Pocketed Fear

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Mark Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” brilliantly brought to life in the writing of Hilary Mantel (Photo: PBS)

I’m a passionate fan of Hilary Mantel‘s books, especially Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. In a profile of the author by Larissa Macfarquhar that appeared in the New Yorker in 2012, Mantel’s way of working rings familiar:

Difficult as it is for her to be loose, it is even more difficult for her to be lazy; but that, too, is something she has had to learn to become, because the best ideas come to her when her mind is idle…

Some days, she acts busy to convince herself, even though it is the days when she makes not a single mark on the paper which yield weeks and weeks of work. It is very hard to cede control. “I don’t think one ever quite learns to trust the process,” she says. “I feel, What if I wake up tomorrow and I can’t do it anymore? I know I’ll always be able to write, in the sense of having a robust style that’s sufficient to the occasion, and I know that books can be got onto the page by craft, but the thing that makes a phrase that fizzes on the paper—you always fear that may not be there any longer, because, after all, you did nothing to deserve it. You did nothing to contrive it. It’s just there. You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.”

Mantel cuts to the core fear of the process-driven creative life:

You did nothing to deserve it.
You did nothing to contrive it.
It’s just there.
You don’t understand it, it’s out of your control, and it could desert you.

Trusting the process—and the mind set it requires—is a longstanding theme for me, as it is for many artists. How refreshing to encounter a similar point of view from Mantel, someone so masterfully linear in her ability to blend historical accuracy with storytelling brilliance.

The “pocketed” fear she has encountered is often subtle and transparent, but it can inflict, influence, derail, detract. A few phrases have steadied me over the years:

Stay in a state of wonder.
Sit quietly and listen.
Disengage from the concepts of success and failure.
Surrender control.
Love uncertainty and the unknown.
It’s about the work, not about you.

And posted here earlier but always worth a reread, this list was found in the papers of Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are left untouched.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
6. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
7. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
8. Tolerate chaos.
9. Be careful only in a perverse way.

4 Comment

  1. greenassky says:

    ‘Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.’ Lovely Deb.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Yes, Diebenkorn had a graceful humility that continues to inspire. Thanks Sloan!

  2. Oh, love this–and I’m also a Mantel (and Rylance) fan.

  3. D.L. Wood says:

    Wonderful lists from you and Richard. Certainly helpful to guide any artist that might need a bit of a push to stay the course from time to time. And while I don’t consider myself an artist in any of my attempts to be creative I understand the line from Mantel – It’s just there.

    D.L. Wood

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