Creativity is a font, an artesian spring. Flow is what matters, that’s the satisfying thing. As with any flow, there is no end-product. A flow’s ability to support us through time is what matters. Any given output, once it’s moment has passed, once it has quenched our thirst, or even better, a thirst within a wider community, it may be as carelessly discarded as drops of water falling from our cupped hands as we drink our fill.
Establishing flow, maintaining it, those are the jobs of the thinker, writer, artist. Here is where our daily concerns should lie, this is where our care should be spent. Artifacts have value, just as, those drops of precious water, carelessly spilled, will go on to help re-new our font, or feed another spring.
Effort is the work of preparing and maintaining flow. Output is a gift, a product of grace; a tumbling together of clarity, brilliance, fluidity and solace. It cannot be held, or owned. In the attempt to fix it, to hold it in place, we risk stagnation. The flow is what matters. Effort freely given is all we have control over. With it, we become a conduit, without it, we are thwarted, a dam at best. This may not seem like much, but it is more than enough for me.
The following is from an e-mail I wrote a friend, a painter. I post it here because while it was intended as a response to a particular person, a friend and colleague, it also continues ruminations I've had here in the post Drawing Distinctions and the thread of posts since then, including most recently, On Creativity.
As I told this friend, “I am beginning to think about drawing, painting and sculpture again. It is still very far from any reality I can see myself in. The space and materials required are truly beyond me at this point.…. For now it's art as an idea that engages me. As something to feed into writing as opposed to doing it myself.”
After all these years in exile from painting, one benefit is having enough distance from my own work in that medium to write about painting. There is something about mixing criticism with practice. I feel good not engaging in the two at the same time. It feels good to have this distance and write from this perspective now. We shall see if, or “When and If” I ever get back to painting I still feel that reluctance to mix the two!
I've been thinking about your paintings and what you wrote about them.
Part of the reason I've waited to respond has been wanting time for my thoughts to percolate.
It's so good that you're painting. Carving the time and dealing with the logistics. That's tremendous and shows the tenacity I always saw in you, good job!
"My first painting evolved with ease…" "…and so begins the long drawn out process." That's where art lives, in the space between those two statements.
I like these two paintings, they've grown on me too.
What I wrote about in Drawing Distinctions applies to painting as well. It's a navigation between assumptions and accidents and perception and development. They all happen at their own paces and keep you continually off-balance. The tendency is to see that as a bad thing and "short-circuit" art into some sort of production.
Paintings are footprints. They show where you've been and point towards where you're going, all from within a deep fog where everything is confusing and maybe you can see back a few steps and ahead a little into the glare or gloom.
It's a practice.
A practice differs from a process, it has elements of ritual, stretching a canvas, cleaning brushes, sweeping the studio, – it used to include a lot of sitting and staring and smoking cigarettes. – it still should include a lot of sitting and staring!
The outcome is a gift of grace not something we have "controlled into being." We are responsible for it, that is more a series of obligations than some form of superficial benefit. We need to give paintings what they need, we need to do what they say we should do next, we need to save them from destruction, by others sometimes, most often by ourselves when we don't understand what we've done; it's scary or uncomfortable, and we destroy it, instead of waiting to hear what it has to tell us, waiting to see what it has to show us.
Painting grounds us, literally. As footprints, paintings show us where we have touched reality. They are the cleanest connection between our interior selves and the outer world.
Painting, and paintings, can help others by showing them a path someone has taken and by our ability to share the results in a tangible form. Whatever grace has adhered to the work feeds others by showing that grace is possible and that it can be shared and held in the mind and between people.
None of this is about a career, or having a clique, or even just simply fetishizing the work we've made. These are all inimical to what painting can be.
Just briefly, let me explain the problem with fetishizing the work. We admire a painting we’ve done. It strikes us as having captured grace in some way. We value it for that. This is fine, it is a joy we can have as painters. The problem comes when we use that painting to build a temple to our own egos instead of seeing it for what it is, a manifestation of grace that has come through us. As soon as we fall into that trap, we derail the entire enterprise. We become addicted to a superficial result, we try to repeat it, control it, give ourselves the rush on a regular schedule. This takes us further and further from the practice and makes it less and less likely we will ever be touched by grace again. Our reactions can spiral us out of balance. Is this the work's fault? No. It's ours.
