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Pearls from artists* # 234

"The Ancestors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Ancestors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Be a good  steward to your gifts.  This is the first sentence on a list I keep tacked to the bulletin board in my study, an impeccable set of instructions left by poet Jane Kenyon.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook

Work regular hours.

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 233

"Alone Together," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Alone Together,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

These words are true for most artists, not only writers.

There is the gift, of course, which is inseparable from – though not the same as – a need, a hunger for expression.  It is possible to have the gift without the need.  It is possible to have the need without the gift.  The former can lead to a happy and contented life.  I have seen promising young writers discard their gift, shrugging it off like a wrap on a warm summer evening.  They don’t care.  They don’t want or need it.  The other, however, is a painful situation:  the hunger for self-expression without the gift – that ineffable thing you can’t teach, or buy, or will into being.  This story often ends in resentment and unfulfillment.  Then there is endurability – Ted Solotaroff’s word –  the ability to withstand the years in the cold, the solitary life, the affronts and indignities, the painful rejections that never end.  The gift and the hunger are nothing without that endurability.  But up there with the gift, the hunger, and endurance is another trait, without which the writer’s life can’t possibly work.

The writing life is full of risk.  There is the creative risk – the willingness to fall flat on our face again and again – but there is also practical risk.  As in, it may not work out.   We don’t get brownie points for trying really hard.  When we set our hopes on this life, we are staking our future on the contents of our own minds.  On our ability to create and continue to create.  We have nothing but this.  No 401(k), no pension plan, often no IRA, no plans – God knows – for retirement.  We have to accept living with profound uncertainty.

 Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 232

Studio entrance

Studio entrance

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Think of this distance we travel between home and work, between family and art, between our everyday responsibilities and the life of the imagination as our own version of a rush-hour commute.  We’re not standing on a platform, boarding a train, shouldering our way through crowds on our way from home to office – a ritual that creates its own buffer zone between the two traversed worlds – but we are still making a journey.  It’s a solitary trek, and to a casual observer it might not seem like we’re going anywhere at all.  We might, for instance, be sitting in the same exact spot.  We might be wearing the same clothes we slept in, or maybe we’ve actually showered and put on a semblance of normal attire.  But no matter.  We are commuting inward.  And on Monday mornings – or after a long holiday, a summer vacation, any time we have been away from the page – we have to be even more vigilant about that commute.  We are traveling to that place inside ourselves – so small as to be invisible – where we are free to roam and play.  So let the electric company wait.  Let the mail pile up.  Turn off the phone’s ringer.  The voices around us grow quiet and still. We travel as surely as we’re in our cars, listening to NPR, our mug of coffee in its trusty cup holder.  We know that once we enter the place from which we write, it will expand to make room for us.  It will be wider than the world.   

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 230

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

On the Indian Ocean in Tanah Lot, Bali

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

I like excitement as much as the next person.  Perhaps even more than the next person.  But I get overstimulated easily, and I can feel my brain shorting out when I have too much going on.  And it doesn’t take much:  a good piece of news, a nice review, a longed-for assignment, a cool invitation, and suddenly I can’t think straight.  The outside world glitters, it gleams like a shiny new toy.  Squinting, having lost all sense of myself, I toddle with about as much consciousness as a two-year-old in the direction of that toy.  Once I get a little bit of it, I am conditioned to want more, more, more.  I lose all sight of whatever I had been doing before.

One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave.  When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong.  Yes, there are practical considerations.  Eating, for instance.  Or helping a child with homework.  Or taking out the trash.  Whatever.  But a writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there.  She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in.  The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves.  If we’re in the middle – in the boat we’re building – we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny.  The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion.  It is of no use to us.

If there is a time for that brightness, it is at the end:  when the book is finished and the revisions have been turned in, when you’ve given everything inside of you and then some.  When the cave is empty.  Every rock turned over.  The walls covered with hieroglyphics that only you understand – notes you’ve written to yourself in the darkness.  But it’s possible that something interesting has happened while you’ve toiled amid the moths and millipedes.  Once you’ve acclimated to cave life, stumbling toward the light may have lost some of its appeal.  What glitters looks shopworn.   The sparkle and hum of life outside the cave feels somehow less real than what has taken place deep within its recesses.  Savor it – this hermetic joy, this rich unexpected peace.  It’s hard-won, and so easy to lose.  It contains within it the greatest contentment I have ever known.       

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 229

"Epiphany," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“Epiphany,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

After his own cancer diagnosis, [Donald] Hall writes:  “If work is no antidote to  death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work.  Get done what you can.”  There is this – only this.  It would be good to keep these words in mind when we wake up each morning.  Get done what you can.  And then the rest is gravy.  

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 228

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

… we’re plagued by the certainty that we haven’t quite achieved what we’d hoped we could.  The work is only as good as our small, imperfect, pedestrian selves can make it.  It exists in some idealized form, just out of reach.  And so we push on.  Driven by a desire to get it right, and the suspicion that there is no getting it right, we do our work in the hopes of coming close.  There’s no room in this process for an overblown ego.  A career – whether it takes us to Cap d’Antibes or to the Staybridge Suites off the interstate – can be the result, but if it’s the goal, we’ve lost before we’ve even begun.

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 225

Morning sun at the studio

Morning sun at the studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

It’s so easy to forget what matters.  When I begin the day centered, with equanimity, I find that I am quite unshakeable.  But if I start off in that slippery, discomfiting way, I am easily thrown off course – and once off course, there I stay.  And so I know that my job is to cultivate a mind that catches itself.  A mind that watches its own desire to scamper off into the bramble, but instead, guides its own desire gently back to what needs to be done.

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 220

Lima, Peru

Lima, Peru

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

 It is the job of the writer to say, look at that.  To point.  To shine a light.  But it isn’t that which is already bright and beckoning that needs our attention.  We develop our sensitivity – to use John Berger’s phrase, our “ways of seeing” – in order to bear witness to what is.  Our tender hopes and dreams, our joy, frailty, grief, fear, longing, desire – every human being is a landscape.  The empathic imagination glimpses the woman working the cash register at a convenience store, the man coming out of the bathroom at the truck stop, the mother chasing her toddler up and down the aisle of the airplane, and knows what it sees.  Look at that.  This human catastrophe, this accumulation of ordinary blessings, of unbearable losses.  And still, a ray of sunlight, a woman doing the wash, a carcass of beef.  The life that holds us.  The life we know.     

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life 

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 219

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.  The world will not hear it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.  You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open.  No artist is pleased.  There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.  There is only a queer, divine satisfaction, a blessed unrest that keep us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 218

Untouched sandpaper

Untouched sandpaper

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Let go of every should or shouldn’t running through your mind when you start.  Be willing to stand at the base of a new mountain, and with humility and grace, bow to it.  Allow yourself to understand that it’s bigger than you, or anything you can possibly imagine.  You’re not sure of your path.  You’re not even sure where the next step will take you.  When you begin, whisper to yourself:  I don’t know.   

Dani Shapiro in Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

Comments are welcome!