I keep returning to Anna Kamienska’s notebooks. They are so companionable. Even though she was a mid-century Polish poet, there is nothing dated or unfamiliar about her observations. Recently, I stumbled upon this:
In Pedro Arrupe’s book on Japan I find useful comments on shooting with a bow. A Japanese man instructs a missionary:
Holy Father, you must not think about the target, the target has no meaning here. And you must not worry about hitting it. Above all you must strive to become one with the target, and only then do you calmly release the arrow. The arrow will fly straight to the target. But if you tighten your nerves instead of the string, you may be sure that it will never reach the goal.
Doesn’t this sum up the whole struggle of the creative process? We want so much to make a bulls-eye, and yet so much of our effort misses the target entirely, arrows shot wildly in the general direction because of tightened nerves. Or at least that is my experience. What does it mean to become one with the target, for example, for a writer? How do I maintain calm?
Nadine Gordimer once said that writing a novel is like walking on a tight-rope over an abyss. Do not look down, she says, or you will lose your footing. I know that sometimes I’ve looked down only to be gripped by icy terror. That’s just asking for your worst internal critic to paralyze you on the spot. Work has flowed, for me, when I can be self-forgetful. It is when I am not asking myself, “how am I doing?,” but rather contemplating my subject so deeply that I am living it. That is one of the secret joys of writing fiction, especially long fiction. The excitement comes in unexpected discoveries, in witnessing beauty that doesn’t come from you but through you.
I think we can recognize a work of art in which the artist has become one with his subject. This weekend I went to Greenville, SC to see the unveiling of a sculpture honoring Peg Leg Bates, the amazing one-legged tap dancer from Greenville. Never heard of him? Neither had I until this weekend. From Wikipedia:
Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (October 11 1907 – December 8, 1998) was an Afro-American entertainer from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Bates lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. He subsequently taught himself to tap dance with a wooden peg leg. His uncle, Wit, made his crude first “peg leg” after returning home from World War I and finding his nephew handicapped. Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of England in 1936 and then again in 1938] He retired from the dancing business in 1996.
At the unveiling ceremony, much was made of the fact that Peg Leg never let his disability stop him. Watching the You Tube videos would inspire even the most cynical. Peg Leg danced like a dream, incorporating his wooden leg into his routine in heart-stopping displays of balance and grace. I loved that he didn’t have a leg-like prosthesis, but a humble wooden peg. He wasn’t hiding, he was what he was, but he wasn’t defined by it either. He was totally in the flow of his dance, and so is the viewer.
The sculpture here, by Joe Thompson, is an example of a work of art created by being one with the target. Crafted from nuts and bolts, this abstract metal sculpture nevertheless powerfully conveys a sense of arrested motion and the graceful form of the spirited living human body . Ron Barnett in GreenvilleOnline, quotes a Bates relative at the unveiling:
Bates relative, Veldon Bates, said he thought the statue captured the essence of Bates’ perseverance and determination in turning his handicap into a blessing. “I guess you could say the hardness of the nuts and bolts is basically the way he came up — hard in life,” he said. “I think it’s nice.”
Sculptor Joe Thompson said he tried to convey Peg Leg’s indomitable spirit with each piece of metal he welded together. “Reflecting on this remarkable man, I realized that he organized his life around a very straightforward and clear idea: He decided that he wanted to dance no matter what,” Thompson said. “In every photograph of him, he is smiling. If you watch his clips from the Ed Sullivan show, you see a man filled with happiness, determination and vitality,” he said. “And so it was through this very simple idea of doing what he loved that he transformed himself and transformed the world around him. Dance is what he did, and dance is what I hope to convey in this work of art.”
Sculptors, dancers, musicians and writers who stay with us, whose works powerfully affect us, affect us precisely because they are able to convey something beyond themselves. They may or may not practice archery, but they know how to hit a target.