Monday, January 25, 2010

Here be dragons

[Disclaimer: This post is full of complaint and whining sarcasm and offers no advice of any real value.]

I can hear my myself think and its not pretty
The tricky part of course is what you hear when you start to listen. Because long before your brain quietens enough for you to take in the angels' noisy trumpets, or the soft shuffling of their slippered feet, long before your spaghetti thoughts are lubricated by inward breath and untangle themselves, there's a deafening din that will put the entire Gauteng vuvuzela orchestra to shame.

Oh, the voices. Oh, the thinks that one thinks. The rattle and shout of criticising schoolteachers, we-know-better aunts and uncles, parents who in their loving blindness seemed to be pointing you down strange and nonsensical paths of self-regard. All the pieces of crud that you sucked up as a 7 year old, in all your eager porousness and wanting to be a real functioning member of the world. You took it all on, and somehow, somewhere, the cracked logic still runs through your psyche like faultlines.

Its been a noisy old week in this head of mine.

Because as most of you have figured out by now, living a life of authentic integrity, allowing your own voice to be heard, if not by everyone then at least by you, is the hardest dem task we have appointed ourselves. Most of us find it far easier to live the path we think our tribe / parents / zookeepers want us to live. And often that is not an explicit path at all, its just the way a whole lot of information fell into the vaccuum and was picked up and rearranged by the child wanting to please, wanting to be part of the pack, learning how to belong. This is how I am supposed to be. This is how they will love me. Most of us simply find it too difficult to listen to what the other path might be, to do as Joseph Campbell advises and follow your bliss. Or even figure out what that bliss might be.

Some of these crusty old imprints are obvious, and can be dealt with the old fashioned way, same as how you deal with cranky beasts such as dragons: stare them down, point at something on the wall behind them and when they turn around, grab the treasure and leg it. Others are sneakier, and wrap themselves around your lungs when you're not looking.

Yip, its been a noisy old week in this head of mine. A week of protest and name-calling. A week where Ms Serotonin took a sudden holiday and Mr Calvin wagged his worm-eaten finger at me.

You can't make a living from being an artist. That's not a real job. You need something to fall back on. To be a contributing member of society. Don't you have a responsibility to your family / community? To the economy? Shouldn't you be pulling your weight?

It is a real job, dammit!

It must be nice to spend all day doing creative things, I've had people say to me. It must be nice to be able to do what you want all day. Yeah. Its great. Aaaalll day, I'm doing that lovely arty farty stuff. I especially love the hours spent in the bank trying to convince paperclip pushers that I am in fact an ordinary citizen with a viable income, even though I don't have an actual salary slip. And sitting in long meetings that I can't invoice for, planning projects that have a 40% chance of coming off the ground. People with jobs love meetings, coz it keeps them away from their desks and their actual work. People who work for themselves prefer to keep these meetings short and snappy. You're giving me the job? Great. Can I have 40% of the budget up front? Thanks. Toodle-loo. Um, I'm not sure its necessary to have another meeting. It did take me an hour to get here. Climate change, you know. hahah. We can do the rest by email, seriously.

Live by the word, die by the word. Pay by the word
Writers /artists do what they do for the love of it, you see. Nothing else. Somehow, the logic goes that if you are doing something meaningful to you, that should be reward enough, and you can make do with less than those engaged with real commercial enterprise. Interesting that. Does it follow that if you are getting paid well your work is not meaningful? Hmm.

I wish there was an inversion we could do on our word count invoicing. I can do you a 2000 word article, no problem. But if you want 500 words, its going to take me that much longer. Is that so hard to understand? Come on, Writers guilds, isn't this a good plan?

"Remember," she said darkly, "all wealth comes from the earth."


And then lastly, that unhelpful bit of myth about the creative temperament: artists and creative people are depressive. Prone to long bouts of alcoholic binge, followed by feverish bursts of activity followed by 'mooning about for days.' We are forgetful and can't be trusted to pay the bills. We commit suicide and adultery and drink too much and do our best work during bouts of insanity. We are dangerous to ourselves. Electro shock therapy has helped some.

I guess I may be proving that stereotype nicely round about now, but honestly, where did it come from, this prickly bit of pigeonholing? Those bloody Romantics have a lot to answer for. Does this have to be my sentence? Why do we buy into this, what does it serve us? Is it ok with you if I just have a quietly productive life, stable moods and a secure income? Or won't you take my work seriously if I'm not a raging depressive eccentric?

Don't answer that.

Anyway, if we are prone to such things? Is it too much to understand that this has less to do with some artistic gene and more to do with the fact that its a hurty world out there and those of us who are good at our jobs are a little sensitive. Born without a skin, the mess of the world gets in. We are the dying canaries in the coal mine, people. And we say, Remember: all wealth comes from the earth.

As the big man said,
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and watch?

Right, I'm off to hunt down some endorphins. I believe if you swim with them they heal all your pain.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Inspiration series III: Listen (and other acronyms)

Being silent is an attitude. Its a state of surrender. Its giving the busy mind permission to not do and just be.

