“Let me end here, on a plateau of happiness, rejoicing in my world as it turns inward once more toward creation.” — May Sarton, The House By the Sea
I’m not at an ending, but I am turned inward, and have been since the wind woke me up hours before dawn yesterday morning. It’s been a relief to talk to few people—texts with Katy D. about the nor’easter stealing her power and buying—finally—a digital copy of CMBYN, a few words with my favorite waitress Beze when I braved the wind yesterday for chocolate chip pancakes, assorted pleases and thank yous at Rite Aid, at Starbucks, but no real conversation.
I love being social, and I love sitting on my bed as I am right now in a pool of sunlight, finishing finally the last few days of Sarton’s journal for publication The House By The Sea. She, after all, inspired this project though she herself didn’t write everyday. (I know myself well enough to know I must take the extreme tack of writing every day in order to only miss a few days, as opposed to saying I’ll write every week or every other day in which case I’m sure to give up the project in a month or two.)
I thought I would write more about my daily goings-on in a more concrete sense, but it seems, as always, my concern is the emotional landscape, the past. I often ask artists when I interview them to tell me about their obsessions, the questions they return to time and time again. Mine is clearly how the past shapes us into who we are, and how its fingers—visible or not—have long reached into our futures. I suppose too I’m also interested in the question of forgiveness, and love too, but every artist is interested in the question of love one way or the other, don’t you think? Whether it’s love for a person, or a particular way of thinking and working, or particular materials. Is it fair to say we express who and what we love by the very nature of making art, whether that’s in affirmation or opposition to the beloved?
If I succumb and close my eyes and curl myself into this patch of sun—is it any wonder I’ve taken to describing myself as a cat in some of my poems?—this will be my second nap of the day. It’s occurring to me that allergy season has started and though the immunotherapy has, for the most part, ameliorated the worst of the symptoms, there is still always this lassitude as one season gives way to another, and my body puts up its dukes against new invaders, even as I keep telling it, Stand down, friend. There’s nothing to see here, nothing to fight. My body, as per usual, refuses to listen and/or cooperate.
Have I already told you that my favorite thing to do on a lovely day is to lie in bed with the windows open, the sun streaming across at least half if not all of the bed, lightly dozing and just listening to the world be the world—snippets of conversation, the grinding sounds the freight trains make as they pass through Silver Spring station, clapping and “Happy Birthday” sung at the Tex-Mex restaurant across the street, the burbling of the water feature in front of my apartment building all drifting up to my window in fits and starts, so I’m gently rollercoasting waves and waves of sound?
And you, your Saturday, how is the world being the world for you? Tell me dears, and I’ll like here in my little patch of sun and read all about it. I promise…
Here is my artist manifesto. Well, really, it’s manifesto-ish. Manifesto adjacent. It’s not meant to be rigid. I don’t intend to ride or die on this manifesto. What I’m interested in is what I believe as an artist at this particular moment—February 25, 2018 at 4:15pm—and how that informs my plans for the next five minutes, the next five days, the next five months. I don’t expect it to be exactly the same over the next five years, for, as Sonia Sanchez has said:
“I think that the reason why art stays alive is that the artist grows. I mean the body doesn’t stay the same; the brain doesn’t stay the same. Your art can’t stay the same.”
This manifesto-ish thing is by no means comprehensive. I fully expect to read it over tomorrow, or later tonight and see some holes, gaping or otherwise. Still, it’s a way to see where my head’s at, to gather my thoughts, after a week of iron sharpening iron conversations—including two individual chats today with women artists I respect and adore as well as a three-hour symposium listening to really smart, passionate people speak smartly and passionately.
I don’t think there is anything original in this manifesto-ish thing. I am not the only one who’s had these thoughts or ideas, and, in fact, many of these thoughts/ideas are paraphrases of what other people have said to me during various creative collisions. I don’t believe we either think or create in a vacuum, but more on that below.
So here are some things I think as related to the artist’s life and practice, which you can take as a manifesto or a roadmap or a meditation or a behind-the-scenes of my brain pan or not take in any way at all.
I have to define my quest, my hero’s journey for myself. I may be Frodo or I may be Sam. I may switch roles as the quest requires. My quest may not look like anyone else’s, nor may it even seem like a quest. All of that is okay. It’s about feeling a sense of momentum, moving forward (or inching forward), even if we cannot make out what it is we’re moving toward either consistently or conclusively.
It’s okay to not be able to see past the bend in the road. But I should also not be fearful to imagine what’s past the bend in the road. So what if I’m wrong?
