“It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!” ~ Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
(thanks to Facebook friend, John, for sharing this today).
Yesterday, on Twitter, a follower had the grace to ask what I meant when I said, “Use your life. Do not use your ideas about life or even about beauty to create your work.” This quote from my book was meant to inspire, not confuse, but my follower didn’t get it. In rapid fire tweets, we had an intense conversation about creative expression. At the end of it, I think I gained more than she did.
In having to explain myself succinctly, I had to look again at what I do and why. This, I think, is the fundamental job of an artist. It is not enough to just render images, go with the gut, and tweak until we either hate it so much we don’t want to work on it any longer or until we get that peaceful feeling and call it done. Something drove us to express what we did, a searching or hunger for meaning, knowledge, or soul and until we know what it was, we can’t rest.
Sometimes, that means working a piece to death and back again. Other times, it means doing a series on a subject until we’ve exhausted it. Regardless, the creative monster pushes us to understand something fundamental about ourselves.
For years, I have been intense, serious, and deeply passionate (I bet you hadn’t noticed). Hard to live with, demanding, and focused, I wanted to get at the root of things. Then, in this last year, something switched. Instead of pursuing a “great work” I was driven to do something just fun.
The deep artist in me wrestles with this. I hear my literary friends scoffing in the background. The new novel isn’t particularly deep, insightful, or transcendent. It’s just a story. Granted, I pushed myself hard and am diligently pursuing perfection, but it will not be the next, great American novel. I don’t even want it to be.
So today, thinking back on my abbreviated conversation on Twitter last night and contemplating Miller’s quote above, I am doing the artist thing. As in, WTF am I doing? And why?
The new novel is not autobiographical or wrought with meaning wrestled from profound experience (or experience I would have liked to be profound). Still, I’m as excited by this endeavor as I was when first learning to sculpt. On fire, I am consumed, plotting the sequel, studying writing, and conversing with the characters in my dreams. I am, as Miller described, dancing.
Here’s the lesson I’m gleaning, again and in a different way: There is no supposed to be. My pursuit of a fictional novel intended to be escapist fun is as valid as any other. Having been dead serious always, I am discovering parts of myself unknown. When I share it, people will take what they will. Some will get it, others will hate it, each of them furthering their own journey in the process.
I do what I do because I have to. When my protagonist’s voice came through my fingers without my permission, I had no choice but to listen. Not surprisingly, the heroine must discover herself in order to save the world. Hmmm, maybe there’s some meaning there after all.
What do you think? What drives you to create? How do you use your life in your art? I would love to hear your thoughts.