We are confronted with Being and one response is to paint. What we do when we paint is to attempt to capture what we can perceive of being and discover how we can transform those experiences into an object that holds some of the wonder we feel in the face of being. Being is infinite. Our perceptions of it are particular and could have an infinity of potential manifestations. We navigate a course that explores within those boundaries. It's dizzying to see the breadth of freedom that leaves us. It is easy to close off avenues in a capricious triage, just to narrow it all down enough to seem manageable.
There's the rub! Capricious and manageable, those are false choices. By necessity we are limited, by who we are and who we are not. Our practice will narrow itself, without our hacking away at potential branches. We may find we've cut away precisely the ones that would have been most fruitful. Of course we'll never know once they're gone.
We hunger for the manageable. There are limitations imposed on us, some are general, others specific only to us. These limitations, and our discovery of them, and where they will lead us, are legitimate aspects of the practice; but they have nothing to do with managing! How can we be wrestling with the infinitude of being and struggling to find grace and think we can manage it?! There lies short-circuit and hubris leading to thwarted failure.
Talent, as a result, is a boon and a curse. Whatever we bring into painting may help or may hurt us. It's all in how we respond. This is another way of saying that it's all our responsibility. That is where our greatest joy as painters can come from, knowing we are responsible, that we are stewards to the work. Knowing we have found a realm where we have control, the kind of control that is possible for us to maintain, control over our own responses. Knowing that as we work we don't hurt anyone, we're not violent, we're not coercive, we only suggest.
We may teach others through what we do, but predominately we teach ourselves. We enact a practice that lets us take our human condition, mix it with time and a few basic materials, and make some things. In the process, in the act of carrying out this practice, we move our selves, we can deepen our understanding, as we deepen our awareness of the mysteries of being. There are few other paths anyone can take that can do as much.
Keep it up!
It's dangerous to be too specific in talking to a painter about their own work; but I do want to say I find both these paintings to be authentic and powerful. Those are good steps, or leaps, to have made!
Last night I watched Bill Moyers delve into a chapter of his own history that has been central to the shaping of all our histories. He went through Lyndon Johnson's Oval Office tapes as if through a scrapbook of his own youth. In it he found snapshots of what it was like there and then; how in 1963 and '64 Vietnam and its civil war was first inherited by Johnson and how it then went on to consume him and a generation.
It was chilling, but not really surprising, to see how clearly Johnson saw the bleak prospects for what passed for "success in Vietnam" even before he had any role in shaping events around its questions. He was very smart, and took things in voraciously and knew how to react. Yet he walked right into what he knew had no chance of reaching a successful outcome. He took actions that inexorably brought him tremendous personal tragedy only surpassed by what it did to the lives of countless others.
He was aided by the "Best and the Brightest." At that time this epitaph was meant to be ironic, today it is swallowed whole; a sign of how far we've fallen…. He knew when he was being used, no one was better at the "deal," better able to coerce and see when he was being pushed to act against his own agenda; yet he did it.
Facing a tragic condition, one of deep complexity, he lacked a template that might take him out of his bind. A bind that had as much to do with a limited view – widespread as it was and continues to be! – as it did with the actual circumstances he faced. Like a bewildered teenager, who knows in his heart that the choices presented to him are limited and bound to end badly, he walked into his trap aware of its difficulties and unable to do anything else.
If you're looking for it, the world does bring you what you seek. It did so when I watched that program last night. It gave me a germ of an idea that I was able to transplant onto the major work I've been harnessed to for closing on a decade. It illuminated something about tragedy and the binds it has used on us in the past century. I was able as a result to finally put into words the underlying theme of my novel, Shoal Hope.
The following is a draft of an Introduction I wrote today:
Shoal Hope is a novel of spirals and traps. Traps that turn in on themselves. Traps that hold you despite your will. Traps that overwhelm your ability to make decisions. These include traps for fish that ringed the shores of Cape Cod until a generation ago, but they also include many other traps we’ve made for ourselves.
A spiral draws us in. It can be hard to get out of. That’s the way these traps work, that’s how they capture us. They channel a momentum of our own making and use it against us. They will keep fish circling until they can be harvested. They will also keep us turning and turning in on ourselves until perhaps it’’s too late.
