I’m fascinated by stories of people who are artists or who belong to other devotional professions that demand extreme discipline to a practice or a cause. I just finished reading a story in The New Yorker about the artist Vija Celmins, a woman now in her 80s, who paints, sculpts and draws the same subjects over and over again, sometimes for years at a time. She made bronze casts of 11 stones, for example, and spent years painting them so that they would like the exact replicas of the original stones. When she put the sculptures on display beside the original stones, people couldn’t tell them apart. Years! She also did a long series on spider webs, in which she would use an eraser to etch the web on a black/grey surface. She’s done paintings of the night sky, paintings of sand in the desert, paintings of small sections on ocean water, over and over and over again.
It’s funny, but I had a flash while staring at the lake last month, thinking about how impossible it was to try to capture the movement of water — yet that’s what she set out to do. I was mesmerized by the pattern on the surface of the lake, these symmetrical moving shapes, almost like ovals, all connected, that spread out across the surface of the water and both held and did not hold as they seemed to move and move and move, but also not change.
I can’t describe it in words.
I knew I’d need a photo, and also that a photo wouldn’t suffice, and I was tempted to try to draw it, but I couldn’t imagine the water holding still for me to be able to draw it. I would need the water to hold still. And I guess that also got me thinking about how impossible it is to describe a moment, even though that’s what I set out to do in the story collection I’ve been working on for five years now — trying to describe the intricacies of a sequence of moments. It all just falls to pieces. There isn’t time to grab everything. By the time I’d describe even a fraction of a moment, the moment would be very far behind me, and I wouldn’t be able to return to it. So it’s been an interesting exercise, but perhaps not one that can succeed. But I’m veering in the wrong direction. Success or failure doesn’t seem to be the point of what Vija Celmins (and others) are attempting in their devotion to a particular craft. Instead, there’s a common desire, shared by artists across mediums, to capture something ineffable by repetition. Or by a series of actions that will deepen our knowledge and experience of something particular, which can’t otherwise be named or known.
I don’t know.
Despite everything, something inside me still finds the stories I wrote vital and compelling. I continue to return to them, to work on them. Maybe they’re like the poems that I wrote all those years ago in young motherhood (never published) — necessary to my own survival, dull to anyone else. Who knows what pulls a person in, or why a subject demands one’s attention. It doesn’t have to be because it needs to be seen or known by anyone else.
Just now, in looking up more information about this artist, Vija Celmins, I came across this video of her talking about her work (link below). Listen to this: “Sometimes I think that the only part I think is of any value is the making itself. And the things about that it is, that are interesting is, that you’re making something that is basically unsayable.”
Is it strange to believe that sometimes a story can say the unsayable too?
Spending today drawing cartoons. Today, life is lovely and good, serious and moving, challenging and spacious. And slow. The pace is really really slow.
Saturday morning. Nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading the paper, talking to kids, braiding someone’s hair, letting the dog in and out and back in again. Drinking coffee.
A flash of an idea for a new project skitters through my mind. I see myself, on a morning when the children are all in school and I’m alone, sitting at this same table, notebook open, exploring the idea, following the surprising places it could take me, just like I did at Lynda Barry’s workshop.
A counter-thought arises instantly: What would be the point?
Virtually every day, this tiny interior voice of judgement natters anxiously inside my head: What’s the point?
This morning, almost as instantly, a rebuttal: None of your damn business. Just do the work.
“None of your business.” -Lynda Barry
I think, in some profound way, this mantra is the foundation of Lynda Barry’s workshops and teaching; it’s why I knew I needed to go back again this summer, to drink from her clean, clear well of wisdom. You can waste a lot of time not making the perfect thing you think you should be making. “At a certain point, the question of good or bad becomes obscene,” she says. Placing value and expectations on the thing you are making, a something that communicates in images, that communicates, period, is obscene. Further to that, it’s not up to you to decide.
This is a hard lesson to absorb. And ever-useful.
What is this thing I’m making? What does it mean? What does it matter? Is it good? Do I like it?
None of your business. None of your damn business.
The thing you’re making is its own separate entity. It’s not you. It’s alive in its own way. And it can only exist if you make it. So make the flawed something that wants to made. Get out of your own way. What’s the point? None of your business. Repeat as often as needed.
