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The Parallels Between Being an Artist and Being a Parent

“…an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández asserted in her spectacular commencement address on what it means to be an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

Two generations earlier, the great sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) captured this dynamic dialogue between art and life with uncommon nuance and insight in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — one of my recent selections for the TED Bookstore, and the source of Truitt’s abiding wisdom on compassion, the ideal daily routine, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist.

Like many creative luminaries for whom a single epiphany revealed the meaning and purpose of art — including Patti Smith and the swan at the lake, Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Virginia Woolf and the flower in the garden, Albert Einstein and the compass, and James Baldwin and the reflection in the puddle — Truitt traces her creative roots to an encounter with a single painting at the same Picasso retrospective that had also moved Louise Bourgeois to become an artist. Truitt, who resisted the label “artist,” writes:

I had no idea at all that I would become an artist. It was in one of those deflections that sometimes subtly predict the course of a life that I sought out, just for pleasure, the Museum of Modern Art.

On entering, I turned left and up the stairs straight into Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Shocked, my eyes clamped on it. I focused on the three towering women gazing out at me with the eyes of basilisks — their breath would be fatal — and then took in the remote shadowed faces of their companions. Suddenly I understood that I knew very little of what it is to be female. Even less of art. I had not felt its naked power before, its power to shatter the appearance of things so as to reveal behind them another order. When in 1949 I began to study art, I more or less consciously looked for what I had found in Les Demoiselles: shock, an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Truitt, who was trained as a psychologist before she became an artist and carried this penetrating insightfulness into her meditations on art, draws a parallel between this supreme reward of creative work and the rewards of parenthood:

People sometimes ask me if I feel as if my sculptures were my children. I do not. The love I feel for my children is unique in my experience. Nothing is comparable. But it occurs to me this morning that they too are transformations of secret, silent resources similar to those out of which [my] sculptures emerged.

Elsewhere in the journal, Truitt — who considered art a “transaction between [one’s] inner world and the outer world” — revisits the subject of parenting and how it illuminates one’s creative autonomy:

I noticed that when my children reached the age of about twelve, the balance of power shifted from me to them. I have sometimes felt myself in the quandary of a chicken who has hatched duck eggs: my children took to the water, I remained on the riverbank. But I cherish my own independence too much to begrudge them theirs. I do better on the bank cheering them on. If I keep a respectful distance, they welcome me into their lives almost as wholeheartedly as I welcomed them into mine when they were born. “Almost” because even the most affectionate adult children maintain with their parents a healthy reservation that marks the boundary of their autonomy.

I am more impressed by what my children have taught me than by what I may have taught them. The physical purpose of reproduction is, obviously, the continuation and renewal of genetic continuity, human survival. Its psychological purpose seems to me to be a particularly poignant kind of mutual learning and, matters being equal, ineffable comfort.

Complement the enormously insightful Daybook with Truitt on vulnerability and the price of integrity, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s courageous open letter on merging the artist self with the parent self.

BP

The Fox and the Star: A Lyrical Modern Fable of Loneliness and Belonging, Bridged Through Self-Discovery

A poetic illustrated parable of dissolving fear into communion with the cosmos.

“Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness,” poet and philosopher David Whyte wrote in his poignant meditation on silence, “like a comet’s passing tail, glimpsed only for a moment but making us willing to give up our perfect house…” What is loneliness, then, if not aloneness filled with longing? (Solitude and loneliness, lest we forget, are thoroughly different things — one nourishes the spirit, the other devastates it.)

That transfiguration is what London-based designer Coralie Bickford-Smith explores in The Fox and the Star (public library).

Having spent years reinventing the face of literature with her unmistakable book covers for beloved classics, Bickford-Smith is at last bringing her graphic genius to her original storytelling with this lyrical modern fable of loneliness transmuted into belonging through an odyssey of self-discovery.

Told with a poetic economy of words and beautifully illustrated in an aesthetic partway between Art Deco graphic design and Indian tribal art yet entirely singular, the story follows a small and pusillanimous orange fox, who lives all alone in the forest and communes with his sole celestial friend.

Because Fox was small and the trees reached far higher than the tips of his ears, he was timid, and afraid to stray far from his den.

And yet, for as long as Fox could remember, he would wake at night to the cool, calm light of Star.

