There’s nobody living who couldn’t stand all afternoon in front of a waterfall…, wrote Agnes Martin. Anyone who can sit on a stone in a field awhile can see my painting. Nature is like parting a curtain, you go into it…as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean. It’s not about facts, it’s about feelings….A definition of art is that it makes concrete our most subtle emotions.
Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
I don’t think I have ever read anyone writing about self-loathing, disappointment and despair in such a respectful and attentive way as Anne Lamott. It is very easy to identify with Lamott’s narrator, even if her problem may be slightly different from yours, it doesn’t really matter. When the specificities of a certain life is put in parentheses, our common daily struggle for living decent lives in a much too complicated world, is much the same. Identification is important, but what makes Lamott’s writing into art, is her unexpected twists – when she, for example, suddenly makes something tragically into a comedy, or; when she, in the middle of a very strange story, suddenly let the reader meet herself – mirrored – in the most unexpected situations.
do know the sorrow of being ordinary, and that much of our life is spent doing the crazy mental arithmetic of how, at any given moment, we might improve, or at least disguise or present our defects and screw-ups in either more charming or more intimidating ways.
The two books I have been reading, and the lecture I have listened to, are all very much about Anne Lamott, she doesn’t try to hide the fact, BUT what surprises me, is how much they all also are about me – .
My Anne Lamott’s:
- Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith (2007)
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995)
- Word By Word (1996) audio
First I listened to Word by Word, then to the audiobook version of Bird by Bird, and today I’m reading Bird by Bird on my iPad. Why? Because I got kind of hooked. Because Anne Lamott writes and talks exceedingly well about writing. Because Lamott knows what she’s talking about – and seems genuinely interested in sharing her insights.
In short: Anne Lamott makes you want to write!
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
Bird by Bird - Quick SUMMARY of major points:
- Write regularly whether you feel like writing or not, and whether you think what you’re writing is any good or not.
- Give yourself short assignments. Keep it manageable so you don’t get overwhelmed.
- Write sh**ty first drafts. (I’m not being prissy about the word choice, just don’t want to get hung up in spam filters.) Don’t expect a piece of writing to flow perfectly out of your fingers on the first go. Of all the points she makes, many people seem to find this one the most helpful.
- Let the Polaroid develop; in other words, observe, watch, listen, stay in the moment, until you understand what you want to write about.
- Know your characters.
- Let the plot grow out of the characters.
- “If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces that you don’t ever bother finishing…it may be that there is nothing at their center about which you care passionately. You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right.”
- Figure out ways to jam the transmissions from Radio KFKD, the interior station feeding doubts and criticism into your brain. Especially about jealousy of other writers.
- Have pen and paper ready at all times. (She always carries an index card.)
- Call around. Ask for help.
- Start a writing group.
- Write in your own voice.
- Being published brings a quiet joy, but it doesn’t transform your life, and eventually you have to write again.
- “Devotion and commitment will be their own reward.”
I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say’; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.
— Mary Ruefle, “On Secrets”
My desk tends to be a rather crowded place. But every now and then I try to tidy up, mainly to clear my thoughts.
The next couple of weeks I will be writing a short essay on art and feminism. It’s a commissioned work, with limits in words and a set time. An enjoyable and feasible project.
And as usual there will also be several critiques to write.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867): The Bather, known as the Valpinçon Bather, (1807-08)
This Seated Woman, as the painting was originally titled, is one of the three works Ingres was required to send to Paris as a student at the French Academy in Rome (the other two being a Half-length portrait of a woman bathing, 1807 and an Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1808). It was an odd choice of subject for a student at the Academy. The few critics who commented on the work were unimpressed. It was not until the Universal Exhibition in 1855 that the work received favorable notice from critics, including the Goncourt brothers, who wrote, “Rembrandt himself would have envied the amber color of this pale torso.”
- I will also manage to spend some time with my main ongoing project: art and beauty
During my winter holiday I have done a bit of research, reading in these books:
What do we mean when we call a work of art `beautiful`? How have artists responded to changing notions of the beautiful? Which works of art have been called beautiful, and why? – Why should we care about beauty in the twenty-first century?
What makes an object – either in art, in nature, or the human form – beautiful?
Darwinistic aesthetics: why a chimpanzee with a paintbrush is having fun but not making art etc.
What is it to be at the edge of the world of the imagination? How do writers, readers, and thinkers deal with this threshold? How do painters represent it?
