Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, June 16, 2014

Letter to a young artist

Interior collage vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad

I've been thinking about you and your aspirations as you drift into the world, slipping into a job, finding the time to make your art without someone at your shoulder. You ask for advice, yet always I fear being polonial,* and so needing a good stabbing as I stand behind the arras. And though you must discover your own path and make your own quest, I feel the impulse to warn you against certain beasts along the way. In our age, the barriers to mastery in the arts have become especially powerful and strange. They can lead you in directions that mean the destruction of art--that can cripple your future work at the very start.

I say this in part because you passed through the liberal arts college of the day, and sometimes you have been taught by academics to take angry little hatchets and chop away at the pillars that hold up Western civilization and tradition. (My stance? To teach is a high calling, often fulfilled with grace. But a professor who mocks and throws away the great works of the past is a mere chipmunk digging a hole under the foot of a giant.) Oh, it is good to look with clear eyes at the world and time. But it is wrong to dismantle and trash the glories of a civilization. The truest, strongest art is crafted in the sex-abolishing, race-abolishing spirit, using the tools of the trade.

Take the great works of the past. Make them your own. Know why some matter to you, while others do not, and you will know yourself and your aims better. Know the tradition from which you spring and so be a giant by standing on the shoulders of men and the few women who managed to speak well in spite of the expectations and constraints of their times and culture. Rejoice in the art, rather than dwelling on social critique and conditions as a measure of that art. Conditions and cultural beliefs are not the measure of an art, but part of a complicated soil of time and place from which a work grows and flowers.

Also, sift out and forget any nonsense you were served up in studio or workshop classes--to make art only based on "what you know," "to find your voice," etc. My education taught me that certain words were off limits, that literature was divided into genres and only one was worthwhile, and that I didn't need the ancient tools of my trade inherited from the masters of the past. One of the things I found useful about my education was that it awakened the desire to strive against or test what I had been taught. Question your received ideas, and toss them if they do not serve your art.

Let the art teach you. Know your tools. Remember that the way forward has long been through the tradition and the past. Each time you start a work, you will be starting over. But just make your art. In love. In truth. In grace. You will be making yourself, as well. Each time you begin again, you will be different--bigger on the inside, more emboldened and ready to leap into the unknown with a shout.

Love to you, luck to you--
Marly

* Yes, I made that one up. But it's a made-up word I've used for a long time, as Polonius and his advice always come to mind when I am asked for advice. Perhaps in such situations, we are all Polonius, or we are all the grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," who would have been a good woman--would have spoken only what is true and what matters--if only there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.


Video by Paul Digby.

14 comments:

  1. Lovely post, well worthy of sharing.

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    1. My, you are quick, Robinka! Hadn't even hopped off yet... Hope you're still having much luck with the anthology. I shall have to go by and see.

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  2. Thank you, Marly, for sharing your lovely and inspiring thoughts here!

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    1. Robin, thanks. Glad you enjoyed what tumbled out of my head.

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  3. Mine would be this:

    Pay attention.

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    1. That's probably more likely to be remembered! Though I hope in this case it is already a given...

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    2. Easiest thing to forget, hardest thing to do. In fact I would hazard this as a working definition of art: the structured depiction of attention.

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    3. That's an elegant definition, Umbagollah!

      Maybe it's because I am a more instinctual writer, at least in initial drafts, but I'd tend to want to add in something of "getting lost." There's such a fruitful abolition of self in the course of making things, at least when they are going well, that one has a very different sense of attention paid and making structure than the norm.

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    4. Then I'd add that by "paying attention" I also mean "cultivating a habit of attention," and habits can continue to operate even when the person is "lost" -- is not thinking, "Now I must pay attention, now I must create a structure," or anything similar. I don't think it's necessary to believe (this is the first example that comes to mind) that Dorothy Wordsworth was making herself pay attention when she described sheep as "glittering" in her Alfoxden Journal (entry for January 26th) but that word is my idea of an attention-word. It "abolishes the self," in that it perceives a quality around the sheep that the self (this is my guess about Dorothy's self) has not been taught to expect around sheep. Softness, innocence, and rustic calm are the qualities that tradition puts around sheep, but these sheep are sharp and radiant. I suggest that "glittering" is an transcendently observant word; it is also a self-forgetting one.

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    5. I like that response, Umbagollah. I'd probably also say that--say, as in the case when a lyric poem floods out--that there is even more mystery to getting lost, to making things, and to the sensation that a force not quite our own pours through us or flashes along the nerves.

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  4. Yes, all of those things that Marly has said. I second everything in the above. But I'd add one more thing.

    Don't forget to bring a sense of play to your work. Even when we aspire to the serious and the worthy, there must be an element of play in the making of art. That's easy to forget when we're striving for excellence, but artists neglect play at their peril. Cultivate the habit of it, and it will always serve you well.

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  5. Excellent! Sounds like a graduation address to young artists, full of wisdom. And I totally agree with Clive's addition.

    And I enjoyed hearing your lovely melodic voice in the video, Marly!

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    1. Hi Marja-Leena--

      Me too! Should've put play in there...

      I don't know why anybody ever asks me for advice. I can't say that I'm very savvy about how things "work" in a worldly way.

      Thank you, Marja-Leena. I was just thinking of you.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.