The Self-Absorbed Artist and Writer
In his Confessions Saint Augustine wrote, “People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long course of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.” But Saint Augustine’s observation, true of most people, is not true of artists and writers. Artists and writers may be guilty of being so totally absorbed in their work that they neglect their health and their families, but are rarely guilty of passing by themselves without wondering.
They wonder insatiably about themselves, and explore themselves continually because they are their own laboratories from which, like alchemist’s mixtures, their art is formed. They must know their strengths (and exploit them) and their weaknesses (and avoid them), and they must be able to estimate accurately the level of their talents relative to what they wish to create, and to foresee the effects of their moods on their work. (If the mood plummets too low or soars too high, will they be able to work today?)
They don’t usually understand how it happened that they are more gifted than others but find themselves from their earliest days in a state of creative grace that has been given to them gratis and they haven’t earned any more than a pretty or handsome face has been earned, but brings benefits throughout life. They are fascinated by what capabilities they discover in themselves that make their art possible.
Many people consider self-absorption like that of people in the arts a negative and unpleasant characteristic. And, in fact, the self-absorption of painters, writers, actors, and ballet dancers among other artists can make them overly emotional, temperamental, and difficult to get along with. But for people engaged seriously in an art being self-absorbed is a necessary element of their creative disposition.
Artists of all kinds are self-absorbed and smitten by their craft for many practical reasons: first of all because the job of being creative is not like any other job. It all comes from the mind of the one person you are, and your duty is to probe that mind’s depths and breadths and pull out what is there every time you create. You must plumb from it patterns of words, or music, or colors that will be shaped into a finished work with your signature on it. The work will be passed on to an audience. They will think, “This is the creation of… (your name); no one else’s.” If the work succeeds it is your success. If it fails, the failure is yours. In any case you have tried your hardest and laid yourself bare before strangers .All responsible fans of the arts try very hard to respond in accord with what they take to be the intention of the author or painter and the work. You make an impression: they praise your work, or are indifferent, or dislike it.
Nature Cooperates With Gifted People
Nature does artists of all kinds a favor. It equips them for the creative pursuit that most suits them, making available to them what often will be their most highly developed and most valued skill, their core capability, and with an aptitude, a “feel,” for a particular art. Noted composers and performing artists in musical fields–so sensitive to sound and tone—possess what the Germans call Horlust–“hearing passion.” Writers–particularly poets and lyrical writers–have a word passion (they adore words), painters find bliss in colors and shapes, often from the cradle, actors and dancers in physical gestures.
A moment comes early in your life or later—an experience occurs—and if you are to be an artist or writer you become aware that this craft is the direction that fits you as no other direction will. You feel that it will lead to satisfactions that you probably would not enjoy were you to follow another route. You’ve had a crystalizing experience in a critical moment when you were first focused and organized toward an artistic purpose you knew was right for you and which you wished to pursue further. It was a sudden attachment to an artistic field that brought with it a motivation–and urge to create—and a sense of knowing what you wanted to do in life.
Your artistic purpose became a permanent part of your mind, your body, your spirit, your entire being—an idea, a theme, a scene from a memory, or perhaps an image that became meaningful. You may not be conscious of it, but it could be a major turning point that starts you out in a creative direction, and gives you a sense of moving steadily in that direction, of moving headlong straight toward a future that is concrete and specific.
Playwright Eugene O’Neill’s major turning point was the result of being stricken by a life-threatening illness and having to find something to do to pass the time during recovery. Novelist Raymond Chandler’s was the result of being fired from a job for drunkenness and having to turn to a new career in his forties. Vincent van Gogh’s turning point was seeing that a life for him in art was a real possibility after reading Cassagne’s Guide to the ABC of Drawing.
To Artists Their Art Is All-Engulfing.
If you are an artist or writer you are the embodiment of your art. There can be no separating one from the other–art/artist, the work/the producer of the work. You are a daughter or son, citizen of a country, land-owner, athlete, lover, and teacher, true, but you’re also an artist and that art may be your center of gravity. Your belief in and enthusiasm for your art is always somewhere in your life. Your art is being processed even in your sleep–being worked up into a properly embellished work–and it is impossible to extract your personality from the work. You cannot be hidden even if you wished to hide.
Creative works are the products of the whole person: your intelligence and courage, (who is more timid and less bold than an artist or writer who lacks courage?), and products of your talents, training, and commitments, your energy, and your memories. Your painting, writing, acting, dancing voice is the end result of all the experiences of the life you’ve lived, and it comes through your work–every painting, each manuscript– loud and clear. The most distinguishing quality of the work–the feature the audience is affected by first–is the always-unique (never a duplicate of anybody else)–style of its creator, the artist’s unmistakable “touch.”
Novelist Henry Miller said, “I don’t care who the artist is, if you study him deeply, sincerely, detachedly, you will find that he and his work are one.” Novelist Joseph Conrad said, “The writer of imaginative prose stands confessed in his works.” Pablo Picasso said, “It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is…What interests me is the uneasiness of Cezanne, the real teaching of Cezanne, the torment of van Gogh, that is to say the drama of the man.” Artists may try to eliminate themselves from the work, but they can’t. Henry James said that the artist of a work “stands present on every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself.”
Poet W.H. Auden wrote, “Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: ‘Here is the verbal contraption. How does it work?’ The second is, in the broadest sense moral. What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One. What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?” William James said it is the amount of life in the act of creation which artists feel that makes you value their minds.
The Inner World of Artists and Writers
Creative people are adventurers mapping out their inner creative life. They have a need for creative expression that mustn’t be ignored. They have experiences and values that are unlike those of other people. In a poem poet Emily Dickinson said that the soul selects her own society and shuts the door. Often what is left outside the artist’s closed door is the world of ordinary life of Wordsworth’s “getting and spending,”
Even now at this moment you may not be caring very much about many things other people talk about. Those things may have little or no importance for you. They often don’t for people in the arts who value independence, individuality, rebelliousness, and detachment, and are infatuated with their work. They march to the rat-a-tat of a drummer unique to themselves which they hear so clearly but less creative people could not hear even faintly were their life to depend on it. Marcel Proust said succinctly, “Those who have created for themselves an enveloping inner life pay little heed to the importance of current events.”
In the same vein Oscar Wilde wrote: “It is through art and through art only, that we realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” American naturalist/ philosopher Henry David Thoreau said that most of what society called good he thought was evil, and that if he could repent anything it would be his “good” conduct.
What is inside the shut door Dickinson spoke of is the artist’s fertile inner life. From it a river of creative products pour–ceaselessly flowing and moving if the artists explore themselves more and more thoroughly. Transformation of what is inside the artist into what is outside is the overriding goal–to produce into the clear light of day a book, a painting, a song or a symphony, a memorable performance –that is completely as the artist wishes, and offering it out to be shared with an appreciative and admiring world.
The artist whose beautiful work is featured on this post is Kendall Kessler, award winning professional artist and former Asst. Professor of Art at Radford University. She primarily creates large impasto oil paintings, but also works in pastels. Kendall has exhibited throughout the USA, and won local, national & international awards in both mediums. Her artwork is in private collections in thirty-two states, Washington D.C., Canada, Germany, Russia, Australia, Switzerland,and England. For more information on Kendall Kessler, see her website KendallKessler
© 2019 David J. Rogers
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