That is what this book is about. That is why it has the shape it does. That is why no single story dominates. That is why we go around and around again. We see a variety of stories. They are different in their particulars, but together they make up a cautionary tale. These are the ways we are trapped, the ways we trap ourselves.
Shoal Hope implies hope. A shallow hope. A shoal is shallow, but it is also a school. That double meaning was there for Archer and Gosnold. A shallow from the perspective of a mariner is a danger, from the perspective of the marine life it shelters it is a haven. A shallow that is also a school. A shallow that is both dangerous and harboring. A school of fish to them. To us?
We look at schools of fish, and their behaviors in these pages; but that other, wider meaning is never far away. This place, this time, these stories are intended to be seen as a school for us. A school of hope. A school for hope and a school for what hope means. A school where we make distinctions between hope and wishes, between fantasy and true possibility.
Sand has a habit of slipping between our fingers. So does time, and so have we seen the range of our possibilities, the scope for the quality of our hope, slip away. These stories take place at a pivotal time. This was a crossroads we can only truly recognize in hind-sight.
There’s deep tragedy in that. We lost a century. We lost countless lives in war and suffering, in unspeakable horrors. We also saw the final days as a healthy ecosystem began to be eclipsed, and we coalesced about a course that has led directly to the present catastrophic collapse engulfing us. A collapse occurring in the blink of an eye geologically speaking, but still too slowly to fit into our everyday perceptions. There lies another layer of tragedy, a trap we all circle in as we wonder and worry and still attempt to maintain that nothing’s really changed, that everything will go on as we’ve known it.
In the world of Shoal Hope we can touch a baseline. Our world has not gone on as we knew it. Already the changes since then have been profound. The level of loss in this single century has been unprecedented, not only within time scales we are accustomed to calling “forever,” but within the natural history of Earth.
These concepts are too vast to be understood, to be felt, embraced. Tracts on the subject have filled libraries without penetrating our resistance to their implications. For me what has had much more of an impact have been little things of great portent; the colors of a sky at sunset, the contents of wrack and flotsam at a tide-line, the life in a tide-pool or its absence. In my lifetime these have all changed beyond recognition.
These pages attempt to pass on experiences, extrapolations, imaginative extrapolations of my own experience taken back another generation to that time when there was a choice to be made, and when – in hind-sight – we can experience what was still to be lost, and how easily it slipped between our fingers.
Like fish in a trap, we let this happen to us. For the most part, with glaring and horrific exceptions, this was not out of malice. What happened to us happened while we thought we were doing something else. Life as what happens to us while we are making other plans. Sometimes this results in comedy, sometimes drama, and sometimes tragedy.
The distance between us and this Shoal Hope is our tragedy.
We see tragedy as bad. It is. It is also often inescapable. Not out of the twists and turns of an imposed Fate, but resulting from the most basic and simple facts of nature. Entropy is always at work, and everything ends. None of this means that any particular fate is unavoidable, just that in the long term all of our fates end badly. This doesn’t mean there cannot be joy or happiness or goodness. It does mean we have a choice.
Confronting the reality of our situation, in all its precarious danger, and with all of the personal and collective responsibility we have for how it has developed to this point, is not more tragic than maintaining a denial and experiencing an increasing anxiety approaching horror at what is ahead.
There is dignity in making that confrontation. There is hope in doing so. None of this is easy, but it is a choice. We have a choice fish in a trap don’t have. That it is limited, imperfect, and coming just when it might be too late, does not diminish it, or make it meaningless.
In hind-sight the germ of all that transpired in the past century was there in 1912. Some saw hints of it. Could it have been avoided? Perhaps in some other “where and when” it has – or will be? For us what matters is that from our vantage we can look at that moment and draw lessons and hope from how we can perceive it today standing on that century’s “shoulders.” Along with the damage, the atrocities against man and nature that those years have brought us, there have been examples of perspectives that can bring us meaning in the face of catastrophe.
The simple act of witness. As we individually struggle with forces and currents beyond our abilities to control, we can accept the lessons of witness. Witness is a positive response to tragedy in two ways. It proclaims that it is more worthy to look than to turn away. It also proposes that such witness is our only chance for amelioration, its precursor.
