Walking the Line

Altopen1
In front of Mandaliya, at the opening of my show at Spaulding Gallery (Photo: Marcia Goodwin)

It is a fine line that we ask ourselves to walk. My work requires hours alone in my studio, silently conversing with the work emerging in front of me. It is a form of primal nakedness, working that way, best done in private.

Every once in a while it is necessary to unfold that frock in the box under the bed, the gown of “adequate social skills,” as I needed to do for the opening of my show on Friday night. During those three hours anyone can enter your world. Conversations ranged from an in depth discussion of Sianne Ngai‘s provocative book, Our Aesthetic Categories (which has had me spellbound for months) to questions about why you seem to really like the color blue.

Most artists are jugglers. The intense focus required to do their work must be handled gingerly while the “everything else” part of life conspires to distract, erode and undermine. But wait. Is that really an accurate model? With so much discussion about the forces in our culture that are veering us towards attention deficits, multiplexing overstimulation and an absence of contemplative time, maybe this isn’t the right way to see things.

Benjamin Nugent‘s opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday helped me put this into perspective. He starts his piece, The Upside of Distraction, with this:

Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.

Monomania is what it sounds like: a pathologically intense focus on one thing. It’s the opposite of the problem you have if your gaze is ever flitting from your Tumblr to your spreadsheet to your baby to rush-hour traffic.

Nugent describes a period in his life when he had crafted an existence that allowed minimal distraction from his writing: No Internet, TV, iPhone or interesting neighbors. He was at his work with complete monomaniacal focus.

The disaster unfolded slowly. The professors and students were diplomatic, but a pall of boredom fell over the seminar table when my work was under discussion. I could see everyone struggling to care. And then, trying feverishly to write something that would engage people, I got worse. First my writing became overthought, and then it went rank with the odor of desperation. It got to the point that every chapter, short story, every essay was trash.

I could not imagine why; conditions were ideal. It took me a long time to realize that the utter domination of my consciousness by the desire to write well was itself the problem. Monomania, a 19th-century malady to which my 21st-century immune system had developed no defenses, had crept into my soul, like gout into a poet’s foot, and spoiled it by degrees.

When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.

So Nugent assessed the patient and applied a sensible change in diet. He fell in love, started hanging out at his girlfriend’s house which came with wifi, flatscreen TV and a DVD player. He joined a band. “One morning, after I diversified my mania, my writing no longer stank of decay. Eventually, it sat up and took food.”

While most of us have heard Jonathan Franzen’s warning that you cannot be a serious writer and have Internet access, Nugent is suggesting more of a middle way. It may be like any dietary advice—every body has its own needs and as the owner of one, it behooves you to find out what yours likes best. I do know the one thing all artists share: A passionate desire to produce the best work possible. And to achieve that, we will do whatever is asked.

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11 comments

  1. Rebecca Crowell’s avatar

    fascinating post! I notice that when conditions are in the other direction from monomania (when there are demands upon my time that I can’t easily control) I value studio time so much that if I have an off day it really hurts–I feel like I have wasted my precious time. It’s all too intense.

    The most idyllic times for me are when I go on artist residencies–although they afford complete focus on painting, I find myself also taking long walks and reading breaks and socializing with other artists. I hadn’t thought about why that those breaks are important–this explains the balance very well.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thank you Rebecca for sharing some of your insights. Your realization about how you use your residency time makes sense to me.

    2. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Rebecca, I looked at your work and the work of your friend Janice online, and I am so enamored with what each of you is doing. Extraordinary artists, both of you. How nice to have that introduction to you today. Thanks again.

      1. Rebecca Crowell’s avatar

        Deborah, thanks–great that we got acquainted this way!

  2. Janice Mason Steeves’s avatar

    Thanks for this post Deborah. Rebecca suggested I read it since we shared the residency time in Ireland this past fall. I tend to be someone who works too little at my work when I’m on a residency-I walk and nap and read, and photograph. Mostly I walk, as though to feel the land and think my thoughts through my feet. I often worry that I’m not working enough. Your post helps me to accept that this way of working and processing is also valid.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Janice, Thank you so much for sharing your experience of this delicate balancing act. I looked at your work online and it is deep, contemplative, exquisite. How nice to find out about you through this blog.

  3. Cindy’s avatar

    Deborah, First of all, I am sorry I missed the opening. The painting you are standing in front of is breathtaking. I hope to go see the show later this week. I get back to Boston tomorrow.

    Second, I had a friend email an article written by a popular novel writer, the man’s name I can’t think of right now. But it doesn’t matter. He said something very interesting about writing. He said that he wrote a book faster when he spent only 90 minutes a day writing than if he spent many hours a day. I have been trying that method and it’s remarkable.

    We are multidimensional beings. We need balance. We need time to forget ourselves. We need time to remember that creativity comes naturally to the child at play.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Cindy, what a great comment. I wish you could have been at the opening but the show is up through March.

      And so much deep wisdom. Yes, we are multidimensional beings.

      If you find that article by the writer please pass it along. What you have written reminds me in an oblique way of that infamous Hugh Nibley quote from his essay about Mormons, “Zeal Without Knowledge”: “Mormons think it is better to get up at 5am and write a bad book than to get up at 9am and write a good one.” We know all about that cultural bias!

  4. Hazlo’s avatar

    Hello Deborah
    Reading your posts is always very instructive. I came here a few monthes ago thanks to a link from ‘Venetian Red’, and found a very interesting discussion about Gerhardt Richter, so since this time I love to come back once a while for a stroll.
    Sure, the lesson for the diverted artist, is that there is no choice than to accept distraction, when it is already there. But maybe it’s also important not to keep the door wide open all the time. Here too we should avoid excess!
    But even if we don’t have the power to let them come, we should be able to detect the right and fitting moments, those where to jump and go wandering through unexplored lands wishing to bring back some brand new jewel with us, and the other moments, the most part of them I guess, where we can at best practice our scales, at worst go round and round.
    Hopefully those times can also be very convenient to put on the “gown of adequate social skills”! Don’t you think?
    Best wishes for your exhibition at the Spaulding gallery.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thank you Hazlo for your comments and kind words. And thank you for the good wishes with the Spaulding exhibit. I love looking at your site, such a visual feast. Thanks again.

  5. deborahbarlow’s avatar

    Susan, that is a very graceful way to think about this–tight vs release. And it is not just an issue of will. Certainly one gets the impression from Nugent’s account that it took some time for him to get back into a more balanced place. And yes, external circumstances have a deep impact on this ebb and flow too as you pointed out.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

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