They say there is nothing worse than a Sunday painter. I stand accused.
I’m a rank amateur, and that would be OK if I knew nothing about good art. But the problem is, I do, so I can see how wanting my efforts are. I want to be Matisse and just skip over all the hours it takes to get there. In Malcolm Gladwell book, Outliers, he talks about the importance of practice in any art form. I know I will never be Matisse, but I also know that I need to keep at it, that my failures are as important as my successes. In this last painting, for example, I can see that it isn’t resolved, that there is something lacking, and I have an inkling of what it might be, a way to go forward. So I’m determined to make a move, to keep going with it, even if I ruin it. I’m interested in the problem the painting represents, and in seeing where it might go.
Make a move. This might be my mantra. All my life I’ve been plagued by timidity. I default to freezing when confronted with something I want or need to do. Often, when I make a start, I am so overcome with fear that it is not good enough that I abandon the project, whatever it might be.
One way I overcome this with writing is to keep a journal, or morning pages or a seed book, what ever you might want to call it. People talk a lot about journaling, but it seems to me that there is no one thing that is journaling. There is no entry for it in most dictionaries. At its most basic it might be simply writing in a notebook on a consistent basis. For some, it may be to record dreams, and for others, daily impressions. Some may pour out their hearts and others keep ideas for stories and poems gleaned from the news. I use my journal for all of these, trying to fill three pages every morning, as suggested in The Artist’s Way. I give myself complete freedom to be dumb, inarticulate, maudlin or silly. I give vent to my most immature, neurotic thoughts. I rant. I remember. Sometimes I stumble upon a whole trove of memories that seem to have been just waiting for this particular moment to flag me down. But because I have no expectations, I feel free. I have no ambition to be like anyone else. That freedom from expectation often leads to surprising things.
For many years, I didn’t look back at my journals. I put them in a closet and shut the door, often with relief, as if I had corralled a host of ungainly monsters and put them out of sight. Had I dared think that? Was that really how I felt? What if my family found out? No, better to just leave those monsters be.
But lately, I’ve started reading my journals, and using them as seedbeds for other writings. Folks have been doing this for years, but I think it is worth mentioning how different reading the journals and writing them are. When we journal, it is much like dreaming. We have to let ourselves go into the dream state, which is often irrational. Journal entries can be disjointed, as are dreams. Entries don’t stick to one subject, developing it, but free associate. When we write in our journals, our feelings are often raw, unedited. We are not judging what we are writing, nor looking for patterns. But what I’ve found is that in rereading my journals, there are usually patterns of preoccupation, of themes, that stand out. There are also those quickly dashed off impressions, often visual descriptions, that capture the immediacy of a moment that would have otherwise been lost. There are both observations of the world, and observations of my inner world, all thrown in there together. Often these become the basis of a story or poem.
While the story or poem is crafted with conscious intention, the impetus comes from a place that is less conscious, and often provides the energy needed to make the piece live. Yet I need all the consciously practiced skills in my craft box to honor the initial spark, and to develop it into a piece that will be complex and satisfying. And so to that end, I practice particular skills, the way a musician might practice scales. At the moment, I am working through Poetry as Spiritual Practice, by Robert McDowell. I just came across this: “No writer of poetry escapes feeling discouragement many times….in any pursuit, it’s natural to feel, at times, a personal futility….Anyone who has ever played baseball marvels at the effortlessness in the performance of even the most marginal major leaguer, but that grace is a product of commitment and endless repetition, endless learning….” And here is another quote, along the same lines: “The splashing of the ink around the brush comes by instinct, while the manipulation of the ink by the brush depends on spiritual energy. Without cultivation, the ink-splashing will not be instinctive, and without experiencing life, the brush cannot possess spiritual energy.” The Wilderness Colors of Tao-chi, quoted by Marilyn Fu and Wen Fong. From Tao-chi’s treatise. Cited in Beat Not the Poor Desk.
I look at my painting. I could abandon it here, or I could dip my brush into the yellow paint.