Brought up as we’ve been with expectations of heroes and happy endings, it’s not surprising that we see these possibilities as shoal hopes indeed! Meager, thin reeds on which to lean…. This does nothing to counter their validity or usefulness, they simply reflect how far we’ve strayed from an active engagement with reality.
As much as we want to maintain our old habits, those that brought us success or at least survival in the past, now that we swim in this trap we have no choice but to adapt or to be extinguished. Can we learn from this school? Can we forge a meaningful hope for ourselves from its turns and spirals of danger and haven?
That remains to be seen.
These questions have driven the work you embark on reading.
Continuing on this series of posts around the "Origins of Originality" here is another piece that has been ripening for a while. On re-reading John Berger last spring, I was taken not only by the character of his writing and its appropriateness to our time, but enamored of his titles, On Visibility, for example. This piece is written with Berger in mind…
I am full of all I see around me: nuance, detail; the way everything fits seamlessly – or so it seems – into the world entire that surrounds me. As a painter or writer I proceed to take my fire, my love, my desire to acquire, to hold, to capture it all, my feelings in response to such plenitudes; and proceed to mark-up a surface, either with daubs of colored mud smeared by brushes or a knife, or as ordered signs laid out in lines with a pen or keyboard. I begin to make choices, I fall into many compromises. I break my will to capture it all, and go on to find a way to put something together that resonates in some way, establishing some limited semblance of what had inspired me.
My disappointment, my despair at never achieving this fully, brings to me an inkling, an inkling that what has been achieved just might somehow be sufficient. The fullness of perception rolls on and on, it cannot be captured. Existence’s seamless entirety is so intense that, most of the time, we must push it away so as not to drown in infinite perception; but these artifacts, these fossils?… left over after struggles to paint or write; they concrete to themselves something of the majesty, the mystery of that perception of plenitude and unity that we cannot hold onto any other way.
Struggle, accident, rhymes and awkward conjunctions; all of this jumble; of errors and approximations, guesses, assurances, denials, erasures, certainties and despairs; remain within the resulting artifact. This accumulation, this action – a series of actions of position or negation – become a recording – not a record – a recording in the active sense – that can be played back again and again; something a painter or writer or viewer or reader can come back to and hold onto. Something that, paradoxically, remains the same even as the world moves on; but also, something that continues to evolve within the ongoing foment of perceptions as they move forward; a dance of direct and mediated experiences affecting everyone they touch from that first moment of their creation until the piece ceases to exist, or human receptivity itself passes from this earth.
A friend has asked me to meditate on an interesting question, well phrased,
"What is the origin of originality?"
As I prepare to look into this question with all its implications presented afresh by the inclusion of origin within originality opening up fresh avenues of inquiry, I'm led to go back over pieces I've worked touching on it, even as they don't specifically answer it.
The first post in this series is this one, a short rumination on Lilac Blossoms that began for me last spring while their aroma skirted my deck overlooking a little back-cove in the salt-pond.
Lilacs. They bloom for two weeks out of fifty-two. During that time I try to drink in their fragrance as often and as deeply as I can. They have always held significance for me. One of my fondest memories of spring in Provincetown as a teenager is of the masses of Lilacs in town; and the mixture of liberation – spring, the end of the school year, the coming stretch of summer; and of desire – for their beauty, their color, their fragrance, the paired masses of florets redolent of sweet adolescent perfume like an ideal bosom – sublimation and symbol of a guiding imperative in those years, and beyond….
These fragile, pale-violet blossoms – deep violet also, white ones always seemed… cheated. – have carried heavy burdens for me since those days. Nostalgia, an aching evanescence of what they are and all they represent for me; was there in full in these early memories. Perhaps because most of what mattered to me back then had that same quality; a sense that I was experiencing them, not only afresh; but with the weight of all my potential futures they seemed to have carried within themselves; so that each actual experience was more than could be borne with so much left to discover leading off ahead into my unknown future.
Add to this the power of scent to directly link emotion and memory, and so deeply that each instance holds both the present and all its past iterations, compressed into a perennial, emotional present. Smelling Lilacs has always felt portentous and weighty to me; combining a desire to connect with the past with a desire not to miss this transient moment of the present.
Smelling a flower. It sounds easy enough, but an attempt to smell a flower opens us to realms of sensory function and even quantum mechanics. What is the best way to experience their fragrance? The ideal might be a chance breeze engulfing you in their aroma and then, in a flicker of turbulence, moving on. Their smell enters your being spontaneously, emotions rise unbidden. The moment passes with the glory, the lightness of grace.
