Thursday, March 13, 2014

the torture artist and the tortured artist

I suppose every creative artist -- as distinct from a merely artful one -- needs a whine cellar ... a place in which to suffer the slings and arrows of a well-proportioned outrageous fortune. I'm no different.

Creativity sets out with delicious hopes but, to the extent that it is creative, soon enough finds itself on an increasingly thinning branch, a place of diminished safety, a scarey place where creativity demands and something within complains about meeting those demands. W-h-i-n-e. Self-important analysts may refer to this as the realm of the "tortured artist" without ever assigning a rightful responsibility: Who the hell decided to walk out onto that branch in the first place?!

Whining can be pretty inspiring, but that doesn't mean it can't be acknowledged as whining and yesterday I found myself in whine mode.

The circumstances were not that unusual. I was trying to write a newspaper column that is due next Wednesday. The topic was cussing -- something I really did want to write about ... a topic at once edgy and silly and uncommon in its commonness. I was hip-deep in the creative direction I had chosen when, at some point, I realized that I had lost perspective: I was so deep into the topic and the ways I wanted to exemplify it that I couldn't any longer tell if what I was writing meant anything, whether it was likely to bang anyone's sympathetic chimes. Was there any 'there' there? I honestly didn't know and the musicians in the whine cellar began to tune up their instruments: The branch was so tenuous and I had led myself onto its furthest reaches ... and then wondered how I got there.

All this may be ludicrous to an outsider, but I have a hunch anyone who has tried something creative will know what I mean... a land without purchase or perspective, a land of quasi-insanity. I felt wobbly and frail and uncertain and ... the musicians began to play.

Finally, I had had enough of my own uncertainties. Either the effort deserved to be thrown out -- in which case I had a couple of other ideas for a column -- or it carried some water. So I decided to ask the executive editor of the paper where the column will appear to give it a read and offer some feedback. Larry is a soft-spoken guy whose mind and skills I appreciate ... so I emailed him the piece as it stood and asked him for help. In under a half an hour, I had his one-line response, which was both witty and substantive:

I love every mother-fucking word.
Larry is not a feather-merchant, so I was forced into a position that both took me out of the whine cellar and patted me on the back. Praise is not something I deal with very gracefully, but I was forced to accede: Somehow, from out of the tortures and uncertainties I had laid on, I had done a good job; I was on solid ground; I was no longer dangling from some tendril of a branch. Also, I sort of wish I had come up with a line as humorous/serious as Larry's response had been. Whatever the case, the musicians in the whine cellar were stilled. No more "tortured artist" bullshit. I tweaked the article a little and made a final submission.

Later in the day, the word "tortured" took on a different hue.

I had been invited to dinner by a fellow who used to come here to practice zazen or seated meditation. Bram's circumstances were changing and he wanted to express his appreciation for the times here ... and bid a demarcated farewell. He suggested a restaurant he liked in a nearby town, Easthampton, and we met there at 5:30.

The restaurant itself was uncluttered. A well-joined wooden ceiling met seamlessly with what once had been industrial brick walls. The lighting was comme il faut, bright enough to see but gentle enough not to insist. The food was good, but not good enough to overcome the temptation to say it was good. There were few others in the place, but there was an overall feeling that this was the kind of place in which people might use the adjectival "hand-crafted" to describe food or drink ... without embarrassment. Everyone, I imagined, would be wearing "hand-crafted" shoes as well.

It was a nice dinner, but the place and patois made me feel uncomfortable -- a place of perfected perfections where no one dared to allow things to have their own meaning or substance ... a place perfumed by control and self and no one laughed till the tears ran down their cheeks.

Artfully artistic.

And perhaps a bit tortured.

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