Diving into the Mystery

I’ve lived long enough to remember when Advice for Artists was a quiet, contemplative stream at the edge of town. Now it is a surging river with big crowds, water sports and riverboat casinos. Much has changed since Julia Cameron published the The Artist’s Way in 1992. Originally titled Healing the Artist Within, the book found no interested publisher so Cameron self-published the first edition at a time when that was not considered a respectable option. But the book took hold and has now sold over four million copies, making it one of the most successful self-help books of all time.

Since then the creativity advice business has been transformed into a huge industry. Books, websites, workshops, webinars, YouTube channels and self-created collectives have advice for everyone including full time artists, would be creatives, entrepreneurs, business people, therapy seekers, retirees.

I started Slow Muse in 2006 as a digital variation of the commonplace book. (In 1706 John Locke differentiated between traditional journals—“chronological and introspective”–and a commonplace book that assembles favorite ideas and content. It was, in effect, an eighteenth century information management device.) Over the years my commonplacing has included many entries that deal with that hairy beast of creativity. For people who spend most of their day trying to bring something that does not yet exist into form, it is hard to not think about that mysterious process. A lot.

So it seems that interest in that topic is perennial. Like sex, which we all know something about, what others have to say is still compelling.

Twenty years ago my friend Sue Booth-Forbes packed up her tent and left Boston to start a retreat on the Beara Peninsula in Southwest Ireland. Anam Cara Writer’s & Artist’s Retreat had a destiny of its own, and Sue climbed on the back of a spirited animal that seemed to know where it wanted to go. I stayed at the retreat during its first year when the armature was just coming into place. Upon my return a few years ago, one room was filled with hundreds of books that have been coaxed into form during sojourns at that enchanted spot in Eyeries.

Sue continues to explore ways to serve the creator community. She has just published—through her new imprint, Anam Cara Publishing—a collection of essays by writers, musicians, artists and others who have spent time at Anam Cara. In addition to offering insight into the artist’s journey, the book is being used to support Pieta House in Cork, an organization dedicated to supporting vulnerable populations. “By funding their work, we also hope to send the specific message that creativity can play in important role in the lives of those of us who may have lost hope,” Sue wrote.

Diving into the Mystery: Studies in the Creative Process includes accounts that range from the very personal “here’s how I work” to universal wisdom about the mystery of creativity that anyone can embrace. In his foreword to the book, poet Billy Collins writes, “Yeats helpfully distinguished poetry of the will, where the poet knows what he is going to say, from poetry of the imagination, where the poet moves ahead in the dark, using a pen to light the way ahead.” While I enjoyed reading every essay included in the book, I am most drawn to passages that address the experience of moving “ahead in the dark, using a pen to light the way ahead.” That mystery is what I wrote about in my contribution as well.

The excerpts I have chosen reflect that personal bias. They are presented alphabetically the way Sue assembled the essays. Your own read through of the book will undoubtedly produce a different selection which is part of what makes a book like this so vibrant.

To order your own copy: Write to anamcararetreat.book@gmail.com. The cost is €12 plus postage.

*****

Four thoughts that give a bounce to my creative confidence in art: in art there are no rules, its’ OK to make bad art, not too much thinking, and we all have unlimited creative ability.

Cormac Boydell
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My responsibility as a maker of poems is to be instructed in the tradition, immersed in the language, alive to the possibilities of expression, devoted to the craft—and at the service of the poem as it declares itself. A poem, emerging, is often little more than an incoherent prophecy of itself, feeling its way out into the world along my nerves. The trick is to be present when it makes itself known.

Theo Dorgan
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I was encouraged by the art master, appropriately named Mr Drew, whose two maxims were “there’s no cheating in art,” and “You are all the same boys, you are all different.” Who could go wrong?

Tim Goulding
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If I begin with an idea, or with something I know and want to express, the poem very quickly curls up and dies on the page.

Susan Elizabeth Howe
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I have learned, instead of berating myself, to quiet the mind, which is always wanting results; it is impatient, critical and easily deflated. For me, quieting the mind means meditation, the putting aside of the rational mind, which “unweaves the rainbow,” in John Keats’s phrase, and entering Samuel Coleridge’s “caverns measureless of man,”—there, where the primal, creative energy resides.

Kathryn Kimball
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Heaney put this description of the creative process into nine words:

IMPULSE DISCOVERS DIRECTION.
POTENTIAL DISCOVERS STRUCTURE.
CHANCE BECOMES DESIGN.
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And from Canadian painter Harold Town, “Forget all you know and try to go to a place where you have never been…ramble, gamble, stagger, fall, push, pull, and forget finish.”

