We Must All Be Artists Now

I saw an advertisement the other night that stuck with me. It opens to a rough looking sky light, a loft-y space, as one might have seen in Soho in the seventies, only no grime on the sky light. Music with a classical bent plays, as the camera lovingly traces scrubby walls down to the paint splattered floor, where a Pilates toned woman in her fifties wields a sculpting tool. In the center of the room, unaccompanied by any detritus of sculpting, a large manatee shape yearns towards the skylight. The music builds, the woman dances gracefully, poking here, smoothing there, in a state of art-making bliss, a diaphanous smile on her face. The music flows along, the voice over intones "FLUMMERY FINANCIAL…thirty-five thousand strong, in seven nations, looking after your interests worldwide…" The woman has never been happier, the music swells, all of her days have led to this moment, the manatee masterpiece flowing from her fingertips. The voice again, "FLUMMERY FINANCIAL—YOUR VISION IS OUR VISION…"

WAIT A MINUTE.

WHAT?

The implication was that money management and the making of art somehow have something to do with each other. A woman, consumed with her creative endeavors, has a good portfolio thanks to Flummery Financial. The only accuracy is that she will likely need it.

In ’87 the Beatles “Revolution” was the soundtrack to a Nike ad, and in 1990 the Stones “Brown Sugar,” did the same for Pepsi, so this advertisement wasn’t the first time a collective memory, from which a strand still felt intensely personal, had been stuck onto the side of a product like a wad of gum. But the offense of Flummery Financial, moreover the astounding inaccuracy of this message made me feel as if my house had been robbed. To equate the long, thorny, often thankless struggle of making art with the concerns of a financial brokerage firm was going too far.

I grew up around mid-century writers and artists who were, to venture a broad generalization, mostly running against the grain of what was expected. In these post war years the future was supposed to roll out along straight lines for everyone—job, or for women, motherhood, a car, spouse, kids, a higher education if you could get it. In Kim Evan’s wonderful documentary about Jackson Pollock, my father’s first wife Patsy Southgate, a writer and translator, talked about the artists around her in Springs, New York. “…right after WWII men had come home, and they were supposed to all settle down with nice families in suburbs, and I think that the writers and artists were women and men who didn’t fit into that role, but didn’t know how to get out of it.”

This group came to New York city and the East End of Long Island to remake themselves, to seriously undertake an elucidation of their own restlessness, of that which might have been, up till then, unnameable. We know the names of the more successful ones: Pollock, De Kooning, Krasner, Plimpton, Southern, my father Peter Matthiessen, a truncated list which is defined mainly by my own associations. Yet there were many more that did great work, who weren’t famous, or lucky, who never will be famous. Unlike a well managed stock portfolio (given the economy doesn’t collapse), the long term lookout of an artist can be grim. There are many who spend their lives trying to express something, who stayed true to it, sacrificed for it, who followed it as it evolved for them, which had little or nothing to do with the success they may or may not have had. Who starved, died, or went mad doing their work. Who had success late in life or not at all. The work they produced valued by family and friends, but, essentially, a silent song never heard by the wider world. And certainly, there were great talents whose work was under appreciated even by those close to them, that ended up moldering in storage spaces, or burnt up in fires, or were unloaded on babysitters and cousins, or by second wives trying to cadge some more space by clearing the attic corner of all those dull xeroxed poems no publisher wanted. To a pragmatist, i.e., a banker, to undertake a profession like this, to devote a life to it, would be sheer madness. Better to be a gold bug or a survivalist. Better to ply your fortunes in Vegas getting shit faced at the bar listening to “Luck be a Lady,” on your ear buds. Better to try a Thelma and Louise experiment and see if you live. Not for sane folks, but for romantic, moony, impractical, self deluded types, the sort who put their energy into hail Mary passes (like those who sent letters to hundreds of electors begging them not to elect our current not-my-president.) And were disappointed.

Some would say, it wasn’t always so hard. Some would say that in the forties and fifties the fields of art and literature were wide open. There was so much room, it was easy to be a success. A gullible public with unrefined tastes to cultivate. A post war baby boom who grew up with books and almost no TV, and time to burn. No distractions. No cellphones. Hungry for content. No sophistication. Innocent. A giant sponge that you could saturate with anything. An audience.

Now, (on the coasts), if one says I’m a lawyer, or an accountant or yes, a finance person, it might be perceived as dull. We must all be artists now. We must all be exotic, traipsing around on the interior of our psyches trying to extract something that someone else can use. Forget religion, being an artist, expressing ourselves, being creative is the favored path to salvation. And because of that, some say, there’s hardly an audience left.

