I was going to write about the colander effect–a term coined by Meg Rosoff, which I heard her speak about in Salem last November. In fact, I began a post with that title and how the effect manifested in my January 1 post with the unexpected appearance of Miss Barbara Wace, a renowned journalist and travel writer who was one of my mother’s clients. But then the phone rang and it was my friend Seth Michael Donsky with whom I became acquainted during my graduate years at U.C. Irvine in the MFA directing programme for theatre, under the mentorship of Keith Fowler. Seth was an undergraduate at the time. I admired him for his perseverance, his tenacity, his will power, and his desire to do something different, to experiment with creativity. We lost touch after I left New York in 1994 and did not reconnect until he found me again through my website, in 2013.
He called this morning to talk about a play he saw last night, largely, because it wrestles with many of the themes he is exploring in his own play in progress, Irregardless. We covered a lot of ground in our short conversation, most of which is hard to replicate in a post, but three things stay with me.
The first is the death of our own creativity every time we compare ourselves to other people’s successes. So much of what makes creativity successful is having confidence in the truth of our own instincts and work.
Last night I went to drawing class with Frank Porcu for the first time in two months. First, I missed class in October because I was ill with bronchitis. Then I was away in Salem, the first week of November. As soon as I returned I had to pack up my apartment on the west side and move myself into the apartment I bought last summer on the east side. After which I had to unpack everything and get Zuli Souza settled. As a result of so much extra activity, so soon after my illness, I didn’t regain enough strength to do more than sit on my sofa and catch up with myself. I decided to wait until the New Year before returning to class. As always, being in class with Frank was inspiring and gave me much to think about, including some of what I’m writing about today.
As Frank went around the class, he told a student who had over-corrected her first instinct–what she had actually seen on the model–that she must trust herself, even if the initial line she had put down looked wrong to her brain. Her instinct, he told her, had shown her the truth.
He spoke of how hard it was for him as a teacher when he started out to have that kind of confidence when he was trying to show students how to see the truth that was in front of them. Because the brain, through the eye, was telling him–and them–something else. “Of course,” he said, “after you’ve gone home and drawn it four hundred times you feel confident in telling students, ‘this is how to see the truth of the model.’ But for a long time I couldn’t call what I was teaching a method, because I couldn’t prove it.”
There will always be people infinitely more talented than we are who go unrecognized. (I feel that way about Frank Porcu’s genius at the Art Students League. So few recognize him as a direct succesor of Bridgeman. Or, to take it farther back, as Frank himself has, to Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael.) There will equally be many people who are not as talented as we are and who will garner successes beyond measure.
The most important thing is to trust the truth we instinctively see.
And to let go of everything else.
The goal of all theories is to prove their veracity. But the theory itself can only go so far. This was the starting point of this post. It was inspired by something Frank said to an advanced student in yesterday’s class. But I think it must wait until another day, in order to be explored in more depth, and in a way that captures the essence of what Frank was trying to convey.
Of the third thing I wanted to write about today–hidden motive–it too must wait.
Cannot help but agree on the way our own art suffers by worrying over what others are doing. Not allowing others to lead you there is tougher.
I think there’s lead and there’s lead. Meaning, I feel very inspired by Hilary Mantel at the moment. The way she talks about her work, the work itself, I find all of it leads me to think in ways I haven’t, so far. But that kind of inspiration–that leads you to yourself–can only come about I think once you find yourself and no longer need to look outside yourself for approval. Sometimes, we need to be led a long way towards that finding before it actually happens. That was the case in my own experience.
I feel that this post left me on the precipice of something I must examine further for myself, but I want to read more of your words on it as well. Very good, you. You drew me and left me searching for my own foothold in trusting my first instincts and letting everything else, including comparison to others, fall away.
Thank you for all these posts. If I can’t be sitting in a tavern drinking hot toddies or Baileys conversing with you, I’ll read your posts and learn and be inspired here.
I want to know what you have to say about hidden motive.
Also, what you write about comparison is certainly true. I’ve had this conversation with my son and with my students. Although, it has yet to stop me from comparing myself to others. I try to ignore that comparing voice in my head.
And trusting the instinct…I am not good at that, but I am working on it.
Oh, and I want to know what you were going to say about that colander.
I think it is that desire for external approval that drives my need to compare my work to others’, especially those who deal with similar content (and style), and particularly those who have the trappings of external “success” – awards and critical accolades (the very ones I covet).
