Accepting Limitations and Living One’s Art

An autodidact by disposition, I read for many hours each day in order to stretch myself and teach myself and for the pure pleasure of it. Through study and close observation of the creative processes others—my Tutelary Spirits—I enter conversations about art and ideas and meaning that have gone on for a long time, much longer than I’ve been here, and find I belong there.

Today I returned to a wonderful book by the art critic and author, Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. When my husband got sick during our honeymoon last March and slept for five days, I spent my days reading. This book saved that week in Montreal from being a bust!

I could share a hundred passages—you should see all of my underlining—but here are a few that make me want to stop everything and reread the whole book right now:

In his 1952 “Lecture on Nothing” John Cage said “Structure without life is dead. Life without structure is un-seen. Pure life expresses itself within and through structure. Each moment is absolute, alive and significant. Black birds rise from a field making a sound de-licious and be-yond com-pare. I heard them because I ac-cepted the limitations of an arts conference in a Virginia girls’ finishing school.”

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As I recall, Cage found the conference a hassle in some respects, and yet he got to see the birds in the field. He was present. I recognized the value in this.

Recently I declined to organize a launch reading for an anthology I’m a part of, and had actually wanted to host, though upon careful consideration I realized that I shouldn’t. As a result, the editor of the anthology told another possible host that I was too busy to do it (I was cc’d in the email) inquiring if that other poet would like the job. But “being too busy” was not the reason I said no. (I had just blogged about “busyness”, and why I avoid this condition so assiduously.)

Instead, I decided I couldn’t host because I’ve chosen something else: to write a book that only I can write (no one else will do it for me). Until I do that, I see no option but a fairly strict policy of social austerities. Having made that agreement with myself, I accept the limitations. I said no to hosting the launch in order to say yes to something else.

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Here’s Larson describing Cage’s deepening Zen practice and its relationship to his process and performances as a composer:

“Mind creates the world it lives within. Everything you do, everything you say—not only to others, but most of all to yourself—emerges from your degree of realization. If you have sorted out your problems and removed your impediments, then your changed mind will immediately communicate to others without any effort on your part, and without any “doing” or intentionality. You will simply be yourself.”

I am increasingly interested in writing what is most my own to write. What is most real, dare I say authentic. It’s not about being original or groundbreaking (not that it ever was) but instead about manifesting something effortless and true in an artistic mode. (Indeed, I note the qualification: “in an artistic mode”. I guess that points to how writing and art is the training ground for other modes of my being. If I make the work, and am free of pretense or misguided intentions, my humanity seems to follow.)

Larson again: “You already have everything you need. You already are who you are. All that remains, then, is to ask: How do you realize it? How do you make it real?

Because I too am a student of Zen, these are ideas I’ve encountered before. However, they are big enough, and subtle enough that re-encountering them, and arriving through new doorways to consider them from different angles, helps me to further penetrate their meaning and personal significance. Reading about how another artist applied his practice to his work helps me make connections with my own. I love, for example, the idea of accepting and embracing parameters (formal constraints) in order to focus on what is. Those blackbirds rising in a Virginia field, the January sun rising over the cemetery this morning, stark and yellow. I see it because I have made a pact with myself to pay attention to these things each morning. It is enough.

Today I’m also thinking about a very intelligent client of mine who happens to be a professor and psychologist with an abiding interest in meditation and other mindfulness practices. She’s working on a book but the writing is uncomfortable; she resists it, I think, because it’s not her first or most native mode of communication. In an effort to keep moving forward on her project, but also to essentially avoid the writing, she collates documents and goes deeper into the sources she’ll one day integrate into her book.

As I’ve already said, reading and study are important and expanding, but this aspiring writer already knows enough to write her book. She may have the urge to see what others think and have to say on the subjects she’s writing about, but the real work for her—for any of us—is in uncovering what she thinks, and what she knows or has noticed, and to do this, she must write the words that are her own.

Maybe this post has you thinking about your own process or a project you want to make real this year. If so, I’m hosting my annual retreat called LIVE YOUR ART at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in northern Michigan, February 19-21, 2016. This is a chance to contemplate what you’re making and why it matters; to discuss process; to learn from others (I’ll share readings and videos and resources from my study of the masters); and it’s a chance to spend time with other working artists, writers and creative entrepreneurs who are committed to living their art and making real stuff in the world. Join me. It’s the third year I’ve offered this “think space and creativity incubator” and I believe the content is helpful and inspiring. It moves people forward in ways that matter. It’s the beginning of another year: let’s do this together. More info and registration is here.

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