To which I say, not having an audience is something artists contend with more often than not. It isn’t an actual impediment to creativity. Unless you are Shirley Temple.

Just to give a sense of what it was like for those intrepid Americans who crept out to the Hamptons in the forties and fifties, I must remember the way the winters were here. Hard, very cold, and long. Sagaponack, where I grew up, had no other writers to speak of, just my father, working in his studio next to the potato fields, and my mother, writing and researching in her upstairs study. All the kids in my grade school were farmer’s kids, every last one. Though they were great neighbors, it’s hard to remember the clouds of insecticide boiling across the fields and into our house with nostalgia. It could be very bleak. The summers were a colorful break, on the most beautiful beaches in the world, among a chic crowd that was growing larger every year. Then I was back in school, freezing at the bus stop once again.

Though the East End of Long Island is just one area, it did boast a large concentration of people who broke through in the arts. In the late fifties my father naturally gravitated toward the few other writers who were here or came from the city regularly, and toward Springs where the visual artists were. The places they lived were very rough. Though I was small, I remember them. I can’t pass an old fisherman’s cottage with a bumpy lawn and overgrown brambles without a sort of yearning. These little places were full of rich impressions for a child, they were open to the whims of the wind and weather, not in a story book way, but in an adventurous way. They seem terribly romantic now, immortalized in old pictures and films, and, as one by one, they are torn down for someone else’s fantasy—usually a big, insulated house. The modern-day truth of the matter—a fisherman’s cottage has small rooms, moldy plaster, a leaky roof, cold walls, eccentric additions, and drafty windows. Add to that winters that were mercilessly cold, and a local power plant that often went down for days at a time when there was a serious storm. The public were treated to glamorous, transcendent results—but those of us who were around saw the process, the excess, the self destruction, the misery, the fight, the fortitude. It was a far cry from a wealthy woman in a re-furbished SoHo loft, dancing around a manatee.

In the Pollock documentary, there is a lot of footage of those early parties, and the sweet little drafty places of Springs, and big beach picnics that went on until morning. The beautiful Patsy spoke of what it was like to choose a career in art or literature, in the America of her youth. She talked about the Hemmingway mystique, which was still very much in force. “There were nightly, drunken, large parties,” she said, and added, “since artists did have such a limp wristed image in the American view—that their manhood was threatened by doing something as delicate as creating art or writing a poem—they over compensated by being super macho.” She talks about train trips with Pollock into the city, each to see their therapists. At that time, Pollock had a great tangle of worries, his affair with Ruth Kligman in progress, his marriage to painter Lee Krasner in trouble. Patsy said his state of mind was “…extremely desperate. He felt that the art within him that he wanted to express was so difficult because he had to bring it up from his subconscious, which was in turmoil.” She added that she believed he couldn’t possibly maintain that state of intensity. He died not long after this, in a car crash where he was, as usual, very drunk and driving very fast.

These were not pretty lives. They were agonized and messy. It was very, very hard work. There were no guarantees. Their families usually didn’t understand. Their immediate families were usually damaged due to neglect and obsession. The general culture was against them, or just indifferent. They were neither fashionable or familiar, not in the way that the concept of a “creative life,” is now. The ones that made it, that you’ve heard of, were very few. There were so many more that didn't make it. On the subject of writing my father often said, “Most writers have to write. There isn’t a choice.” This was certainly true for him. The other thing he liked to say was, “No one is asking you to do it.” In other words, there is no demand. There is no niche, you must create one. It takes some courage to set your cap for something that has no guarantee, especially considering the amount of effort that is usually required. It can be incredibly foolhardy. To equate this kind of life with the calculations a banker must make to produce X return, is pure drivel, but there is something to be learned in the comparison.

It’s almost impossible to be a decent artist and follow a tested, known route, the way you’d hope your banker would do. Which leads me to the idea of the conventional in connection with the creative effort. Books that calculated to tick all the boxes in the current lexicon of cares (politically correct) are fundamentally boring. To conform to current norms may work in journalism, but it’s death to creative writing. A good book should reach considerably beyond what one is supposed to feel according to ones peers. It should take its finger off of the zeitgeist. Otherwise it’s conformist, and when you read it you know you’ve heard it before. Books that don't have any real point of view, i.e. a distinct self, are disappointing. The path to creative heat cannot be conventional in the same way the layers of a person’s thoughts and views and feelings are never in any way conventional. Even a middle-of-the-road writer like myself cannot make something live on the page without completely departing from any idea of what someone else thinks it should be, or even what I think it should be.

