The summer is over. As are the frazzled first weeks of a new school year, the pleasant stresses of having guests in the house, and the cozy/grumpy ambivalence of the old lady interrupting my afternoon reading.
I find myself craving a schedule, and some aspects of predictability.
I sometimes wonder if I will ever stop measuring my life in school terms rather than calendar years. But I do like the extra, nearly obligatory, reevaluation that a new term brings. It’s a natural time to begin new projects, set new goals.
I was probably 6 or 7 when I first remember making something. I made my grandfather a birthday card; rhyming couplets in my own handwriting, and a watercolor of the two of us fishing from the side of a lake. It was on thick, cream paper. I can’t remember where the paper came from. I remember the wonderful fuss he and my grandmother made over my artwork.
My grandfather used to take me fishing. I always use the phrase “used to” loosely. There wasn’t a lot of consistency in my childhood and if I did something more than once, it feels like a “used to”.
So, it follows that I “used to” make handmade cards.
In reality, I don’t think I was much older than 8 or 9 when I decided I wasn’t a good enough craftsman to give handmade gifts anymore: they were childish, imperfect, “charming” with a bright smack of condescension from Aunt S.’s lips.
Teachers pointed out that I should use the left-handed scissors to avoid the sloppy, jagged edges that I always seemed to wind up with. Left-handed scissors made no difference. Cramped my left hand.
I studied art in school. In college. I won little, local awards for poetry. But unless it was sanctioned by the gatekeepers who put monetary value on things, it was amateurish in my mind, and amateurish was a bad word. I was aiming higher. I always prefaced, and undermined, my attempts at crafts by explaining that I was a lousy at it.
I was an idiot.
In my twenties, I met a woman who became a mentor to me. We had talked a lot about being kind to our inner little girls. I decided to make her a doll for Christmas. It felt like an important thing to do. A process that honored what she meant to me.
I was dating her son at the time, and he made it clear he thought that was a childish thing to do. So I didn’t show him. I sewed the doll from scratch. Set her hemp hair in corkscrew curls with wood glue. I have a photo of the three of us. Two of us have faces a bit red from crying.
Even my boyfriend had to reluctantly admit it didn’t turn out as crappy as he’d imagined it would. (We all go through our phases.)
But it was many years before I made another object. I wrote books. But they were published by other people, illustrated by other people. Once I told an artist friend of mine that I was going to start making paper. She smiled and said that people spent years learning how to make paper. She’d been to Korea and taken a workshop on paper-making, but didn’t do it herself out of respect for the craft.
I didn’t make any paper.
I decided to learn Flash instead. I made interactive poetry videos. But after hours and weeks of work, I felt that I had put nothing real into the world. Nothing I had put my hands on, nothing that other people would put their hands on. It matters to me for some reason.
So, four years ago I took a bookmaking course. I told myself and everyone else that I was doing it because craftsmanship was something I knew I sucked at, so I couldn’t take it seriously, wouldn’t be competitive about it.
Who knew that it would take me so long to learn that what it takes for me to make thingswell, is a desire to put them in the world that has nothing to do with my own ego. It has to be an act of love.
After just three months of dating, I gave my now-fiancé a handmade book of poems.
The word poetry can mean many different things. I reach back to the origins of the word, the Greek poeisis: “to make”; and to the Aristotelian dramatic concept of mimesis (the representation of nature).
At an artisan level, poetry is a tool. The lyric poet uses words to represent and communicate the experience he or she has of being in the world. But the poet also aims towards creating sublime Poetry (poetry with a capital P): The poet aims towards Art. All imaginative writers do.
Aristotle’s concept of Poetry in the form of drama, can be applied to verse, novels, and even flash fiction. Poetry is a “made thing”. But it’s not just a pleasant rhyme, not a pretty little story with tidy conflicts and a reassuring resolution. Poetry demands a representation that somehow conveys living consciousness. It’s transcendent of its own artificialness. Even dance (poetry-in-motion) has to rise above the mundane fact of a body’s movement in space: Movement becomes metaphor. And it is necessarily awesome, in the sense that it is also tinged with fear; if something conveys a true sense of life, it must also convey a sense of mortality. Poetry, as an art form, is not escapism. It is a confrontation with our truths.
Art as Experience
Oscar Wilde wrote that art’s function is to create “a mood”. And if by “mood” Wilde means an experience, I agree with him.
I believe Art is an experience. It is the recognition of one human has when viewing/hearing an artifact created by another human. Simply put: the experience of, “I recognise that aspect of being human, too; I see you, the maker; I feel what you felt when you made this.”
Art (unlike fame) is a gift from God, or the gods. Or if you are uncomfortable with that: it’s magic: It is a work-around for human limitations, and a way to cheat death.
However, Wilde also said that art is useless:
“A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence.”
One can read Oscar Wilde’s little note on the uselessness of Art and the metaphor of a flower as his attempt to justify earning money as an artist. With all due respect, I dare say that Mr. Wilde had a limited understanding of a flower’s practical role within its ecosystem.