John McConnell
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I have a healed self who is both healed by and heals through poetry. I’ve been healed by the poetry of other poets living and dead. I will always be unsure of the value of the poetry I make myself but I trust that I am channeling something that’s bigger than me. The healed self lights the fire, settles to the task and keeps making poems.

Paula Meehan
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There’s a period before I feel fully connected. I’m still outside, looking in. the lines come slowly, and I mistrust everything I’m writing. It’s the settling in period. You just have to break through it until that lovely moment happens, and suddenly you’re “in.”

Then comes the stage my daughter calls “cloudy”—as in—“You’ve gone cloudy, Mum.” I’m going through the motions of every day life but really my head is completely immersed in the work.

Kate O’Riordan
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Often something lands when I’m not expecting anything. Perhaps that is essential. It could be fully formed or just a fragment…but the moment always feels the same—time stops. The slightest grab or push and it will escape. It is as if something has been given to me to hold for a while that is not mine and has nothing to do with me, like a butterfly alighting on my hand.

Rachel Parry
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For me, different fragments of life and art and alchemy need to crash into each other in order for a poem, for any literature, to burst into life.

Susan Rich
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I don’t come to painting with visions. I don’t carry images in my head. I aim to find images that are beyond my imaginings. Paintings that excite and surprise me. Maybe shock me. Paintings that insist on existing. Paintings that go to work. Paintings that leave me alone, that don’t cling to me, nor me to them as I don’t want to be a sitting tenant in my own art.

Charles Tyrrell
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Rilke spoke of the future entering into us long before it happens…In this clamorous age of late capitalist hegemony—where any natural, spontaneous creation is swallowed up by business and bureaucracy—the unconscious might be the final sacred well from which to draw.

Adam Wyeth
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10 Comment

  1. Jill Fineberg says: Reply

    I think it would be important for the loyal fans of Slow Muse to also be informed that our beloved Deborah Barlow has an essay in this book. It was noticed by this reader that there were no excerpts from Deborah’s essay, as would not be surprising from our humble artist/author. But this devotee would call for an excerpt of YOUR essay that you feel has merit and is inspiring. Just sayin’.

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Thanks Jill! Because this is a collection of excerpts that spoke to me deeply, I’ll leave it someone else to find meaning in what I wrote. Your endorsement is appreciated!

    2. Jill – I too noticed the absence of an excerpt from Deborah’s essay. Although I haven’t bought the book yet, Deb sent me a copy of her contribution some time ago, and I’m going to cheat by offering an excerpt that resonated deeply here. It’s from the final paragraph:

      “An artist needs unflappable confidence as well as marrowbone humility.
      Yes, you must believe in yourself and your work no matter what the world says.
      And yes, it must be coupled with humility.
      When either quality operates without the other, the result is distortion and dysfunction—arrogance at one end, self-abnegation on the other.
      But together? It’s the best yin/yang, artist juju I know.”

      Now here’s a woman who walks her talk… what to do but bow?

      1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

        Thank you dear MLS for finding resonance, something we do with each other so frequently. I am honored to be included in this collection.

  2. These are all wonderfully true. They affirm a shared attention to intuition and the unknown across the arts. thanks!

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Thank you!

  3. Janice says: Reply

    Beautiful post Deborah. I met your friend Sue Booth-Forbes when I was visiting a friend who was at Anam Cara. I was doing a residency at Cill Rialaig at the time. It’s a beautiful corner of the world and I loved her enthusiasm. So good to know there is another book on creativity. It is wonderful to hear the concept discussed in so many ways by so many voices.

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      Thank you Janice.

  4. Ah – soul friends. My novel, Course of Mirrors is the first of a trilogy, sequel in the process of editing. The protagonists are Ana, Cara, and Mesa, soul sisters over time.
    I remember Julia Cameron’s The Artist Within, and have recommended it to clients over the years, sparking a few groups who used her encouraging suggestions.
    The collection of essays by writers, musicians, artists and others who have spent time at Anam Cara sounds interesting. Any links?

    1. deborahbarlow says: Reply

      The book is just being released. They have a number of events planned including a launch with Billy Collins at Anam Cara on Monday, 25 March, 7: 30 P.M. There will be more events and information available so stay tuned through the Anam Cara website.

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