Early on, when I’d labor over a paragraph for, sometimes, two days and still not have it right my father would say, “It takes as long as it takes.” Looking at that line all these years later makes me laugh. It seems as sure a formula for screwing up your life as any. Think of the things I would miss. A sensible job, a steady income, a community, a long term plan, perhaps any sort of relevance at all. Following that advice, my time would be at the mercy of whether or not a paragraph or indeed, a whole book came out right. In fact, my first book, Castles & Ruins, took ten years. I worked part time in real estate to support it, and my husband worked and supported it. We did other things out of necessity, which was also why it took so long. I attempted something no one had done, which was to write a travelogue of Ireland and a memoir of my mother, Deborah Love, together. I haven’t made anything off it yet, though I’m very proud of it, and I think it’s good.

A banker would call that a waste of time.

 

 

Splooge

 

Splooge is what I call a first draft.

At least 90% of the splooge is useless.

Splooge is the only starting place I have. (But for a non-fiction work, splooge is generally not required).

My first drafts of fiction don’t look like anything so much as some type of bodily fluid on the page. Stream of consciousness from characters, (who are they?), torrents of unrelated thoughts from hobbled, disparate, omniscient narrators, (again, who are they?), isolated lines of dialogue, agonizingly trite descriptions of place, person, or feeling all in a jumble, full of typos and the red bric-a-brac underlining that Microsoft Word uses to tell me it’s wrong. And mostly, it is wrong.

My son is a good writer, with lots of original ideas that eventually find expression on the page. His problem is getting going, and that, for a long time, was my problem, until I discovered the splooge technique. My son will struggle for hours, sitting at a desk, then roam around, pacing. Getting sips of water from the kitchen faucet is a favorite. Not a word befalls the screen. Not a key is even flirted with. When I hear his heavy foot falls in the living room going past my study, and the kitchen faucet go on and off, on and off, I know that he’s “writing.”

My son is also a great talker. Alas, if most of us could write as well as we can talk, what a literate population we would be. I have wanted to help him, explaining that I contend with the writing process almost every single day. I understand the agony. He doesn’t listen very well, preferring to find his own way through everything, which is a good quality to a point, and will probably serve him well in life. If he encouraged me at all, I would tell him about my splooge system.

I prop myself up, saying to myself that if Jack Kerouc, high as hell on Benzedrine, could write On the Road on a giant roll of tracing paper in three weeks, surely, I, aided by a pot of tea, can get something. If William Faulkner could produce thirteen acclaimed novels and many short stories while working full time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, surely I can scribble a few lines before lunch. All it takes is the doing. I use a timer to keep myself at a desk for at least forty minutes at a stretch and hope for the best. At this stage, it’s kind of out of my hands.

Automatic Writing

Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese writer and philosopher, claimed to have experienced something called automatic writing, which was all the rage among philosophers and intellectuals in late 1800’s. Along with seances and Ouija boards, it was used in the search for para-normal activity. Pessoa said that when doing this automatic writing he felt “owned by something else,” sometimes feeling a lifting sensation in his right arm. He said he experienced “ethereal visions,” and “magnetic auras,” which, I swear, sounds familiar. But while they were looking for messages from the afterlife, I am looking for messages from this life. I don’t know what they are until I write them and give them room to breathe.

All it takes is sitting there letting words just flow, resisting the urge to edit as I go along. If something looks promising, I allow a minute or two to polish it. But only that. I have to move on quickly because what I’m looking for is volume, a profusion of words on the page. I usually get at least a few good words out of twenty, and sometimes it’s just a seed of an idea, a direction. Usually, when putting it down, I don’t at all know that it is a seed, that it has potential to grow. I’ll have to walk away from it for awhile, feeling disgusted that again I’ve gotten nothing done. It’s only later when I see it on the page that it tells me. If the muses are on my side this seed, this spark, will jump out. It will tell me something about the character, or where the story is going. It’s not unlike sifting sand for gold and finding a nugget. I’m always so happy to see it, and I can mine it for a long time, sometimes to the conclusion of the chapter, the story, the book.  

