Yesterday wasn’t the greatest day either; in spite of so many good things (new art supplies, a day out, walking, a haircut), nothing seemed worthwhile. But this morning I woke up feeling like all was right again. Strange how these moods come upon me and then lift. I’m so fortunate in that they do lift… sooner or later there’s a shift in my brain chemistry or blood sugar level or the planetary alignment or whatever it is, and I feel like myself once more.
Anyway, I’m rereading LM Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon series, and it’s got me thinking about what it means to be an artist. Montgomery writes from a different era and different sensibilities, but every year I go through a phase when I need to read some of her stuff, and this time it’s Emily. I’ve only reread these books a couple of times since I first got them as a teenager, but on each reread I like them more. Emily is a writer and her dedication always makes me think hard about what I’m doing with my own time and aspirations.
A couple of months ago I was reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. He wrote to Franz Kappus:
No one can advise you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?
That same week, one of my capoeira classmates learned of what I do, and asked me, “What do you write?” I gave a half-assed answer (I always do, when faced with this question) but her question and Rilke’s together made me wonder again what it is that I’m doing.
I do know I have to create, and that if the whole world disappeared around me I’d still find myself writing and making some kind of visual statement (even if it was nothing more than stacking rubble in interesting shapes). But I don’t know what this means; I don’t know what I need to make (or, perhaps, what needs to be made through me). Would a really thorough diary be enough? A diary and a blog? Do I need to invent stories or paint portraits, write poems or draw comics? What I really want to know, to be brutally honest, is whether I’ll ever be successful as an artist. But then success for myself and success in the eyes of the world are not always the same thing. I come back to this question again and again: if I really give it my best shot, and can’t make it bigger than an out-of-print book and a couple of local readings a year, is that worth it? Is it enough to keep me trying? I think yes, if I’m truly doing my best, then that’s success… but if I picture myself at fifty with no more recognition than that, I do feel a bit depressed. Then I wonder if I’m shallow!
And then a wiser voice steps in and tells me sternly, but lovingly, to get back to my notebook or my paints, because all this speculation is just air. She tells me that if I really search out my most original thoughts and find a way to translate them into word and image, if I really develop my skills with all that is in me, it’s not possible that I will fail: the work will speak for itself. But I have to do the work. Rilke said it too:
If you meet [the question of whether you must create] with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse… Then… if out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not… for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it.
So that’s where I am for today. Funny thing about this week, isn’t it? — like all off-weeks when I stop to think about them. I’ve felt grim and angsty and useless, but I’ve been productive in mind and deed; I suspect I’ll be able to feed off this week’s insights for at least a for more weeks. You never can tell where a mood is going to lead!