The fruit is ripening as it should
Claire Beynon, Dunedin, August 2018
The title of this post is a line from a letter received a good many years ago from my friend, Melissa Green. Melissa is a Boston-based poet. She and I have exchanged volumes of correspondence over the years, some of which explores the fluctuations of our respective creative processes. At the time she sent this particular letter we were both in the doldrums. I recall the words ‘betrayed by the muse’ being bandied about – a little over-dramatic, perhaps, though I imagine many of us have felt similarly abandoned when inspiration stubbornly refuses to turn up.
We took turns underlining the value of incubation periods. Melissa wrote,
“One is to ask and refrain from asking; to struggle and to refrain from struggle;
to think deeply and to refrain from over-thinking in order simply to be present without fretting – in one’s body and one’s soul, at one's desk and chair, in one's factory or studio, feeding the birds that come to the table, walking beside the surf, sitting patiently beneath the apple tree knowing the fruit is ripening as it should. . .”
I agreed that very often the most productive thing we can do when the creative juices stop flowing is to simply ‘abide’ with what is. This, don’t we all know, can be easier said than done. When we’re stumbling around in a creative wilderness, it can be challenging to practice patience whilst simultaneously trying to crawl, cajole, write or paint ourselves back into the familiar reassurance of fertile ground.
Over time, I’ve come to understand and appreciate these ‘dry’ patches as unhelpfully misnamed for they have proven themselves over and again to be anything but fallow. I see them now as uniquely fertile, with their own native intelligence. In the same way, during times of trial, the taproot of a tree knows to burrow evermore deeply down to access the nutrients it knows it needs for survival, some part of us knows we require intervals during which we put down our pens or paintbrushes and (appear to) do nothing.
Not only are these incubation spaces vital for the release or reconfiguration of old ideas, they facilitate the arrival of new ones and offer our creative batteries time to replenish. I think of these intervals as interludes that come along to serve and support us rather than to saboutage our efforts - our taproot knowing what it needs and going as deep as it needs to locate it. These intervals are akin, too, to the pauses in a musical composition; music would not be music without the spaces between the notes. It would be noise. The spaces are as essential to music as the notes themselves are. And so it is with us when it comes to our writing or studio work.
Over the years, I’ve asked myself the same few questions over and again, one of which is this; ‘What would happen if, instead of experiencing non-doing periods as panic-inducing, ‘dead’ and ‘dry’, I chose to welcome them as necessary punctuation marks in a longer sentence? What if I were to consider them as the creative life taking care of me and itself?’
As a person wired for round-the-clock work, I know for a fact that were the task of creative sustenance and maintenance left entirely to me, I would very likely push it - and myself - to the point of burnout.
Whether we write, paint, work with metal or clay, compose music or spend time peering down a microscope, there’s an aspect of our daily practice that insists we partner discipline and commitment with trust and surrender; reason with intuition; determination with doubt; certainty with not-knowing. It’s said that ideally we’d turn up at our desk/piano/wheel/easel with anticipation but without expectation; that we’d make ourselves ever-available to surprise. This implies creating room for the unexpected to turn up. Very little can turn up when we live in too cramped a space, no matter how well-organized that space may be?
I’m learning, I think, to hold ideas when they come without holding onto them. Holding too tightly to anything – or anyone, for that matter – is guaranteed to leave claw marks that will almost certainly rob that ‘someone’ or ‘something’ of life, integrity, autonomy. Put differently, a bell stuffed with cotton wool balls will stop ringing. In contrast, surrendering into the ‘places of pause’ can bring relief and allow our curiosity to seed and germinate in new ways.
So yes, incubation periods are no less active than our so-called ‘productive’ times when we might have something ‘concrete’ to show for our efforts. They teem with life, potential and the raw ingredients for everything that’s waiting in the wings; sooner or later we recognize the nudge that suggests whatever’s been composting underground and out of sight is getting ready to emerge. It strikes me that while we might think we’re responsible for ‘doing the work’, creating anything is by nature and implication a collaborative process.
At home with The Waking, a painting prompted by the work of poet Theodore Roethke
I was reminded recently of an important-to-me exhibition review published in the ODT way back in 1999. It was a fine review. The critic had been entirely generous and affirming in his comments, yet I’d felt knocked flat by what he’d written. I got stuck on one word - yes, one word! He might as well have punched me in the gut. He’d referred to my new series of paintings as ‘immaculate’.
I pondered afterwards why his choice of the word ‘immaculate’ should have caused me such distress. Looking it up in the dictionary, the definition included the following qualifiers – ‘free from flaws or mistakes, perfect, neat or tidy, free from sin…’ Worlds away from who I knew myself to be, and worlds away from what I’d intended in that work!
At the ripe old age of thirty-nine, I felt I’d spent a good part of my life doing ‘gritty inner work’, making room for the unfinished, the uncertain and the imperfect. No wonder the word ‘immaculate’ hit so hard. I experienced what had been intended as praise as a bludgeoning. Instead of feeling buoyed by that review, I felt ashamed, as if on some deep level I’d failed. I also felt that the word ‘immaculate’ relegated me to the position of creative virgin, at once violated and impenetrable, corrupt and innocent. Uninitiated, too, in things that mattered a great deal to me.
I knew at the time my reaction was something of an over-reaction. I remember later thanking the reviewer (who had also misspelled my name, bless him!) for his generosity and the unexpected gift he had given me. It felt important to let him know that while his support had meant a lot, I’d also experienced what felt like a blow at once terrible and wonderful. Imagine! All it had taken was one carefully-chosen word and I was blasted right out of my comfort zone. As happens, this turned out to be a turning point and not at all a ‘bad’ thing. I resolved then and there to adopt the best of the word ‘immaculate’ and to apply it as a kind of ‘don’t go there’ beacon or standard by which I would measure pretty much everything I’d make from then on.
Knowing when and where to stop is an important part of every creative undertaking. I would sooner stop at the place where something I’m making is imperfect yet still vibrantly in motion than push it to a state of so-called ‘perfection’ (an unattainable ideal, really). Anything too tightly governed runs the risk of (a) concealing the honest truth of the process behind its making and (b) robs whatever we’re working on of its life - and with that, its capacity to communicate and connect with all that is messy and human and perfectly imperfect in all of us.
A few days ago, I happened upon a paragraph I’d forgotten I’d transcribed to an old notebook. Louise Glück sums up what I’ve been trying to say up in words far more eloquent than mine –-
“... I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum.
A few years ago, I saw a show of Holbein drawings; most astonishing were those still in progress. Parts were entirely finished. And parts were sketched, a fluent line indicating arm or hand or hair, but the forms were not filled in. Holbein had made notes to himself: this sleeve blue, hair, auburn. The terms were other—not the color in the world, but the color in paint or chalk. What these unfinished drawings generated was a vivid sense of Holbein at work, at the sitting; to see them was to have a sense of being back in time, back in the middle of something. Certain works of art become artifacts. By works of art, I mean works of any medium. And certain works of art do not.
It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.” (from her collection, Proofs and Theories; Essays on Poetry [Ecco, 2004])
Here’s to imperfection, harnessing the power of the unfinished and fruit ripening as it should.