And although “made things” are not flowers, their potential for Art does not exclude their potential for usefulness. All art forms are tools for communication and discovery, whether or not individual works succeed as Art with a capital A.
Art as a Tool for the Good Life
Before Wilde, Immanual Kant also pointed out the useless of art. Kant said that an artwork is “intrinsically final“, but did make the exception that it is a tool for the cultivation of the human spirit.
The writer-as-artisan uses poetic devices as tools, first. There are theories that verse was developed primarily as a mnemonic tool for passing information through the generations. But poetry and imaginative fiction also helps us fulfil our need for creativity, for novelty. Writing is a tool that helps us exorcise our emotions. At some point, though, once we have mastered the tool – when we work with devotion – writing may help us communicate our unique experience so that others can recognise themselves through our Poetry. Art is a paradoxical event where uniqueness meets commonality.
Poetry, in verse or in prose – spoken or written- takes us out of our selves, beyond our pre-packaged thoughts. As Robert Bly suggests in Leaping Poetry, and as Aristotle described drama in Poetics, we use metaphor and mimesis (which itself can be accurately described a kind of metaphor) to “leap” to an understanding that we can’t reach by any direct route. Poetry, be definition, exalts our experience.
Choosing a Poetic Approach for Reinvention
Truth be told, “exalt” is one of those words that tends to put me off. I’m more comfortable with words like “improves”, “challenges”, even “refines”. We can use the art of writing to refine ourselves, and to redefine ourselves. The writing process can be a way to explore perspectives. We can reject our family’s narratives and their resulting false truths. We can challenge our culture’s meta-narrative prophecies like “damaged for life”, “people can’t change”, or “no one gets over that”. Like a photographer, move around the space of your life, change your angle, change your point of view through Perspective Writing. We can discover new possibilities for meaning and identity.
Oscar Wilde supposedly said, “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.” Regardless of his claims of uselessness, Wilde seems to be suggesting here that art can be a tool for reinvention.
Rex Jung is a neuroscientist who studies creativity. He defines creativity as what is “novel and useful”. By choosing to live a creative life, by choosing to seek out the poetic in the humdrum details of our daily lives, we can use writing to gain the perspective we need to become the person each of us wants to be:
We can live deliberately.
We can cultivate attention and gratitude; we can create stronger connections with the earth, and with each other. If we aim towards Art, and if we are very fortunate, we can transcend ourselves.
Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.
– Oscar Wilde
This choice is who we are. Which story are you choosing?
“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.
But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.
Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.
A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.
At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.
She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”
But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?
Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?
How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?
Who is the new underclass?
I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.
Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.
Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?
To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.
It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.
The figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.
Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.
That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.
But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.
This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?
Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)
I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –
Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.
Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.
*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.
I once went to London to attend a “master class” by a famous writer. It was actually a lecture in a room with 200 or so folding chairs. When the writer was finished talking about her dog and her cottage in the woods, she opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, “What kind of pen do you use?”
The magic pen. The magic paper, computer program, time of day, mantra or tea. Yes, I grew up watching Bewitched, too. Longing for the short cut, the magic wiggle. Waiting for the fairy godmother, or the red shoes that will make me famous before they kill me.
I had an epiphany in that moment, as banal as an acknowledgement of the reality of one’s own mortality… or a slogan: just do it. But like anyone saved on Sunday, drunk on Tuesday, part of me continued to look for the portal to the muses – a one-night stand start to a long term relationship.
Good things take time.
Five years ago I sort of climbed out in front of my life and started to take charge. I realised that if you’re ticking that 46 and over box on the survey, your fairy godmother probably isn’t coming.
I started simplifying my life. Making room. Choosing.
A few years ago, a good friend told me about her own quest to simplify: to own one beautiful hairbrush; one exquisite pen. She inspired me. I’ve been looking for the one pen. The magic pen.
I bought a gorgeous pen when I visited her this summer. Handmade. Looks like the sea. But the ink flows unevenly. I don’t use it when I write every morning. It just sits on the desk looking pretty.
I steal pens. I tend to borrow them and walk off with them. I have a callous on my left second finger from writing. My hand is formed to writing utensils. Yesterday, when I cleaned my nightstand, I found 9 pens in the drawer. Most of them completely unfamiliar. Things I “borrowed” from students or colleagues, surely. Pens migrate from school and back again, hitching between the pages of textbooks and notebooks.
But last week I realised the school is stocking the supply room with different pens. Thin, scrawny pens.
I had no idea I was so accustomed to the cheap blue pens I’ve been using for years. I didn’t realise I’d been using the same pen every morning the past year. Things happen when you don’t notice them. Habits form.
I had to borrow a car to drive out to the office supply store to buy my own box of pens. The cheap, plastic pens that the school no longer supplies.
My one pen.
This sucks. I really wanted my one pen to be exquisite.