In my small personal library I recently uncovered a paperback given to me many years ago by local artist, and my former painting teacher, Earl Lehman. I remember Earl as a wonderful painter and a delightful person with small, round glasses and an affinity for pastel socks.
The book was The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Inside it, Earl had inscribed “This book is about more than putting a line of words together – it’s about paint, and what we do!” I used it to ease my mind on a nerve-wracking flight on a smallish plane between Scranton and Chicago. (Let’s just say the pilot was a fan of seemingly random and rapid descents).
The Writing Life describes, in sometimes painful detail, Annie’s various habits as a writer, and what sort of atmosphere she requires in order to write well. It really struck a chord with me, as it reminded me of my own bizarre tendencies as an artist. Allow me to quote:
How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse. You can easily get so confused writing a thirty-page chapter that in order to make an outline for the second draft, you have to rent a hall. I have often ‘written’ with the mechanical aid of a twenty-foot conference table. You lay your pages along the table’s edge and pace out the work. You walk along the rows; you weed bits, move bits, and dig out bits, bent over the rows with full hands like a gardener. After a couple of hours, you have taken an exceedingly dull nine-mile hike. You go home and soak your feet.
I can’t imagine that I am the only artist out there who can relate. In order to be creative, I require the following:
- My 0.3 mm mechanical pencil. I only own one of these. It is blue. Disaster ensues when I cannot find it. Losing it has certainly cost me hours of work time, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to buy another…
- Daylight, the largest possible table, and a high ceiling (apparently studies have linked artistic creativity to workspaces with high ceilings).
- Any negative conversations going on in the background. My father likes to talk on the phone about the perils of natural gas drilling. This topic angers me and prevents me from being productive. Once, I was listening to The Savage Nation (an obnoxious and very conservative radio show), during which the host was singing the praises of George W. Bush while simultaneously declaring his pride in driving a Hummer and discussing the benefits of catapulting every illegal immigrant across the Rio Grande, or some other rubbish. I was also working on a pen and ink drawing. You can actually see, in the drawing, where I was working when this radio show came on based on my abrupt heavyhandedness. Drawings are like tree rings, recording my hourly moods.
- Sound, or video, coming out of the computer on which I am working. For some reason I can not handle too much stimulation from the same place.
- Good weather. I can’t put my finger on what exactly I want to be doing outside, but when the weather is good I cannot sit at a table behind a computer.
- Stand on my rolling chair and look down at my painting in order to “view it at a distance”. This drives my father crazy. It’s also an added benefit of high ceilings.
- Reheat tea up to five times every day and forget about it each time. There is a cup of tea that seems to live in the microwave.
- Have a good luck charm. Most recent good luck charm was a white, ceramic owl that I bought at the local flea market. It was described by my dad as “the ugliest thing that I have ever seen”, but my best days of painting came under the watchful eye of the owl.
- Procrastinate (cough)…