Do it intently. Which means, don't do it. Just find a place of quiet acceptance where what is (all around and also within) will offer itself to you without any pretending.

How long does it take, before the sounds just become what they are, and the busy filter of your mind stops trying to do something with them?

For me, writing is an act of listening. The story is always there. The words are always jostling, trying to get to the front of the queue. It's like sorting out a noisy squabble between children: just listen, and the fight may unravel itself, even though its an intolerable clamour at first. But can you resist imposing your adult authority on the situation?

Gail Sher, in The Intuitive Writer, has some simple and insightful things to say about Listening, about cultivating what she calls an Imagining ear. Training your imagining ear is the same as training yourself in the ability to allow peace, richness, joy, 'harmony plus inquisitiveness'. Its to allow basic goodness to flow from within to without and back again.

'For a writer, developing an imagining ear is the work of a lifetime. It involves deepening her relationship with herself and everything that crosses her path. Enhanced by non-doing, anonymity, self-sacrifice, ultimately it is about her awareness of the world – her commitment to hearing it day after day with a beginner's mind.'

'Writers listen slowly,' she offers. 'They listen inward, outward, then around the world in the four directions.'

Its important to create gaps around each 'hearing event'. By creating space around what we hear, we allow our fears a bit of room to unravel themselves. Those same fears that create deadness and blindness when we write.

She also says,
'Hearing is also a kind of sacrament. Through this body, through these ears, the universe is able to hear itself.'

This, incidentally, is similar to what Rilke means in the Duino Elegies, when he says, in the Ninth Elegy,
'Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window -
at most, column, tower...But to say them you must understand
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.'


Be Silent.
Hear the earth.
Hear your heart.

Be heart.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Inspiration Series II Things that go dump in the night

There's a wonderful book by Edward Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel, which is a quest for 'the source of artistic inspiration'. He distinguishes between duende, that earthy and mysterious force that Lorca would invoke, and which the Flamenco tradition acknowledges as its driving impulse, and the other more airy force, the angel brand of inspiration. Duende is dangerous and consuming. It takes over and blinds you to all else but the creative act, fueling you along with its dark fire. I'm guessing it's what seized Kerouac, and Ginsberg when he wrote Howl. And, no doubt, Strindberg had a fair dose of it as well. The challenge with duende is to channel it without letting it burn you up. No wonder so many writers medicate with whisky: when you ride the duende spirit you will need a way down. Or up.

Angels, no less terrifying, seem to come from above. The duende is definitely an earthy force, it uncurls from its dark caverns, where the guardian muses may have soothed it into sleep, and charges upwards through the base chakras. Angel fire is much brighter. And the authority on this type of visitor is Rilke, as he sets out in the Duino Elegies.
Every Angel is terror. And yet,
alas, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly
birds of the soul.

Of course, if you are going to invoke Angels you need the constitution to deal with what arises. You need to have a stomach for beauty,
For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.

Terrifying indeed.

And even if one were to suddenly
take me to its heart, I would vanish into its
stronger existence.

If you're going to invoke Angels, you need of course to understand suffering for the gift that it is, we who are such “squanderers of suffering”. How would it be if we allowed ourselves to feel all that, to take delight in each thing that we encounter, for all its terror, its threat to overwhelm us?

Angels. Daimons*. Are they inscrutable beings, indifferent to our wracks and ruins? Of course not. They cannot resist us. If you call them, they will come:

See, I was calling my lover. But not only she
would come......Girls would come from delicate graves
and gather.....for, how could I limit
the call, once called? The buried always
still seek the Earth. – You, children, a single
thing grasped here is many times valid...
Being here is the wonder

Have you ever downloaded a story, a poem, seemingly from nowhere? Have you ever received a payload in the middle of the night, and sat up, grasping for pen, word, paper, and watched the mist melt from your brain as the four walls of your room came filtering back at you? Things that go dump in the night. I've never quite managed to hold onto any of those. But my feeling is that the worthwhile stuff leaves a flare mark somewhere in you. As long as you are in a good practice of doing your morning pages and writing down your dreams, then some of it will stick.

Am I a regular recipient of this kind of night time delivery? No. Aside from the fact that I am blessed with the most technicolour stereoscopic dreamlife, no, not really. But then, would your identity really survive a fully conscious angel download?

Not that you could withstand
God’s voice: far from it. But listen to the breath,
the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence.

And there's the thing you see. Maybe we have it wrong. Maybe, instead of listening in the night for the muses, angels, whomevers to bring us these fruits from beyond the veil, maaaaybe, its far more valuable for us to send them messages from here. Describe this world to them. Find the right shaped words to tell them about where you live and what lives in you. The colour of that leaf you saw. What plastic bags do when the wind lifts them. That's where the inspiration really lies.