I’m reading them, these books and several more, all at the same time, filling my mind with new thoughts and ideas, comparing, challenging and adjusting. Making chaos, or maybe – if one puts generosity to the process – a dynamic system. My plan is to gradually, over time, find new paths – in my own language.
Time will tell …
have you noticed how, after I begun my study of beauty, old people have started invading my pages …?!
This marvelous picture, by the Norwegian photographer Elin Høyland, belongs to a series called Time to wait. Time to wait documents the life of the farmer Edvard Bjelland. Through Høyland’s wonderful images we get a glimpse into a life which seems strangely unfamiliar, even if it is led here … and now!
Elin Høyland is well known for a series called Brothers, her new images are in line with earlier works, but is new in the way she this time uses color.
To me this is pure beauty!
You know by now that I’m not planning a thorough theoretical study of beauty, my intention is rather to take a stroll into the maze – hoping for a glimpse of beauty, expecting nothing. I’m a vagabond, preferring to get lost.
But, obviously, my way might not be the only way … (!), there is a long tradition of studies on beauty to consider:
The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to 18th and 19th-century thought, as represented in treatments by such thinkers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Burke, Kant; Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hanslick, and Santayana. By the beginning of the twentieth century, beauty was in decline as a subject of philosophical inquiry, and also as a primary goal of the arts. However, the last decade has seen a revival of interest in the subject.
Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Burke, Kant; Hegel, Schopenhauer, Hanslick, and Santayana; obviously all very clever guys (NB: wasn’t there ever a female philosopher studying beauty?!). Wise men well worth considering; but I’m afraid mimicking someone else’s reflections is not what I’m after. Listening to Kant (some will say) is very interesting, but I’m not sure if studying philosophy is the perfect way to beauty. I’ve come to believe one really has to see for oneself -
Luis Buñel, Salvador Dalí: Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog), 1929
- eyes wide open …
- becomes extraordinary
How is it, that the most ordinary scenes, sometimes – when captured by the most watchful eye – can become art? And who would dispute the beauty in this very ordinary everyday scene?
No doubt the ordinary will have a central place in my study of beauty. Recently I have started to wonder, if the genre of documentary (in film, photo, essay …), is more interested in studying beauty, than the more traditional art forms like painting, performance and sculpture? That is, do we have to go to the borderline between art and not art to find beauty?
Here is David Brooks; adding valuable arguments to our ongoing study of art & beauty:
We really have to trust our emotions, which are much smarter than our reason in some ways – because our emotions tell us what to value.
- we don’t have the choice to control our emotions, but we do have the power to educate our emotions. And we do that through literature and through art and music to give ourselves a repertoire of emotional experiences.
On my way through life I find beauty in the strangest of places and vistas. Not so with Mr. Scruton, who says: “I think we are losing beauty and with it there is the danger of losing the meaning of life.”
- we are living through the ‘uglification’ of our world – the randomization of our cities, the pornification of sexual love, the spoliation of the natural world, and the pollution of everything by consumerism and appetite.
British philosopher, writer, and composer
I’m not especially pro pornification, spoliation or pollution, but this doesn’t mean that there cannot be incredible beauty to be found in the uglier sides of the world. Beauty can be found – everywhere, even in … ugliness?!
Dam #6, Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtze River, 2005 © Edward Burtynsky
To me this picture of ugliness is incredible beautiful.
Maybe we have to sharpen our focus, and try to draw nearer to the really impossible question:
What exactly is beauty?
For Scruton, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is an objective truth: In the 20th century, he says, beauty stopped being important, art increasingly aimed to disturb and break moral taboos, it was not beauty but originality however achieved. Are we happy with the direction art is taking? Away from seeking “higher virtues” such as beauty and craftmanship, and instead, towards novelty for novelty’s sake, provoking emotional response under the guise of socio-political discourse?
Through the pursuit of beauty, suggests Scruton, we shape the world as our own and come to understand our nature as spiritual beings. But art has turned its back on beauty and now we are surrounded by ugliness.
A problem for me, with Scruton’s argumentation, is that he ends up defining art as something very close to decorum – and we end up with beauty being just another form of etiquette, actually, as I see it, not very spiritual nor true (two important notions of beauty in a classical view). To me Scruton’s ideal sounds like a historical museum, nice to visit, but not made for life.
Ah! The complexity of things -
There might actually be a kind of spirituality in Burtynsky’s images of destruction, pollution and spoliation, a beauty as beautiful as the sensual beauty of say … Venus?