I’ve been away. Now I’m back. I feel filled up, and in a laidback frame of mind, and body. My posture seems more generous, my thoughts move more easily toward making space for others, rather than pinging with desperation about the lack of space this might leave for myself. I also feel a little bit worn out, and tired, but not exactly anxious about this state of affairs. It’s a manageable level of tired, the kind that can be remedied with an afternoon nap (note to self: take one).I was in Rhinebeck, New York last week with Kevin and our youngest. We camped. Kevin and I attended Lynda Barry’s workshop. We wrote, we drew. We played tennis and basketball. We played cards. We farted with alarming frequency, because of the food, which didn’t convert anyone to veganism, I’m afraid; rather the opposite. On the rare occasions when cookies were served, or chicken, the joy of the diners was palpable, as was the greed; at one meal, my own husband turned into a cookie hoarder and ate so many, he felt sick.I read a freshly written story out loud on the last morning that felt like it was both mine and yet weirdly not mine; maybe it belonged to the collective imagination.A list of the wildlife we saw: a cicada coming out of its shell; a large black rat snake (almost stepped on it); deer (several); groundhogs (many); a beetle much bigger than my thumb (in the washhouse sink); chipmunks and squirrels (of course); we also smelled a skunk outside our tent, and heard the scritching of tiny paws on the walls all through the night.Back home in Canada, I spent the weekend at a soccer tournament. Our team went all the way to the finals, playing through pouring rain, ridiculous humidity, and hot hot heat. Somehow we also had a regular-season game to play on Monday night, about an hour outside of town. By which point, everyone was hurting, including yours truly. (I need a root canal, but that’s another story.)This is the first fall I won’t be teaching in six years. My approach toward September seems measurably different this summer — I scratch and paw at the absence of anxiety, admiring it, wondering if this is what ease feels like, and will it stay and play?
For the past six months, I’ve been working on a 24-hour cartooning blitz once a month. The idea is that you draw a cartoon every (waking) hour over a 24-hour period. These cartoons are samples from my most recent blitz, which happened to be yesterday. I purposely chose a day in July when I’d be hanging out with my siblings. I’m hoping, over the year, to cover a representative sampling of the people, experiences, and events that thread their way in and out of my every day life.
I don’t know what this project will be at the end of making it … but I don’t question its value. How could I? Reflecting on and recording the every day essentially form the basis of most of the projects I undertake, including this blog.
Another project on which I’m currently working is a collection of stories based on events in my own every day life. At first, it began as a stylistic experiment — trying to record, faithfully, minutely, the vicissitudes of emotion and sensory experience in which we are immersed as we make our way through each day. But the project changed over time, and it’s become a place to experiment, instead, with the short story form. I play with structure. I play with character. I slip through time. I play, essentially.
Several of the stories from the collection have been published recently or will be published soon, and I’m seeking and receiving feedback from my teeny-tiny writing group on them, too. Again, I don’t know what will happen to these stories when I’m finished working on them … but working on them, reading them, thinking about them brings me deep satisfaction, which is all I ask of my projects. Making things is where the magic happens. Making things, and learning by making, and experimenting, and feeling frustrated, and getting exciting, inspired, surprising myself, refining, revising, trying again — all of this brings me joy.
This is where I flourish. (Where do you flourish?)
This is an ideal day, wide open, warm. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. I’ve gone for a run in the park, walked the dog, hung the laundry, and meditated in the back yard listening to the birds and the traffic.
It is possible to be quiet and still.
And yet, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, grief, panic. When you strip away the layers of busyness, you have to look at yourself, pay attention, listen. Maybe you were busy for a reason. Maybe you didn’t want to scrutinize the uncomfortable emotions and their uncomfortable causes.
What a question. Oh boy. Rejection hurts. Not meeting my own expectations and hopes hurts. Feeling purposeless in my vocation hurts.
Is this true? Do you feel purposeless, directionless, or is your purpose and direction so attached to outcome that you’re standing in the way of recognizing what is before you? The here and now. Not what came before or what may come, but what is here before you in this very hour.
I come inside and draw a picture. I write this meditation.
I ask: Is my vocation, my purpose more closely related to being a writer, or to leading a life of contemplation? What connects these two points on the map inside my mind? What separates them?
A writer writes, of course, but more importantly, she publishes. Produces. Makes her ideas manifest on the page. Her work can be seen, recognized, appreciated.
What do you even call a person who leads a life of contemplation? How quiet and interior is a life of contemplation? How is such a life made manifest? Is it a life in which its purpose is entirely untethered from production, from recognition, from approval? Is it a life without notice? What would that mean?
I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels easy.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
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