Wisdom on artistic paralysis from Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, and others.
By Maria Popova
“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Picasso proclaimed in contemplating how creativity works and where ideas come from. He is, of course, Picasso — it may be tempting to dismiss his insight with an “Easy for him to say!” sigh. But anyone who has endeavored in a creative field has felt first-hand this yin-yang of action and ideation. (The same, I’ve long believed, holds true for the larger question of “finding” one’s creative purpose and path in life — we make the trail by walking it, only to turn around and “find” a path.)
For writers, there can be a particularly disorienting disconnect between knowing this correlation intellectually and being petrified by facing the blank page. Much of that psychoemotional paralysis comes from our pathological perfectionism, the antidote to which Jennifer Egan captured perfectly in her advice on writing: “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”
And yet something often stands between knowing this and living this. That’s what eight of today’s most celebrated writers — Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Jonathan Mitchell, Philipp Meyer, Alaa Al-Aswany, and Daniel Kehlmann — explore in this wonderful micro-documentary from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel, which has previously given us celebrated authors’ advice to aspiring writers and Patti Smith’s advice to the young.
Highlights below — please enjoy:
The blank page in the mind has to be filled before you have the courage to face the actual blank page.
A blank page is also a door — it contains infinity, like a night sky with a supermoon really close to the Earth, with all the stars and the galaxies, where you can see very, very clearly… You know how that makes your heart beat faster?
There is something compelling about the blank page that beckons you in to write something on it — it must be filled.
I don’t think “writer’s block” actually exists. It’s basically insecurity — it’s your own internal critic turned up to a higher level than it’s supposed to be at that moment, because when you’re starting a work — when the page is blank, when the canvas is open — your critic has to be turned down to zero… The point is actually to get stuff on paper, just to allow yourself to kind of flow. It is only by writing that you’ll discover characters, ideas, things like this.
The blank page gives a horizon for what you can write, because you always have this conflict between what you want to say and what you could say. And writing is this conflict.
Joyce Carol Oates:
I would never write first — I don’t think that’s good at all. As soon as you write in language, it becomes frozen. It’s better to think first — to think for a long time — and then write when you’re ready to write. But writing prematurely is a mistake.
“Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.”
By Maria Popova
“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Italo Calvino wrote in 1970 as he reflected on photography and the art of presence. That same decade, Susan Sontag considered how photography mediates life’s relationship with death, that ultimate commemoration, observing: “We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. And the camera shows, inexorably.” A year later, she would go on to expand on these ideas in her timeless treatise on photography, exploring its function not only as commemoration but as “aesthetic consumerism” — an insight which time has proven astoundingly prescient as we confront the insatiable voraciousness of visual culture in the age of the social web.
Nearly half a century later, the Nigerian-American writer, art historian, and photographer Teju Cole — perhaps Sontag’s closest contemporary counterpart — examines this dual role of photography as commemoration and consumerism in an essay titled “Memories of Things Unseen,” found in the altogether spectacular Known and Strange Things: Essays (public library).
Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. At a dinner party earlier this year, I was in conversation with someone who asked me to define photography. I suggested that it is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.
But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.
But memory itself is an imperfect memorial: The events of our lives are similarly shadowed by the photographs of those events. Who hasn’t looked at an early childhood photograph of oneself, predating the age of conscious remembering, and not felt the mirage of a memory in beholding that moment? In those instances, what we remember is what was captured, which releases in us a believable conjecture about what was, and the conjecture becomes calcified into an unremembered memory.