I must dream big. Then dream bigger than that. Then take a step forward. Baby steps are fine. As are leaps.
I do not have to wait for my greatness. I have to walk into the greatness I hold within myself right now. And, yes, we all hold greatness within us in some form or fashion, in some magnitude right at this very moment.
I must consistently and constantly be willing to ask and answer the questions: How am I stopping myself? How do I not stop myself?
There is no such thing as originality. I am always standing on the shoulders of someone else’s thought, someone else’s creativity, someone else’s work. What I mean when I say something is my original work is “I am being as faithful as I possibly can within this work of art to my own experience, my own vision.”
If I can’t write from a place of authority, I must write from a place of discovery. I also need to privilege work created from a place of creativity over that created from a place of authority. To quote Azar Nafisi paraphrasing Milan Kundera, “Artists are not here to preach the truth, they are here to discover it.”
I must engage fully in my life at all times. What that means from day to day may change. And what that means for someone else is probably not what it means for me.
I must allow myself to take up space in my life and in the lives of others. I must allow myself to inhabit my voice fully. There are people who need my voice in the same way there are those whose voices I need.
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations.'” — May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude, September 15th
This may not be how it happened but this is how I remember it: I was browsing the Kalamazoo library bookstore with my friend Danna when she handed me this slim volume, a paperback with a black-and-white cover photo of a typewriter and a lamp seen through a glass door. “Journal of a Solitude,” it said, “The intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman.”
I don’t remember if I’d heard of May Sarton before. I was perhaps not yet thirty, I had perhaps not yet lived half-a-year in Provincetown where I wrestled with what it meant for me to be an artist. The years of “undefined depressive disorder” brought on my finally getting into therapy and raking up the hot coals of loss and anger I’d long buried were still a half-decade in the future. I had no reason to suspect that this sixty-something Belgian emigre New England writer, typing up these daily entries in the autumn of 1973 through the autumn of the next year, could have anything to say to me.
I remember the shock of recognition when I read the opening paragraph, that quiet voice that understood why I loved long nights of cocktails and blues bands, but still hungered for long stretches of hours hidden away in my apartment with just a pen and a notebook and perhaps a pile of books. “I have written every poem, every novel for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”* How did she know that the only sure reflection of myself I knew was on the page? That it was the poems hidden in my body that helped me understand my wants, my desires, my griefs. Line by line I would tell myself my own secrets. Word by word I learned to recognize myself.
When I met Sarton, I didn’t yet know I was an introvert. Surely someone who regularly organized the company happy hours and spent two or three nights a week out at her favorite bar was an extrovert. I didn’t understand then that one could be a social introvert, enjoy the company of people immensely, but still need solitude in order to refill the well, recharge, refresh. Sarton helped me to understand the anger, the frustration I felt when I’d spent too much time in motion, when I’d not gifted myself one of those days when I was out and about but didn’t speak to a soul other than to pay for a purchase or say “excuse me.” She helped me to see that there was a difference between a day given over to contemplation and the completion of tasks that I wanted to do, and those days that weren’t restful even if I lay on the couch all day because of the endless loop of “I shoulds” running through my overcrowded brain.
I have re-read Journal of a Solitude countless times since that first discovery, and I buy copies when I find them to pass on to woman artist friends who too might find themselves struggling with that need for solitude that seems at odds with what women are supposed to want—to be at the center of family, blood or otherwise—even if we are, as I am, single and childless. I find myself craving Sarton’s voice when I feel lost, when I need to re-establish my sense of self because of some crisis or simply because I’m juggling too many projects at once. I have since collected most of her non-fiction, and I snatch up her novels when I find them though I’ve only read two so far—Kinds of Love, and The Magnificent Spinster (I think). I’m not a fan of her poetry though I buy those books too when I find them as it pains me to think of her voice disappearing, unheard by a woman who desperately needs it, and somehow I think that I will eventually grow into her poems, be able to see past the easy rhymes and “old-fashionedness” to appreciate the pure spirit behind them.
Did I mention that Sarton loved Mrs. Woolf too, and even went to visit her, Mrs. Woolf cool and in her declining years, Sarton eager, still a theater ingenue and not yet bloomed into the writer she’d become?
No matter how many times I’ve read Sarton, I find myself scribbling down her sentences again and again. She is my guardian angel leading me home, back to the quiet center of myself, where I rest alone. where I am equal to the task of honesty. She takes me by the hand, leads me to the blue-and-white couch, whispers forcefully, “The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally, is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room, not try to be or do anything whatever.” **
* Journal of a Solitude, September 15
** Journal of a Solitude, January 18th