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Archive for October, 2021

ROLE & IDENTIY. . .

For most of us who rely upon our creative talents as we engage our craft – whether it be writing, doing research, ‘making art,’ designing learning sessions etc. – when we hit ‘the wall’ or find ourselves in a creative desert (or worse, a creative wasteland) it can be akin to taking a blow to the stomach.  For a few it would that we become our work (‘I am the physician,’ or ‘I am the sculptor,’ or ‘I am the novelist’).  Thus, when we cease producing ‘our work’ we come to a realization that we are ‘nothing;’ we have no identity without our work.  I am thinking of a famous football coach who died within six months of his retirement for as he said, ‘I have nothing to live for.’ 

For those of us who become intimately connected to ‘what we do’ there resides within us a fear – that ‘If I am not able to do my work I will have no identity – I am my work/discipline/craft.’  I have experienced this in my own life.  The first time was when I was twenty years old and came to realize during my therapy sessions that I had become my depression.  In order to give up my depression I had to give up my identity.  This was no easy task.   

The author John Barth captured this quite wonderfully when he wrote: ‘It is Scheherazade’s terror: the terror that comes from the literal or metaphorical equating of telling stories with living, with life itself.  I understand that metaphor to the marrow of my bones.’

Some of us seek to avoid falling into this canyon by becoming super-productive; we engage in our work day and night; even our dreams reflect our deep emergence in our work.  We are more than passionate, we become zealots; we become possessed and obsessed.  By living this way are able to sustain our identity and we are able to keep the coachman sitting on his coach.  Our fear is that if we stop ‘being our work’ then the coachman will step down from his seat and open the coach’s door and invite us to step in.   

I am thinking of the great Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope.  To say that he was ‘focused and methodical’ would be more than an understatement.  When he wrote he drafted exactly forty-nine pages of manuscript a week – exactly seven pages a day.  He was so obsessed with this that if he finished a book before he had reached his seventh page he would immediately begin a new book and would not stop until he had completed his seven pages for the day. 

For those so consumed the line between ‘Being’ and ‘Doing’ vanishes.  When this happens then ‘fear’ becomes a prime motivator – fear that if I stop doing my work I stop being; I, in a real sense, die. 

Now there is a reality in all of this.  We do carry an existential fear; the fear that some part of us will die if and when we stop our work.  This is true.  Anyone who walks close to the line of ‘becoming’ one’s work (craft, art, discipline, etc.) knows this to be true.  Anyone who has stopped (retired, for example) knows this to be true.  My father was an old-time physician (meaning that he did it all) and he practiced his art until he was 82.  For the following year or two he was ‘lost;’ part of him had died.  Gradually, he found other ways of affirming his identity and he lived another nine years.  How can I walk the line between my Role and my Identity and not merge them into one?   This is the question.  This is the challenge. This is MY challenge!

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In 1976 I had the privilege and opportunity to teach an undergraduate course in poetry (you might remember, Gentle Reader, that my undergraduate degree is in English Literature).  I was able to design the course; which I relished doing.  The design involved a balance between ‘appreciating’ poetry and ‘emerging one’s own poems.’  Twenty students (mostly freshman and sophomores as I recall) signed up. 

I divided the class into two sub-groups.  One sub-group would be evaluated on the number of poems they would produce; the more production the higher the grade.  The other group would be evaluated on the ‘one best poem’ they could emerge for the semester.  What emerged, and stunned most of us, was that at the end of the semester, the best poems (as determined by a separate panel of judges) came from the group that produced the most poems.  What happened?

It seemed to me that the group that had the freedom to emerge many poems had the opportunity to experiment and reflect and learn from their experience.  The other group got stuck on style or were paralyzed by theory or by striving to emerge the one best poem. 

This experience taught me a lesson (mostly): When it comes to my art I fall into a trap when I equate ‘good work’ with ‘perfect work’ and bad things happen.  Art is rooted in imperfection!  Why?  Because art is rooted in imperfect human beings.  Art is error – all art will be flawed simply because all artists are human beings.  If one were not imperfect one would not be a human being (what one would be is not clear to me). 

