There is a solace in speed, in not ever lingering in any one space. To enter it, and leave it, staying long enough to only catch its scent. Today, it is the memory of rain, with interruptions like cigarette smoke, or chintzy air-fresheners on the rearview, or runaway dogs, or breakfast burning. I love it, breathing in and out the entire mingled-up stink, and the mountain air, and the dying leaves.
As I run, I think about the creative process. Usually a bit of a tortured attempt at balance between stopping and going, waiting and bursting on ahead, necessity and treachery, luxurious time and guilty indulgence. If you are an artist, I’m sure you understand. It isn’t necessarily, as many have said, a fact of “you just can’t help it!” But it is, definitely, hard to control it very well. Sure you can help it. I can. Sometimes I notice myself, helping it along. With tea or with silence. With a pep talk to myself, like, “Everything is just fermenting, right now. Wait, girl. Temper.” And as I reflect on this, I think we’re not empowered enough to bow to process at all, and not encouraged to understand it. When we endeavor to make art, we don’t often ask, what is it that I need, in order to create?
I heard an interview recently with Joyce Carol Oates, in which she asserted that she needs to endlessly walk around outside, in nature, in order to write. Even I, hearing this, thought to myself, what incredible privilege, and immediately felt guilty at my own good fortune, to have any capacity whatsoever to make anything of the nagging voice inside of me. The voice which I have hated, repeatedly, and loved, desperately, back and forth and all at once, in a confusion of soul that is either magic or insanity. I’m not sure I’ll ever be convinced of either. She is like the pure white feral cat that lives just beyond my house, in the woods. All her sisters have run away, or been disemboweled by the bear which comes to overturn my garbage. She is beautiful, I feel sure, but she won't look me in the eye. She doesn't really ask for anything, but she won't leave me alone.
I think, during that hellish and sacred last year, I wrote a lot because I made the space for it. Sometimes cloistering myself, often fleeing to the outside, fast and wreckless, or sitting in the dark, letting the voice reign, whenever I could. And because of the suffering, and the pressure of why, I was less inclined to believe that the little voice was just a brat, made out of me, that was demanding too much attention. This conflagration of need and space and oblivion and hope became a book, and a hard drive full of other words, which may go somehwere or nowhere at all. Someday. Oh sweet relief, I don’t need turmoil to write. I need space, and reverence for the process.
What is certain, today, is that I have renewed a commitment to create, even if I cannot know what shape it will take, or how it will shape up at all. What is certain, now that there are books all around me which I sign and wrap and wrap and ship, is that I have not been very kind to that little friend of mine. She circles me, still, soft and mysterious. Today, her voice is sort of laughing at me, cockeyed, like, Do you not see your life? Do you not see what I have made from you?
I may have long ago accepted that every artist has a process, but I don’t think I realized, until very recently, that a successful artist has to admit to it. Admit to its inherent fragility. If I should expect to do anything but burn from the need I feel to create, then I should expect to willingly and openly subject myself to the torrential power and simultaneous vulnerability that is creativity. And ask what it needs, and give it care. The dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov says it took him nearly thirty years to do that, and to figure out what he believes artists need in order to succeed. In the end, he summarizes it as follows: Space. Light. Privacy...
...with which to do whatever is needed. That could be anything. It could even be filling the space with junk, making dark places in the light, or inviting others in. It could be anything at all.
If you are an artist, give yourself at least this to start with. If you belong in the life of an artist, give him or her at least this. Everyone, give yourself and others a little bit of these thin things. Maybe then the world will be a more artful and beautiful place for our clumsy, blessed gratitude.