Making art is a good way to get to know yourself and others, and it usually feels good. Sometimes not. Sometimes you can get in trouble, as my daughter did in her art class the other day when she was being less-than-cautious with scissors. She’s in high school now and definitely knows better, but when the teacher took away the scissors and told her to continue without them, she balked. In the making of art, we can run aground on our own high spiritedness.
She brought home her work-in-progress: a self-portrait collage. This is a perfect example of one of those learn-the-hard-way-about-yourself moments that we creative writing teachers find interesting.
I gave her a set of hobby knives. And I sat with her and listened to her talk about things.
When we get into conflict with ourselves, or get in our own way, it helps to have someone to share with. I’m reflecting on experiences of teaching and organizing in literary arts while on my self-imposed break from it all, and I feel the value of it really comes down to those moments of deeply listening and being present with others in the growing pains inherent to creativity.
We don’t talk about the pain involved with creativity, probably because it’s bad marketing if you’re trying to get classes and writing groups and creative programs filled up.
But we can give ourselves space for our creative pain. I’m almost done with my self-imposed Robert Louis Stevenson immersion, which I’ve been savoring slowly. He has a way of being with himself and the universe that I find simultaneously compelling and calming. Here he is, describing breaking camp on a French mountainside in autumn:
The stars were not yet quite extinguished. The heaven was of that enchanting mild gray-blue of the early morn. A still clear light began to fall, and the trees on the hillside were outlined sharply against the sky. The wind had veered more to the north, and no longer reached me in the glen; but as I was going on with my preparations, it drove a white cloud very swiftly over the hilltop; and looking up, I was surprised to see the cloud dyed with gold. In these high regions of the air, the sun was already shining as at noon. If only the clouds traveled high enough, we should see the same thing all night long. For it is always daylight in the fields of space.Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey
I love the perspective he lends to things in his inimitable but often-emulated way. I’m also revisiting works by Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet famous for his heteronyms — alternate personalities in the drama of his writing life. “Each of my dreams, as soon as I start dreaming it, is immediately incarnated in another person, who is then the one dreaming it, and not I. To create, I’ve destroyed myself… I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.” (The Book of Disquiet, quoted in Richard Zenith’s translation of selected poems, A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe)
Pessoa’s sense of being lost and found at the same time in this poem speaks to that existential suffering that most of us who struggle on and on with poetry endure daily.
I know you’re asking what the point is of this self-disintegration in our writing. I consider it a kind of digression that leads back, on a scenic trail loop, to the deep source of renewal that we seek out in any kind of art. It’s risky, as Stevenson points out in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But it’s also our way to indicate to others the hazards and resting areas on the journey. In other words, its point is to connect us.
There’s a Motionpoem film short by Kyle Dargan that I used to show my students when talking about use of the collective first-person voice in poetry. Even connected, we risk making a mess of things if we neglect self-awareness.
Self-destructive, bio-aggressive dreaming won’t end well. These artists’ works are steep, and they are very different from each other, but the commitment to transformation is strong as they traverse history, geographies, and their own prejudices. As must we all.
I choose to be inspired and, hopefully, to inspire in turn.