18 AUGUST, 2015
By: Maria Popova
“I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it.”
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: “Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Over the years, I’ve kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist — an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart — when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?
That’s what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).
'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)
Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:
I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.
That rectangle of air and light — an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote “baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for” — becomes Gornick’s recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, “a true beginning,” during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:
In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.
The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we’ve grown transfixed by a very different — and in many ways opposite — kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.
But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it — a space rife with the artist’s atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck’s diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:
I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.
Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.
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