The same Möbius strip of representation and remembrance, Cole suggests, exists in our collective memory. He recounts a visit to the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of works from the ancient Middle East, just as the news media were reporting on the accelerating destruction of artifacts in Syria and Iraq. (That the “news” as we know it is an overwhelmingly photography-driven industry, selling the immediacy of the present using what is invariably in the past as its chief currency, is a paradox so self-evident that it need not be belabored.) Cole writes:
Next to a selection of second- and third-century Syrian gravestones (many of them fresh with the pain of loss and inscribed with the names of the dead and the word “Alas!”), there was an old photograph reproduced from a book of the Temple of Bel, an important archaeological complex in Palmyra. About a week later, the iconoclastic fanatics of ISIS blew up this very temple. The photograph was unchanged; it was still there on the wall of Room 406 at the Met, but it was now filled up with the loss of what it depicted. The Roman-era columns of the temple still stand in rows in the grainy image — ravaged by time, but standing. In life, they’re gone.
The Institute for Digital Archaeology, a joint project of Harvard and Oxford Universities, uses sophisticated imaging techniques to aid conservation, epigraphy, archaeology, and art history. One of the institute’s current efforts, the Million Image Database project, involves photographing artifacts that are at risk of being destroyed for military or religious reasons, a bleak necessity in a world in which the beauty or importance of an object does not guarantee its safety. The goal of the project is to distribute up to five thousand modified cameras, to professionals and to amateurs, and use them to capture a million 3-D images. Already, more than a thousand cameras have been distributed, and the 3-D data from them are being received (though the directors of the project, to protect their associates on the ground, are leaving a lag of several months before they make the images publicly available). In the event of some of the objects being destroyed, the detailed visual record could be enough to facilitate a reconstruction. Photography is used to ward off total oblivion.
And yet photography, after all, is a technology — both of thing and of thought — and like any technology, it is animated by a dual capacity for good and evil. Parallel to this constructive use of photography as reconstruction of collective memory, Cole points to its destructive counterpart — its use in monitoring and manipulation, a kind of “aesthetic control” to Sontag’s “aesthetic consumerism.” He writes:
Our own appearances and faces are now stored and saved in hundreds, thousands, of photographs: photographs made by ourselves, photographs made by others. Our faces are becoming not only unforgettable but inescapable. There is so much documentation of each life, each scene and event, that the effect of this incessant visual notation becomes difficult to distinguish from surveillance. And in fact, much of the intent behind the collection of these images is indeed surveillance: the government retains our images in order to fight terrorism, and corporations harvest everything they can about us in order to sell us things.
But the most disquieting aspect of this perpetual photographic documentation is that we have reached a point where these images of us will long outlive us and might, in theory, last forever. “All eternity is in the moment,” but when the moment ceases to be ephemeral and instead lasts forever, it ceases to exist. Paradoxically, rather than furnishing a greater gateway to eternity, eradicating the moment extinguishes eternity altogether. When everything is eternal, nothing is eternal.
Cole illustrates our confused relationship to temporality with a sobering anecdote of a self-annihilating exchange with a friend via SnapChat, one of our few deliberately ephemeral technologies:
The voiding of the record on Snapchat was startling. But it was also a relief. Our real selves remained, but the photographs were no longer there, and something about this felt like a sequence more preferable to the other way around, where the image lives on and the model is irretrievable. But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the Cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.
I’m reminded of Sarah Manguso’s magnificent meditation on time and memory, in which she crystallized the paradox: “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.” I take from Cole — an inference that no doubt suffers the typical bedevilments of interpretation — that the camera lens has become the supreme focal point of that existential anxiety, through which we exorcise the ultimate fixation on freezing the flow of existence. To commemorate life in the act of living it seems to be the human condition — or the human curse.
This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.
As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.
In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.
A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.
Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.
It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.
The story begins with a comet that crashes onto earth, bringing with it the seed of life. Out of it a tree grows. Lightning strikes it, severing a small branch that comes alive and begins roaming the earth.
As the branch-body encounters the world and its creatures, it lives and dies and lives again — in the bellies of beasts, in the bellowing depths of the ocean, in the moon-kissed valleys of the earth — until it crawls out of the primordial seas of existence as the promise of a new tree.
Reminiscent in spirit to the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree, though dramatically different both conceptually and aesthetically, Sanna’s modern myth explores the commonest story of all — the shared journey of existence and its counterpoint — with uncommon imaginative elegance.
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