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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Questions from a young artist and writer (answers from a young crone!)

Chapter header vignette
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for my new novel, Glimmerglass
I always imagine that if one person asks questions, there are others who would like to find out more. Here are questions I received today, followed by glances at possible answers... I claim no more than "possible answers" because I am just one small person on the face of the planet, and every artist would have a different set of answers.

How often do you feel inspired to work? How do you feel different when you’re writing than when you’re doing other things that need to be done in life? And I guess how do you get yourself into that place when you’re not there already.


*
If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you’ll stay a dabbler and never get to where you want to go. Search through the simple pleasures of drawing or inking or painting or writing, even if you have no idea where you are going. Move your hand--the mind may well follow. Inspiration might come from doodling and playing and jotting down notes. Inspiration might come from collecting your materials and then waiting in quiet.

Oh, it doesn’t matter “how often” you feel inspired. It's not ever about numbers. It just matters that you try to do your work—that’s the path toward the inspiration.

*

You're young. It's good to have humility before the great masters of the past. It's fine to look at work by your peers. But it's also good to have self-forgetfulness when making art, and that includes a kind of forgetfulness of all you admire--all that makes you feel small and that you cannot "get yourself into that place" and begin.
*

“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” I don’t recall that line from Van Gogh's letters, but I bumped into it on the web (so it may be truly his, or not) and think that’s a pretty good assessment of how to make art or any other thing in this life.

*

There’s a scene in one of my books that people have pointed to and asked about many times. A young girl is peeling an orange, a thing she has never done before, and the passage looks at an orange, the fragile veins around the segments and the inner lining with pith and the pebbled exterior and the seeds that seem to float inside the flesh. In terms of the writing, it’s all about seeing like a child. But that passage came about because it was the middle of the night, and I was trying to get work done but felt exhausted and blank—I wanted to get more done because my children were all blessedly asleep, but I would have to be up with them by 7:00 a.m. At that hour--at any hour--they would want a mother, not a writer. So I didn’t wish to waste an hour that I could use to either sleep or write. I went downstairs to the kitchen and fetched an orange and began to peel it slowly in front of my computer. I stared at that orange until it became magical, mysterious, seeded and alive with secrets. I then put the spirit of that orange in the hand of the young girl who had never seen an orange before.

That was how I started that night, by staring and seeing and forcing myself to move forward. Because I was a woman with three small children who had no time to waste on being inspired beforehand. The staring inspired me. The playing with words inspired me. The sitting down in the chair with intention to write inspired me. Inspiration is like a fountain—it will rise and flower into drops and flung water if you give it a chance. But to do so, you need to hush, look, and dream.

*

A feeling of richness and rightness often takes over when I’m writing. If it’s a poem, I might be surfing on Disch’s “lyric gush.” If it’s the first draft of a piece of fiction, I might be dipping and flying, following the thread of story. Then I’m a zany flying fish, skimming and swimming and reveling in the sea of words. So you’re right in saying that making art is just not the same as daily life.

At the very best, it’s being open to the Muse, the pouring life of the world, the Holy Spirit, the water from the fount at the end of the universe… (Mind you, golden moments sometimes come in ordinary life, and if you wish to do so and are quick, you may seize and make something of them.) As you go on and grow in your chosen pursuits, you will more and more be prepared and readied to catch the Muse, snare life, embrace the Spirit, or dip a pail from the fount. But the mere hunt for these precious, frolicsome things will lead you into the lands where inspiration trickles and streams.

And as a human being, you are made to find joy and truth and wonder and a thousand other contrary and tumultuous elements in creation. It’s that simple. Some find a creative satisfaction in teaching, some in reading, some in needle and thread, some in the unfolding mysteries of science, some in sacrifice for others. But we human beings are all meant to participate in some aspect of the ongoing creation that is our universe—the universe that is perhaps just one of many universes. So sit down in the chair and move the pen or move the brush: begin.

12 comments:

  1. Good advice to a young writer or any writer.

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    1. I'm not that fond of advice and should probably stay out of the business... Eh. Oh, well.

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  2. This is very inspiring and beautiful, especially the story of the orange - even for an old artist like me! Glad to have you home!

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    1. Thanks, Marja-Leena--glad to be on one perch for a while, though I haven't unpacked yet. Came back with entirely too much! And I'm glad you liked it as well.

      It's easy to feel tender for people just starting out, so full of desire and plans and uncertainties...

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  3. Good advice, Marly. As I get back into the visual arts after a 20-year hiatus, I'm fiddling with needle felting, glass mosaics, polymer clay, and pencil and ink, and the results so far are humbling—but I now better understand the hunger of aspiring writers who just want to know: Where do I start? What should I say? Can I ever get good at this?

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    1. Yes, well, I like a lot of visual arts, but I just don't have any playtime. Maybe some day. Singing soprano with a choir is the only other arts enterprise I do regularly, and I know my limitations... Still, it's good to make things, whether they are songs or pictures or felt creatures!

      Jeff, have you seen or written about Henry Chapman Mercer's Fonthill Castle and the Moravian Tile Works? Was just there a couple of days ago. It's right up your alley with medieval and Gothic elements...

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    2. I wish that I had indulged and bought the set of Canterbury Tales tiles, though it gives me something for the next time I go, I suppose!

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    3. Oh, I wasn't suggesting you take up a new art! Just pointing out that my recent forays into art have reminded me what it feels like to be full of "desire and plans and uncertainties."

      I love Fonthill and the Moravian Tileworks; a decade ago, I wrote about them for a National Geographic travel guidebook, I too find myself wishing I'd sprung for a set of the Chaucer tiles. (And that castle! Glorious and gloomy at the same time...)

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    4. But I often think it would be fun to fiddle with something else--I go to the tile works and want to fiddle with clay... Visit my mother and want to weave... Etcetera! I did buy a lot of tiles as gifts. Wish I'd bought for me! Greed! Chaucer! Exclamatory desires!

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  4. If I were to consider being a writer, I would very much appreciate your generous and thoughtful advice.

    If someone were to ask me -- a burned out old English teacher -- I would probably be less generous. My advice would be two sentences: Write, write some more, and then keep on writing without ever giving up. If you can do that, then you are a writer.

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    1. That's good advice, R. T. Your beloved Flannery thought that teachers ought to squelch more budding writers!

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  5. MFO was no fan of creative writing programs; I wonder if she appreciated the irony (or is it hypocrisy) of her attitude given her experience at Iowa. Note that Beyond Eastrod is undergoing radical surgery. Stay tuned. But before I end this comment, I have a question: I am looking for reading recommendations from people I trust, so tell me . . . read anything good lately?

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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.