Imperfection is an essential ingredient to producing good art.  The great photographer Ansel Adams (I can sit for hours and be absorbed into his art) seldom confused ‘perfection’ with ‘precision’ (being ‘precise’ can help the artist – the precise word for the poet, for example).  Adams noted that if he ever waited for the perfect scene to emerge he would never take a photo.  Perfection is paralysis.  Seeking perfection directs us away from exploration and from risk-taking and, perhaps most importantly, from the work that feeds our heart’s fire (how many art-makers have had been possessed by perfection so that they ignored their heart-fire and then experienced that when that heart-fire smoldered or went out they found themselves suffocating as they became filled up with dense smoke).  Perfection kills.  Perfection denies one’s humanity. 

Perfection is a flawed concept.  Charles Darwin noted this when he observed that one ‘perfect’ survival strategy for one generation became a liability for the next.  For we who seek to make art, the seeds for our art lies dormant in the imperfections of our current effort(s).  These imperfections (for those of us who are prone to depression we would use the word ‘mistakes’) are our guides and our teachers.  Consider that the great artists didn’t ‘walk-the-talk’ they more often ‘stumbled-the-mumble.’ 

Fifty-seven years ago as I was immersed in depression, I adopted the following; it seems to me that it might serve the art-maker well:  ‘I can’t go on!  I go on!’

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CONSIDER – THE ARTIST

Consider if you will Gentle Reader that living requires us to be artists and that each of us has been endowed with talent.  Anyone who has attempted to ‘raise children’ understands that parenting is an art.  Anyone who has sought out a physician understands, as the physician does, that medicine is at times more of an art than a science.  Anyone who has taken his or her car to a mechanic knows that the great ones are artists.  Anyone who has attempted to ‘supervise, manage, or lead’ another understands that it requires one to be an artist (how many books have the theme of ‘leadership is an art’ or how many focus on ‘the art of management’). 

Good art requires the artist to possess and use talent.  What is talent?  Talent is often described as ‘what comes easily.’  The illusion, or is it delusion, is that the great artist is so talented that his or her art simply flows from within like a great river with powerful and steady creative currents.  All artists (that is, each of us) discover that talent alone is not enough; all artists experience “artists’ block.”  The paradox is that we have what is needed in order to ‘produce our best work.’  We expend vast amounts of psychic energy worrying about how much talent we really have (this, it appears, is true even among artists we consider to be ‘great’). 

Talent is a gift; it is not of our own making.  This is an old idea.  Plato believed that all art is a gift from the gods; this gift is channeled through artists who are ‘out of their mind’ – quite literally in Plato’s view – as they make their art [today we might say that a person is in his or her ‘right mind’].  If talent alone were the tap root then the most talented would produce the greatest art and this great art would have been easy to produce.  But alas, as Plato also noted, the fates are not so generous.  There have been a few artists who have developed their craft with grace and speed – many more, however, have labored long and hard in order to nurture their art through the fertile valleys and the hot deserts and the bleak wastelands.  Our talent might get us started, but that is all. 

If we pause and reflect we will remember that the world has been filled with folks who were given great talents and yet never developed into the artists they were called to be.  After a time, the world ceases to care whether they were talented or not.  Those who rely on talent alone – without continuously developing it for a life-time – peak and fade.  Consider the examples of genius that have surfaced, burned brightly and then faded: the five-year old musical prodigies – how many became Mozart?  Whatever his ‘gift’, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work his work – thereby improving.  Pablo Casals practiced hours a day when he was 90 years old because he wanted to continue developing his talent. 

Our talent develops and our art work improves because we nurture our talent by working our work.  We improve by learning to work and by learning from our work.  We improve by committing ourselves to the work of our ‘heart’ – and we act on our commitment.  And, we know that working our work, developing our talent, is hard – our talent is like a fire that we have been given to tend; when it smolders or goes out we fill with dense smoke and suffocate from within.  I am thinking of Shaw’s words: ‘Life is no brief candle to me. . .I want to be thoroughly used up when I die.’  I am also thinking of Markova’s words: ‘I will not die an unlived life. . .I will not live in fear. . .’ 

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