Star lights the way for Fox as he runs through the shadowy woods and forages for beetles and chases rabbits through the bramble.

All of Fox’s happiness was bound to the flickering light of Star.

And then, one day, Fox’s world is turned upside down — Star disappears.

Fox beckons out, but there is only darkness. Grif-stricken and disoriented, Fox curls up in his den and sinks into the deepest, lonesomest despair. The days and nights creep past him, silent and empty.

Here, the philosophical dimension of the story peeks through. This ode to growing up is also an elegy to impermanence and the passage of time — the adult reader realizes that as the baby fox lives through its first turn of the seasons, the star has rotated into the opposite hemisphere, and what the fox experiences as a devastating loss is merely the natural cycle of life in a universe predicated on impermanence and constant flux.

One day, Fox’s hunger and longing overtake him, so he emerges from the ground and sets out to find Star.

Fox peered around the gloom and could just make out a clump of thorns. ‘Have you seen my star?’ Fox asked the undergrowth. But the thorns did not know of any star.

Next Fox came across a colony of rabbits. ‘Have you seen my Star?’ he shouted down the burrows. But rabbits have no time for foxes.

Suddenly Fox was beyond the forest he knew.

He looked up at the trees. ‘Have you seen my Star?’ he cried.

But the trees were too tall to hear him.

Resigned, Fox sinks into sleep amid a quiet clearing. He wakes up to the sound of rain and asks the rain if it has seen his star, but the rain too is silent. And when the rain stops, something feels profoundly different.

At last, when Fox dares to look up beyond his ears, he is met with the most astonishing sight — billions and billions of stars, shining down upon him but not solely for him.

There’s a subtle sense of moral growth as the story which began with Fox feeling that Star belonged to him ends with Fox dissolving into a sense of belonging to and with the cosmos — the loneliness of an ownership-based relationship blossoms into the expansive belonging of a relationship based on mutuality of presence. Here he is, the little fox. There they are, the countless stars. And here it is, what Edith Wharton called “an unassailable serenity.”

The Fox and the Star is a delight to hold and behold, a gorgeous fabric-bound cover embracing the heart-expanding story. Complement it with The Lion and the Bird, a very different but equally wonderful illustrated tale of loneliness and communion, and Nietzsche on the journey of becoming a free spirit.

BP

Ursula K. Le Guin on How You Make Something Good in Creative Work

“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!”

Ursula K. Le Guin on How You Make Something Good in Creative Work

If you read Brain Pickings regularly, you know that there are few writers I find more invigorating — intellectually, creatively, and even spiritually, in the sense of vitalizing the human spirit and the endeavor of art — than Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), who has written beautifully about being a man, where good ideas come from, the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, and what beauty really means.

In the summer of 2015, Le Guin launched a writing workshop of sorts on Book View Café, which she cofounded — or, rather, an online companion to her indispensable manual Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (public library), originally published in 1998 and updated in 2015.

Her insight into the writing process, always delivered with her signature blend of hard wisdom and warm wit, makes for a spectacular addition to the most abiding advice on the craft — nowhere more so in her layered answer to what is perhaps the most elemental question in creative work: How do you make something good?

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Although Le Guin’s advice addresses writing in particular, it applies to just about every field of creative endeavor:

The way to make something good is to make it well.

If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good.

In a sentiment of far-reaching resonance amid our culture of rampant reductionism, awash in listicles and other sexified pseudo-shortcuts, she echoes Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and cautions:

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

With an eye to the poet Theodor Roethke’s unforgettable line — “I learn by going where I have to go,” which parallels Picasso’s “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.” — Le Guin adds:

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

This testing, Le Guin counsels, could benefit from feedback — but only by “readers qualified to judge.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how commercialism is killing creative culture, she cautions — in a perfect LeGuinism — against listening to editors, publishers, agents, and other merchants of culture who give you rules for what will sell:

Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?

Affirming the more nuanced psychological truth behind the 10,000-hours myth of excellence and reiterating what she has previously articulated about the “secret” of great writing, Le Guin concludes:

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

Complement Le Guin’s indispensable Steering the Craft with James Baldwin’s advice to aspiring writers, some words of wisdom from Hemingway, and the trailblazing Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ counsel on the craft.

BP

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