In her Nobel Prize for Literature lecture in 1996 Wislawa Szymborska said: “It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to … the emergence of a masterpiece. … Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting’s evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush-stroke. …
“Of course this is all quite naive and doesn’t explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there’s something to look at and listen to. But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later … Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?“
Painters can do little that’s photogenic for ages too. Thoughts, observations, doubts and doodles that become part of our past influencing paintings in our future.
“I am returning to the pencil. The premise of which remark signifies consciousness that at some point I left the pencil, a moment I have no recollection of. I am going to have to guess. It was around the age of eleven, just as learning got serious, that we were told we could use biro or fountain pens instead. Implicit in this message was the notion that pencil was somehow junior, inferior, not serious. …
“Just as I cannot remember stopping using them, I can’t quite pinpoint their return. …
“I find I can’t read now without one. For underlining and margin notes, the pencil’s the thing. It’s quick and doesn’t smudge …The great thing about these pencils … is the lack of fuss of them. … they don’t ask for much. The odd twist of the sharpener, yes. But not much more.
“Using a pencil I find myself following my best teaching advice: ‘Don’t rub out, just put a line through it’. It is as though the lack of physical pressure required to move my hand across the page somehow removes the psychological pressure to get it absolutely perfect first time. While I know it never will be, it’s a lesson I can never learn too often.”
“Whatever crazy, impractical, nonsensical reason there is for you to be an artist, consider the alternative. To paraphrase Robert Henri*–you can’t get rid of the part of you that yearns to be an artist, any more than you can get rid of your shadow. Embrace it.”
“…the unpredictability of wet in wet effects teaches [you] to improvise with the paint behavior rather than try to dominate it.
“…all wet in wet effects result from an imbalance of wetness between paper, brush and fresh paint
“…the main source of control is turning water against itself, using moisture to guide and control moisture in much the way that forestry workers use fire to control and extinguish a forest fire. This is the wet in wet balancing act.”
“For a painter whose reputation is based in part on his systematic approach to serial imagery, his [Monet’s] sketchbooks offer a startling glimpse into another side of his artistic personality. If there is anything deliberate about these books, it is the very casualness with which he filled them in, throwing them open almost at random, continuing studies across the binding, and paying little attention to composing each page.
“… For many of the drawings, Monet held his sketchbooks vertically like a flip pad rather than horizontally like a book. … Monet did not recognize a primary orientation in his sketchbooks; to him they had no front or back, no up or down.”
James a Ganz and Richard Kendall, “The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings”, page 169
“The problem for me was that I willed my poetry at first. I had too much control. But in time the benevolences of metaphor and rhyme sent me down their rabbit holes, in new directions, so that my will—my intention—was sent hither and yon. And in that mix of intention and diversion, I could get a tiny inkling of things far beyond me.”
“Uncertainty involves unknown possible outcomes and thus unknowable probabilities. Risk involves known possible outcomes and probabilities that we can estimate. Risk is not especially scary, because it can be managed … Uncertainty, on the other hand, is scary, because it is not manageable: We can’t measure the likelihood and impacts of the unknowable. … distinguish between what can and can’t be known right now”
Risk of failure, risk of success, uncertainty as to which we will achieve in our next painting. What can’t be known before we’ve gone some way with a painting is which it’ll be, we just have to ride along with it.
“What’s the most common piece of advice you’re likely to receive for getting better at something? Try harder. Work harder. Put more effort in. Pay more attention to what you’re doing. Do more.
“Yet what do we experience when we are performing at our best? The exact opposite. Everything becomes effortless. We act without thinking or even giving ourselves time to think. We stop judging our actions as good or bad and observe them as they are. Colloquially, we call this being in the zone.”
When I’ve done something in a painting that I’m particularly pleased with (that “good bit”) and then try to do it again deliberately, I’ve learnt to expect it not to work. Nor the next attempt, as often as not. I’m trying too hard and am too desperate to get it right, to prove to myself it wasn’t a fluke.
It’s only by worrying less about a specific outcome happening right now and trusting myself that I did it once and thus probably, maybe, most likely, perhaps, definitely, at some point will do it again. It may feel as if came out of nowhere, but it didn’t. It came from everything done before, it was just one of those days when the ducks all line up rather than flying erratically.
“…the world is so in flux that our brains are filled with static and we can’t hear our own thoughts.
“…Novels pile up; they can seem like a nuisance, frivolous at best and at worst a self-indulgent way of avoiding a reality we’d rather not countenance. But it’s worth remembering that they are also the best technology we have for transmitting one person’s consciousness directly into another’s.
“Even if it seems unrealistic, or self-important, or just delusional, the act of writing implies that someone in the future will read what we’re currently in the process of writing. That future can only exist if we believe in it now.
Emily Gould, Literary Hub newsletter 9 April 2020
For novel/writing, substitute art/painting and drawing, music/playing and composing, etc.