This ideal may occur a few fleeting, accidental times a year? One begins to reckon how many of these moments of grace one might reasonably expect in a lifetime. And how many are left?… Even without deliberate quantification, the resulting opportunities appear to be too few, and one’s rush to know how many might remain is replaced by the need to bury such knowledge out of a fear of delving too deeply into the workings of Fate closing the door to curiosity.
One is left with desire, and desire knows no bounds, and desire does not wish to be limited by grace. I try to resist, to avoid situations that lead to a confrontation with the source of this dilemma, but when I do confront a Lilac in bloom, I do not hesitate. I bury my nose between its lobes. The result is always the same, both rewarding and self-limiting. I am flooded by an olfactory moment, visual proximity – even touch, a light brush of petals against my cheek. But then, my sense of smell quickly, too quickly, become saturated. In a fraction of a second my perception peaks and is drowned out, as my sensory system is flooded by a single, singular, excitant and is overwhelmed. After that first inhalation, its smell has already become a memory somewhere behind the physical sensation of irritation, of pollen scratching on nasal membranes. A second sniff becomes wholly an act of will, enacted against expectation, resulting in ever more limited returns.
While smell is instantaneous, triggering memories that outlast it, vision works differently. A flood of color and shape and form persists creating a poetry of imagery that long outlasts the experience. An aroma cannot be recalled directly. As with pain, it does not persist as itself in memory, but only through the associations it develops. As with pain, these accrue beyond our control. Associations follow their trigger as they will and we cannot resist. Visual imagery is different. There is an immediate involuntary recall, when on closing our eyes we are struck by a vivid imprint on our visual field, startling and exact. Beyond that, even before that, begins a long process in which an actual image, either before us, or lingering in memory, attaches itself to other images; layering into an ineffable, yet vivid composite sensation. It is possible to call this up at will at times, through a certain indirection; an oblique attack that allows us to glimpse an image of what is no longer there.
This experience is somewhere between the unmediated immediacy of an uncontrollable olfactory memory, and totally mediated memories of signs and symbols that arrange themselves in such a way so as to create a string of imagery and association that can, to an astonishing degree, be both repeatable and communicable, between writer and reader, and then on to other readers and writers.
Beyond the sensory, there are perceptual mechanisms involved in smelling Lilacs that hint at the underlying effervescence of reality itself. In speaking of reality, we are limited to our perceptions and understanding of what might actually be occurring, but all that is truly beyond our perception and understanding is so perfectly hidden from us as to be beyond existence as we experience it. This limits all our discussion of what reality might include to what we can perceive, tempered by what we can imagine or understand. This has impacts even on our experiences of Lilacs. Perception and observation always have an impact on what we consider as real.
At sub-atomic scales, if we intrude, attempting to measure the location or velocity of a particle; we introduce uncertainty and end up – as we force an answer to one of these questions – never knowing the answer to the other forever entangled in uncertainty. At greater scales, if our intrusion is not equally as gross in proportion to what we are observing, we settle into a realm of probability that can be taken, for all practical purposes, as a working certainty. But only so long as our intrusion is not proportionate in scale to the one we attempted sub-atomically. Force such an intrusive measurement at any scale and uncertainty and chaos results.
With Lilacs, smelling them on the breeze amounts to a gentle intrusion; and we can marvel at all that is gained. Force your face into its blossoms and the results hint at what was there, even as that perception withers into unreality and spins into chaos; even as it brings us closer to an intimation of our own mortality as we ask ourselves,
“How many more times?”
It is also bringing us a hint of the froth of which our reality is ultimately constructed. The limitations of our sensory apparatus, along with our limitations of observation and inquiry lead us to a deeper understanding of that point, precisely because of how they break down. An intriguing subliminal imagery of the froth of potentiality, uncertainty and quirky determinacy bubbles up and dissipates in our minds at the thought of it.