Not everyone is this type of writer. My father once told me a story about art critic and writer Robert Hughes. They were in New York with a few writer friends. There was a lunch, at which everyone had a lot of drinks. They went back to one of the writer’s apartments, my father didn’t say which. But he did witness a sozzled Hughes sit down and reel off about 3,500 words to be faxed to a magazine that night. One draft, a few penned in corrections, done in about 2 hours. And he said Hughes was pretty much always like this, he was full of admiration for the sort of mind Hughes was in possession of.

My father would have taken about a week to write an article of the same length. He was often called a genius, but he wasn’t. He was a dogged worker, and he was happiest working. He loved to edit and refine. He told me with pride that he wrote the opening chapter to The Snow Leopard thirty times. Never satisfied, he would make multiple corrections to what were supposed to be final galleys of a book. He’d find something that needed to be changed, and it would be changed, at quite a cost to the publisher. He “drove them crazy,” my stepmother Maria said. He had great integrity about the writing. Writing was the center of his existence, and that’s what made him so good.

He said that the first draft is always the hardest. In this we were the same, though it is probably true for most writers. When I told him of my splooge style, these crazed looping non sensical paragraphs and lines, pages of them, and my ostensible kinship with the long dead Fernando Pessoa, I got a totally blank look.

The ways to approach a blank page are infinite. A Hughes type, a genius, might have all his facts and his reactions to them and his overall theme assembled on a continually rotating RAM in his brain, that can emerge fully formed. William Styron was said to have produced one perfect or near perfect page a day when he was writing. My father worked on the fictionalization of the Edgar Watson story for many years, producing a trilogy during the nineties, and, approximately ten years later, Shadow Country, a new rendering of the three. Some said he spent too long on Watson, but then he won the National Book Award.

When trying to explain my system to him, I didn’t add the next steps, because it was such a far cry from what he did it was almost embarrassing.  

Had I had the courage I would have explained what happens next to splooge, usually after a bit of time away. I read it over, looking for signs of life, meaning of course, the story and the people in it and what will happen. These spindly clay figures are the only ones who can tell me what to do. When editing is going well the character that I have in my mind begins to take shape on their own. This person that I know, and that I might always have known, tells me whether or not they would have said that line, or done that particular thing. They are sitting on my shoulder. All I have to do is tune into their channel and stick with it. If I am very lucky, 30% of that second draft will be some kind of scaffold that gives me the shape of the scene and the people in it.

We know that we think something, we just don’t know what it is. We know there’s a story in us, characters inside us trying to get out, but we aren’t familiar with them yet. There are many selves inside us. Some are ghosts, some are not. Maybe finding them is a circuitous, mysterious thing, not too far flung from trying to make contact with the dead. It isn’t too far a leap for me.

If you are that type too I would say, keep at it until you break through. Until you find the thread of life that traces through the 2,000 words you splooged. Keep at it. You very well might find something there.

Paperclips

Today I got the right sized paperclips. I got a box of big metal ones, all shiny and new, and lined up like French beans. Weirdly thrilling, these little implements for writing. Real things are much more satisfying than say, a new computer to wrestle with. I had been struggling with dinky plastic coated ones, having to shove two at a time onto sections.

I am just getting some traction on novel after staring at it in a stupor for a few hours. Remembered what friend Amy Jenkins said about fiction, that her novel would SNARL at her after she'd been away. That's certainly true. Remembered what my father used to say, "The writing life is like a bowl of honey, you just have to lick it from a thorn." 

I try also to remember what Graham Green said about his own work, that the next scene, or the direction of the plot, or what a character would do was always formulating in his mind while away from his desk, always, even if he wasn't actually thinking about it. Hard to tell if this is going on.

I remember these things because I'm at crucial juncture, 63K words in, where a bit of sag has developed. I'm like Wile E. Coyote trying to bridge a canyon with a plot that stretches some 83,000 words. One way or another, it must be surprising, or touching, or informative enough, or tense, or funny, or some combination of all, or the reader will fall yowling to the canyon floor, or worse, just put the book aside with the others they never finished.

"Only Connect." In art, in life, it is such a simple concept. Yet devastatingly difficult on the page. One gets over complicated, wanting to say it cleverly. Yes, that can suffice, but surprisingly, it is sometimes the simplest small sentence, at the right swerve in the paragraph, that connects and completes it. If it's true, life floods in, miraculously. 

The paperclips sit on my desk, beckoning, and eventually they'll go on clumps and stacks of paper. Little things that are so pleasing. The plastic box is clear, and makes a satisfying click when closing. It's almost as good as the day I got a pack of ten gel markers in a kaleidoscope of colors, for editing.