The great frustration many art-makers experience is often simply part of the process of mastery. In order to push a work of art so that it has a shot at being fully realized, you have to endure a lot of frustration as you try over and over to get it right. And the mind doesn’t just produce on demand. You have to sit with yourself and coax it along. And you have to tolerate the uncertainty of investing yourself deeply – and investing time – into something that might never come right.
[It’s] an absorbing errand. Isn’t that a great phrase? It’s from an early Henry James novel. Here’s the quotation: “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self, but the point is not only to get out – you must stay out and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand”. . . . life is more meaningful for many of us when we pursue an absorbing errand – like writing, painting, playing an instrument, or mastering some complex craft . . . While we think of art making as introspective, and it certainly is, it also pulls us outside ourselves toward the world. It gives us a way to possess the world – thus it becomes an absorbing errand.
Janna Malamud Smith, in an interview talking about her book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way to Mastery
Following the publication of his first autobiography, “Uncle Tungsten,” [Oliver] Sacks came to understand that his memories were not as reliable as he’d thought: After describing in high detail the memory of a thermite bomb that fell behind the family’s house in the winter of 1940-41, he was informed by his brother that he had not in fact been present for it, having been sent away to the relative safety of boarding school. The “memory” had been lifted whole from a letter their older brother wrote to them both, describing the dramatic event in a way that had deeply impressed Sacks at the time. And yet even after accepting the correction, Sacks found that the recollection lost none of its vivid power, having long been embedded as if it were a genuine primary memory. Neither psychoanalysis nor brain imaging can tell the difference between a true and false memory. And more than that, Sacks writes, “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”
Nicole Krauss, A Last Glimpse Into the Mind of Oliver Sacks The New York Times, December 4, 2017 (from here)
The course of her life so far has been rather like a raindrop wending its way down a pane of glass: unstructured, stop-start and pellucid.
Gemma Sieff, A Poet’s Loving Take on Her Unorthodox Catholic Family, A Review of Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy, The New York Times, June 9 2017
A family never recognizes its own idylls while it’s living them, while it’s all spread out on the red-and-white checked cloth, while the picnic basket is still open and before the ants have found the sugar. … It recognizes them later, when people are gone, or moved away, or colder toward each other. This is about that idyll, and I began it in that grass-green clearing of time, and I am giving it no chance to grow cold. Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy (from here)
The mark of my poetry is the constant regret that human experience eludes description. Czeslaw Milosz
We all find in others, as we find in ourselves, certain moments of being unreal, of floating free, of not getting to grips. In some people we find it as a whole affliction, someone detached at the very root of existence. We recognise them in the workplace as people with vast schemes that never come to fruition; in relationships, as those who won’t commit to one life path over another. From the parents’ group to the football club, such people, after a period of assessment, are quietly worked around. It is part of the continuous whole-personality assessments we all make of each other, building models, revising them. The fact that we can be “wrong” about someone is a demonstration of the process.
We build such narratives of character all the time. We build them in art, in high culture and popular, and we can go back and forth between the great and the small. As well as the rule of England, Shakespeare’s Henry VI is obviously about the running of a small theatre company – you can hear Shakespeare’s bitching about how hard it is to bring it all together all the way through. The Office, a bitter plaint at the life wasted by time commodified, is about the failure of democratic socialism, from Harold Wilson to the coming of Thatcher.
People have been doing it about Malcolm Turnbull for months now, making stories that explain him out of the things they know. Turnbull is the wanker from head office, the bloke who sold them a timeshare, the guy who seems to have an agenda, teeth-clenched, bearing all before him.
Guy Rundle, Character actors, The Saturday Paper, November 18-24
About eight years ago a girl in distress came to my door, a stranger, and asked me for help. Said she needed money – so I gave it to her. Later I found out that it was probably a scam of some sort. A lot of questions followed from this in my mind. Was the girl really desperate? Was I a fool to give her the money? But wouldn’t you have to be really desperate to come up with such a scam? The episode, tiny as it was, stayed with me. It became a fruitful sort of problem – connecting with ideas I’d had for a long time about class and desperation and ethics – and eight years later a whole novel sprang from it.
Zadie Smith Thursday 1 August 2013 The Guardian (from here)
[as a poet] . . you’re going to write that which most concerns you, which most quickens your mind, and then to turn those subjects over with as resourceful and complex a touch as possible. I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography. I draw on the materials my life has given me, but what interests me isn’t that they happen to me, what interests me is that they seem, as I look around, paradigmatic. We’re all born mortal. We have to contend with the idea of mortality. We all, at some point, love, with the risks involved, the vulnerabilities involved, the disappointments and great thrills of passion. This is common human experience, so what you use is the self as a laboratory, in which to practice, master, what seem to you central human dilemmas.
Louise Glück in interview with Grace Cavalieri (from here)
My father wanted to be a writer. But he lacked certain qualities: lacked the adamant need which makes it possible to endure every form of failure: the humiliation of being overlooked, the humiliation of being found moderately interesting, the unanswerable fear of doing work that, in the end, really isn’t more than moderately interesting, the discrepancy, which even the great writers live with (unless, possibly, they attain great age) between the dream and the evidence.
Louise Glück, Education of the Poet
Interviewer: What would you say is the most frustrating moment for a writer and how do you overcome it?
George Saunders: I love this quote from Einstein: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” And I try to think that any frustration I feel when writing is, essentially, the story telling me that my current vision of it is too small. It has higher aspirations for itself and my attempts to control it — my attempts to handle (and limit) it with my conceptual apparatus — is causing the story to throw a small tantrum, until I adjust my vision upwards.
“There’s this strong belief, almost a dogma, that novels are finished and reality’s outstripped fiction and therefore the only true literary form is the literary memoir, because you can only describe what happened to yourself . . But really, we’re constantly imagining and reimagining who we are. Most of what we choose to recall is selection and invention. I liked the idea of taking some facts from my life and creating a complete invention around them and in that way questioning what a memoir is.
“I wanted to reinforce the necessity and power of invented stories, because what’s happened isn’t that reality’s outstripped fiction. It’s that fiction has outstripped reality. From the claims of climate-change denialists to the £350 million per week that the Brexiteers were going to get back from the EU, to Donald Trump’s claims of the size of his inauguration crowds, none of these things were reality. They were fictions designed to bolster power and deny people the fundamental truth of the world. The fiction you get in novels speaks to that truth. Lies are a pernicious form of fiction, while novels are a liberating form of fiction that we need more than ever. In a way, my book is an argument for the necessity of novels.”
Richard Flanagan on his new novel,
Malcolm Knox The Age 27 Sept 2017 After the Booker: why Richard Flanagan isn’t playing safe