Praise the world to the Angel, not the unsayable: you
can’t impress him with glories of feeling: in the universe,
where he feels more deeply, you are a novice. So show
him a simple thing, fashioned in age after age,
that lives close to hand and in sight.
Tell him things. He’ll be more amazed: as you were,
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how happy things can be, how guiltless and ours,
how even the cry of grief decides on pure form,
serves as a thing, or dies into a thing: transient,
they look to us for deliverance, we, the most transient of all.

Well, there's lots more to say about angels and daimons*. But I have said quite enough and this is a really long post and I have some more Rilke to read.

*Daimon, as you know, refers to that voice, that higher presence famously described by Socrates, a sort of imp sitting on your shoulder giving wise counsel and inspiration. I'm sure Malcolm Gladwell or someone else has a robust neurological explanation for this phenomenon, but I'm happy with Daimon, Duende, Angel.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Inspiration Series I

I suppose I've always been a little preoccupied with understanding the creative process. Ever since I went to Real School and someone told me I was Very Kreative and I was puzzled as to why they thought this about me. Isn't everyone? And then for Geography once I drew a forest. Also at Real School. A deep dark forest, with milky greenish white tree trunks and dark spaces in between the tree trunks. Because that's what forests look like, right? the gaps between the trees are dark, coz there's no light in the forest. Murky. And then my Geography teacher wrote in red pen next to my forest 'tree trunks must be brown.' And then I started to understand. Some people aren't lucky enough to have parents who give you a whole wall next to your bed that you are allowed to draw on. Some people are told they must not go over the lines when they colour in. Some people have their imaginations vaccuumed out of them quite young, poor souls. Some people forget that we are all entitled to call ourselves artists, because making stuff is just a normal part of being a well rounded human. Isn't it?

And then there's that weird phrase they tell you: '1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration.'

Well its true I spose. Kingfisher wings flash at you only once in a while, but ants toil to get their kingdoms built. There's a shitload of gathering and ferrying of pollen before the honey oozes.

This blog started as an attempt to take seriously those ladies who love watery grottoes. Honouring the Muses. Sounds pretty trite, but having been deserted by them before, I do take em seriously, and will make the necessary libations. Its true that there are certain conditions that need to be in place if you want the kingfisher to swoop malachite and turquoise at you once in a while. The one I'm most interested in is this link between wild spaces and the creative heart. For me they are intrinsically connected. As we box in our wildernesses and burn our forests for burgers, aren't we also collectively desertifying our imaginations? That's what makes me go all chilly in the night.

I teach young aspirant creatives, aka drama students. I also teach teachers how to nurture creativity in the very young. I'm always a little shocked by the attitude that inspiration is something mysterious, that Creative is something you either are or you aren't, like you don't have to work for it. Drink, take drugs, and let the Muse strike when she's ready. Er, sorry pal. She's got better things to do.

I'm also often engaged in the task of raising start-up money for creative projects and I'm equally shocked by how both 'The Arts' and 'Nature / Environment' are so low on the priority lists, how they are something 'over there', nice to have but not as important as dot dot dot, those other things old Maslow said are more important. And how we artits (spelling unintentional but I'll keep it)all participate in our own grovelling. (I swing pendulum-like on this issue: sure I believe I must be paid my worth for the creative work I do. But if the money's not there its not going to stop me doing it).

I don't believe in Writers Block by the way. But I do believe that anyone can become creatively bankrupt, burned out, stale, flat, blah, polluted. And I do think you can suffer from some kind of internal terror, a kind of page fright where you are so concerned with the Other, the Audience, the Big Scary, your Grade 3 English teacher or whoever it is that whispers in your ear that your words are Not significant /too self indulgent or whatever else may be your personal creative Tippex.

So, mindful of the fact that I've been an infrequent blogger of late, I'm giving myself a map. Some musings (yes, I know) for the year ahead. Talking points, you know. For when I have nothing to say, or when I'm saying it all somewhere else and forget to pop in here.

With apologies to Julia Cameron, lets call it The Muses' Way. Some proposed route markers in this conversation:

Angel or Demon (Or, Things that go dump in the night)
Silence (or, You can't hear the stars if the TV is on)
Food (or Eat your artist's dates)
Water (Seriously though)
Vantage Point (or, mapping, or having a nice view)
Company (or, Get the hell out of my space)
Pollen (or, Group sex behind the wild irises)
Privacy and exhibitionism (or, Do you want to see me naked?)
Procrastination (or, Ooh look, a recipe for pickled garlic)
Composting and Recycling (or, How do I get rid of all this old crap?)
Harvest (or, Don't forget to say thanks)
Theft: Steal, but don't lie
Forest/trees, chaos/order, left brain/right brain (and other mythical dualisms)
Curiosity (did not kill anyone, not even a cat)

Not that I am announcing all future blog topics here. Good God no. I need to leave space for the unexpected odd ramblings, rants and reasonings. Nor am I offering any words of self help how-to for the creatively malnourished. Sorry. No fountain of wisdom here. Hopefully, just some points to trigger questioning. Coz when the curiosity goes, that my friend, is the day you have become a frightful old bore. So, which one shall we talk about first?