Periodically I watch some free videos offered by artist Nicholas Wilton, who has a program called Art2Life. He’s unflaggingly enthusiastic and filled with wonder at discovering or uncovering processes by which he, and theoretically we, can bring our creative impulses to fruition on the canvas.
In a recent short one, he talked about how he’s trying to stay present with and focused on not what he is putting on the canvas but how he is feeling while doing it. And the feeling he is trying to maintain is, basically one of openness and a sense of possibility. And deliberately NOT a sense of assessment, judgment, predetermination of what should be happening on the canvas. He talks about having a “free outlook” and the “sense of wildness and freedom” with which he often starts a new painting — all that blank space, how it frames the first few marks beautifully — and maintaining that outlook and free sense throughout the process.
By focusing on the space out of which he is creating, rather than what is being created, he’s able to allow all kinds of things to happen. He says he can see both his own training at work in this more intuitive way of making, as well as a new “wild”-ness that is exciting.
Yes, I say. And thank you for the reminder. I’m talking as a writer now, and agree that the key to when I’m writing well and interestingly, and maybe the key to revision as well, is the center — i.e., me — out of which I am creating. And I love that feeling of openness and possibility. It’s a kind of ebullience, a word that means boiling up, bubbling up.
I find it hard to maintain, and of course, any effort dooms it to stiffness, resulting in a stiffness of the work. And I can’t always get to that place in the first place. And I don’t necessarily mean (I don’t think I mean this, anyway) that it has to be a still, calm center. Strong work also can come out of strong inner turmoil, I suspect. (I’m not sure, though, that good revision can come out of inner turmoil. I suspect good revision requires a calm core. I don’t know. I know when inside myself I’m jumpy and upset, I can’t focus enough to revise. I can probably slather some stuff on the page, but I can’t then look at it and shape it.)
What he doesn’t do, Wilton, is tell us how he gets to that feeling, and how he maintains it.
I read this interesting tidbit in Lydia Davis’s book Essays One: she is writing about her own development as a writer, and how she has discovered her way into her own oddball work: “…setting myself absurd or impossible subjects made it easier for difficult emotions to come forth.”
I’ve sort of used this approach in ekphrastic workshops I’ve facilitated — I ask students to do a ten-minute free write about a piece of art that either they do not like or paid little attention to when we moved through the museum/gallery. It’s sometimes the most effective ten minutes they have all day, asking their minds to enter into something that feels, on some level “impossible.” You’d think I’d take that approach myself. You’d think.
Nicholas Wilton does talk about his recent shift to larger canvases, which require a different kind of gesture, different tools, different vision. He uses paint in buckets rather than a palette, uses large brushes and trowels along with fine-line oil sticks. These external things have also changed his work.
What would be the writerly equivalent? Maybe shifting genres, working in form, as I almost always write free verse. Would my writing be different if I wrote directly on to the computer rather than onto paper? If I wrote on my iPad versus my MacBook? If I used a crayon rather than my trusty Bic? I have tried to change venues but have found, for example, writing in a coffeeshop does not work for me — far too much going on, too many people to watch, things to listen to. But I suppose changes are always worth trying and trying again, now and then.
I’m reading a very engaging book called A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, by Tim Brookes, who had, as a young man in the early ’70s hitchhiked across the US, became a writer, and decided in the late ’90s to reenact his journey and write about it, enlisting the support of National Geographic and a NatGeo photographer to crisscross paths with him periodically as he, at least theoretically — as who hitchhiked in the ’90s? — travelled across the nation. Spoiler alert: he makes it, although he does take a few buses now and then, and he rides with the photographer for a few days here and there. But mostly he hitches, and his drivers range from truckers to a family in an SUV on vacation.
He says this, though, about the zen of hitching, which I think has something to teach me about writing: “I couldn’t shake a very strong sense that giving up control exerts some kind of attraction…It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the conscious mind; in fact, our conscious mind seems mostly to get in the way, by second-guessing and worrying too much. Every time I’ve started worrying about whether I’ll get a ride…it has done me no good.” It was the many times he just stood and let unfold what would enfold that he got picked up by improbable people for improbable distances.
There is more to be explored here with regard to the line between “showing up to the page” or “putting pen to paper” and actually churning out some real writing. As I’m sure, if truth be told, Tim Brookes also spent many mindless hours standing by the side of the road getting no rides at all, no matter how zen he was being. And Nicholas Wilton has doubtless had some ugly portions of canvas.
But letting go worry and effort certainly makes for a better moment passing, for a nicer day in general. And, as Annie Dillard has reminded us, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
So. Anyway. I guess I’ll stick my thumb in a bucket of paint and write a big word on the road.