I begin to wonder what they are doing “right” and I “wrong,” a totally unnecessary distraction that is compounded when I don’t even personally respond to the celebrated work. Then the exasperation can easily to turn to bitterness and resentment and once all of that has opened up I am entirely lost.
Perhaps other writers and artists are fueled by resentment (the way some are fueled by excessive drink and drug). I learned long ago that I am not one of the artists who thrives when inebriated. Then I learned I am not the type of writer who thrives in poverty. Now I am coming around to the realization that I do not thrive in bitterness or resentment either.
When I say that I wish to give that sort of thinking up, it really has nothing to do with wanting to be a “good” boy or a “generous” spirit (though I don’t see the harm in either). It has to do with my realizing that that way of thinking gets in the way of my own creativity.
The only concern I need have when I see someone else’s work is whether or not I am inspired by it, regardless of anyone else’s opinions.
I have been maligned in major newspapers (and sometimes in very hurtful ways – one major New York newspaper compared watching my film work to literally eating garbage and the critic preferred to eat garbage, I can only hope he spoke from experience!). Yes critique like that hurts. Yes I can be jealous and confused when other people write about the same things I do in a similar style and are lauded. Yes I can begin to wonder what I have done wrong. Yes bitterness and resentment can set in.
But, at the end of the day, I am best served creatively by asking myself what it is that I want to say and doing my best to say it, stopping long enough to glean inspiration from that work that inspires me and letting go of that which doesn’t.
I am glad to see I am not alone in this.
One of the most useful things I’ve ever learned is that we all have a limited measure of freedom. Meaning we only have so much time, and the energy and resources in which to express our potential, find purpose in life, be fully who we are.
At a high level this means we are limited by the number of years of our lifetime. At a low level it means that what we do with the hours we have today counts for how we use that measure of freedom. Once used, it is gone. Just like yesterday. If we squandered the measure of freedom we had yesterday we can’t get it back or roll it over to today.
When I finally stopped looking outside of myself for approval was the moment when my work became my own. No one else was responsible for it. It became (and remains) up to me as to how good or bad it is. But once I give it my all, that’s all I can do. No one can do better than that. Fortuna is blind and she is capricious. And we cannot control how the world chooses its heroes. We can only control how we choose ours.
Our job is to tune into the creative process already inherent in us. The creative process calls on us to let go of all the ideas of how we *should* look or feel when we’re creating and what we create, and to look at the self-reflective mirror it’s holding up, in order for us to see who we really are. If we don’t like what we see, we have the freedom to change it.
When we have those flashes of insight, those “ah ha” moments, what we experience is the light of that mirror appearing in our conscious mind. If we can stay with that flash, let it tell us what it is, instead of running off with the first “shiny” thing it appears to reveal, we will find everything in it that we need, to realize the potential of an authentic idea, which is purely us. An idea that no one else could have had or can realize in the way we will, because the creative process–the real creative process–never repeats itself. That’s what makes it infinite. And that’s what makes our measure of freedom so precious to take advantage of it, in the best possible way.
I am reminded of the apprentice and the master carpenter, working alongside each other to install a floor. It was driving the apprentice mad. He kept watching the master drive flooring nails, and he seemed to be so smooth and confident and in-control… The apprentice was watching him so closely and carefully, and so WHY oh WHY did he keep hammering his goddam thumb? IT WASN’T FAIR.
“What the hell is wrong with this damned hammer that the Master gave me? Why doesn’t it hit the goddam nail, instead of my thumb, the way the hammer the Master kept for himself does?”
Exactly. Because any flaw in the system must be inherent in the system’s externalities — not in ME.
The interesting thing for me was that moment when I finally knew that the only person I could ever really trust in was myself.
It arrived at a moment when a writing coach I’d been working with for almost a year hadn’t read the material I had sent before our scheduled bi-monthly phone call. After the shock and disappointment in realizing the material had not been read, I could see that what I wanted perhaps even more than feedback or direction was approval of my ideas.
How it happened I managed to recognize that as long as I looked outside of myself for approval to be creative I would never find my true self creatively, I don’t know. But it did. At the moment I saw the truth of the never-ending need for approval churning away at the back of my conscious mind, simultaneously, I found myself free falling into an endless *space*, for lack of a better word, of trust. For months I woke up every day inspired to write. I felt an unconditional trust in the creative process I would never be able to see or know in any depth with my conscious mind.
Almost all of that felt sense of endless inspiration has faded since then. But what remains is the confidence it gave me to trust myself, even when great self-doubt appears in my conscious mind.
I try to be the same way, and succeed… mostly. But it’s so, so hard.