Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rainer Marie Jerkweed: A Cautionary Tale?

One of the greatest struggles I have is finding the balance between having a writing life and just living a human one. Discipline is a necessary tool in the writer’s shed—and yet so many times I have come home, determined to write, only to find nothing was happening, and that I had skipped something enjoyable in the futile hope I might spend the evening deep in the current. If you write, you know what I mean: when you are in the zone, it is one of the best possible feelings. When the work is going well, it’s worth trading for.

But the other side of that—skipping pleasurable, important, joyful moments of existence to write, only to find the writing simply will not come—is almost as painful and frustrating as the other is blissful. Then I’m stuck at home, uninspired, and doubly annoyed to be stuck there while somewhere not far away, friends are drinking good beer, saying droll and affectionate things, and bonding in ways that might actually inspire future writing.

Being a hermit has its advantages; god knows you have to set some boundaries. But sequestering yourself for your art—if your art hopes to be human—seems potentially misguided. Yes, I know the Belle of Amherst hid away in her room, feeding her genius and communing only with friendly mice and Jesus (it’s hyperbole, Dickinson scholars; don’t send angry letters). But were she around today she would likely have succumbed to social pressures. She would be Tweeting and Facebooking (Emily Dickinson is nobody. Who are you?”) and perhaps desperate, as I occasionally feel, for silence.

Finding balance—has anyone nailed this one? Just recently, I almost skipped a reunion of old friends from high school for the sake of going home and writing. Instead, I went, and not only caught up with dear erstwhile companions, but met new ones. Good ones. And if I had just gone home, instead? I would likely have been frustrated and ended up sitting on the couch, staring through a Law & Order episode and brooding.

One of the best stories I’ve ever heard on this conflict—it may be apocryphal, but is referenced in at least two biographies—was about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who reportedly skipped his own daughter’s wedding because he thought a poem might come, and that the wedding might break his concentration.

The first thing I thought when I heard this tale was “What a dick.”

And the second thing was, “You know where your precious poem was, dude? It was at your daughter’s wedding.”

But who am I to think Rainer Maria Rilke was doing anything wrong? Maybe he was skipping a wedding when he wrote "An Archaic Torso of Apollo."

This poem is for Deb, Warren, Jordan, Justin, and Ben. Also for Angela, who is also—like so many of us—struggling to find the space for a writing life that does not eclipse actual living.


This draft flew away.


Anonymous said...

the most useful artistic creed i've heard is "do a little every day." i take a broad view of it. anything that i feel feeds the writing counts, including my recent dinner with you.
-- mouse

Anonymous said...

Rilke said you should only write if you feel you have to, you must, to expand the horizons of your solitude and inner self... If your inner self's horizons are only so vast as "Law and Order" and you see writing as a penance and a duty then perhaps you do not "need" to write? Perhaps it's just an ego thing, and since beside the vast spaces of the eternal the ego is a finite, flimsy prison... trapped from within it you suffer. A writer, a painter finds the thought of his solitude joyful, preferable, large and vast. If it's just a hobby, then let it be so. Don't miss what your soul longs to be involved in for the sake of your ego...that would be a tragedy and a wasted life!-- Izzy

M. C. Allan said...

Hmm. I'm trying to decide how to respond to the implication that because one occasionally gets sucked into an episode of "Law and Order," that it represents the depth and boundaries of one's soul ... and that because one feels conflict about balancing writing and life, it means one's writing is a mere ego-based "hobby." Both are pretty presumptuous implications, to my mind. Nonetheless, I'm going to assume neither were meant as hurtfully as they might be taken.

To be clear, I don't feel writing as a penance and never allow it to be one. I deeply enjoy my solitude when I write (and when I paint, for that matter). But I also feel there is a real danger, for any writer, in sequestering oneself to the extent that one loses touch with the world and the human -- or at least, with the humans who exist outside the boundaries of the self.

Rilke skipping his own daughter's wedding seems like an excellent example of that. The thought that whatever poem might come to you in the next six hours is more important to the world than your loving, supportive presence at the wedding of your daughter? THAT, to me, seems an extraordinary example of writerly egotism.

My conflict, most frequently, is between the choice to sit and write and the choice to do the many things that constitute a full life -- spending time with family, friends, lovers, nature, reading, etc. Things that, at least for me, inform the art I want to create and deepen my understanding of of the world. I'm sure there are artists and writers whose inner landscapes are so fascinating they could spend their entire existences there. I'm pretty content with my inner landscape, but not so much so that I don't get a great deal of joy and deepening from the presence of other people ... knowing and caring for other people informs the work I want to do, and so solitude, while deeply valuable to me, isn't the end all, be all of creating art.

In other words, I want to live a rich, full, passionate life, one engaged with others, both for the sake of art and for the sake of living. I don't want to make art that's just about me and my thoughts. Hence the conflict ... for me. If you have managed to avoid it, bless you; you must be a creature of excellent balance, or at least be getting a lot more writing done. Which is great! Good for you. But I resist the idea that finding solitude "preferable" is the only way to recognize oneself as a real writer. The writers I most love are those for whom engagement with others (and coping with the delights and conflicts involved in that engagement) is the core of their art.