The persistence of this understanding, its dissemination, is then made possible by the quantum fizz taking place within our own heads. As we put words into juxtaposition, with some reasonable expectation that others may decipher our intention as they replay our constructions, calling forth similar resonances within their own consciousness; we function in much the same way as the universe itself as it creates the reality we strive to take in. This last thought hits us like the scent of a Lilac. It is powerful, pregnant and dizzying in its implications of things not yet unraveled. It draws us to it and then repels by its intensity. We marvel at its mystery as well as at its implications. Our desire, as with the Lilac, to hold it, keep it, control it; is thwarted – as it must be.
Lilacs bloom for such a short time and they carry such a weight on their fragile blooms, in their bold, yet evanescent aroma….
Today, I'm inaugurating a new experiment. Two new experiments, actually. I'm posting my first non-essay, a poem, From Wood End…, and also my first podcast; a reading of From Wood End….
As I mentioned in the last post, while I am drawn to direct address, the essay form; I find creative writing, whether fiction or poetry, long or short, to carry meaning in a way that can be more powerful precisely for carrying that meaning more lightly, alluding and suggesting, rhyming and reflecting instead of explaining and declaiming.
I also feel that writing is written to be heard. At least that's the way I approach it. The performed reading is as natural a version of the work as the silent reading of text. Podcasting provides a relatively easy and straightforward method to present readings. While at some point I hope to do more extended readings of my longer works of fiction, this presents itself as a good first step. Poetry is definitely as much a spoken/heard art form as a visual/read one.
This poem, From Wood End… is recent. I wrote it "on-site" in Provincetown just a few days ago. The theme has lived with me for a long time, the poem came to me word by word and required little editing after the fact. I do find for me that poetry is this way, a dictation from somewhere inside that appears.
The physical proximity to where the Pilgrims first landed, and the proximity in season to that time of year when they came to this place provided the ground on which I built this work.
That's as much as I want to say about it…
From Wood End…
From Wood End, or Herring Cove, looking west on a clear autumn day
the hills of Plymouth break the western horizon
like a high island, lifted by the loom
floating above a glittering shimmer
sky encroaching from its edges
underneath the land at each end.
From this sand spit after its first impression
from the east of a high bluff shore
that could have been Dover’s Cliffs, or Devon
or the last lingering view of Cornwall’s Lizard
until all its monumentality evaporated away
as proximity brought it into focus.
From this sand spit once explored
it didn’t take long to see that it was an ephemera
of sand and wind, a plaything of the sea
not a new land, a new continent.
From this sand spit first looking across at those hills
on a clear day in late November or early December
the harshness of the season closing in with the idea of a new land
the single touchstone behind the perilous journey
those hills floating above the sea
a smudge of dark more solid than the clouds
immovable against the send-of-sea as the light chop
crossed from southwest to northeast across the view.
From this sand spit those hills stood for a new land
The yearning that had been barely tripped-up
by this strip of sand
lodged on this promontory.
From this spit of sand here was the first
of the “Purple Mountains’ Majesty”
that would continue to beckon westward across this continent
new, or not new, to those who felt its tug.
From this sand spit today knowing what lies beyond
long enough for that yearning to have circled the globe entire
rubbing off every potential new promontory
any vestige of that naive
yet hopeful wish.
From this sand spit where now too many come to visit
or to stay
longing for the very qualities
that appeared to have no value to them then.
From this sand spit looking west
ticking off the meridians lost to date
the misty forests of the Lebanon, the glades and bowers of Crete
the green plains of Tripoli, Syracuse’s pines
Carthage and Nova Cartagena desert now
Lusitania, land of light
where the wide sea met deep forests along abundant shores.
the word has held all that remained of that hope for a paradise to the west
burning, consumed by billions of greedy eyes around the globe
as the last of its promise is lost in acrid orange flames
visible from space.
From this sand spit looking west
Is it too late to take a stand?
To say that here is where I am
that promise is not a place, that no idea should enslave
driving us to miss the point of what we have
and feed insatiable appetite
for its perfection in a place that does not exist
at least from this shore it cannot be seen.
From this sand spit looking west
the elemental is all we have
Gulls that fly
transcending their gulled natures by that miraculous accomplishment
floating on air.
From this sand spit looking west
earth reduced to grains worn down from rock, laying at repose
where wind and water left them
anything upright is alive or human-made
the water lays over half the visible world from here
that already an understatement, more like seven-eighths, the truth.
From this sand spit looking west
the clarity of winter sun
low all day, has lost its pull
can we resist and not yearn to follow
it west and west and back again?