Louise Nevelson (Photo: Nancy R. Schiff—Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
I long ago took the position that giving advice is a fool’s errand, especially with artists. My personal MO is right in line with the lyrics from Willie Nelson‘s recently released song, Band of Brothers:
We are a band of brothers and sisters and whatever,
On a mission to break all the rules.
I know you love me cause I love you too,
but you can’t tell me what to do.
Not believing in advice doesn’t mean I’m not curious about how others go about fulfilling their mission of breaking all the rules however. I am actually quite fascinated by how many ways there are to be a transgressive which, at our core, most artists are.
Two books, one by a poet and one by a sculptor, crossed my path this week. Both are memoirs that offer the expected reflective, confessional and personal accounting of a life. But that’s where the similarities end.
What Poets are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life, by Gary Soto, is a beguiling, funny, self-mocking account of life as a not Name Brand poet.
From a review in the Chicago Tribune:
Soto, the child of working-class Mexican-Americans, has not had an undistinguished poetic career. He has won awards and fellowships, been nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (He’s also the author of several successful books for children and young adults.) But “What Poets Are Like: Up and Down With the Writing Life,” a loose collection of mostly autobiographical vignettes and anecdotes, is full of genial self-mockery. He tallies his rejection letters, jokes about not getting grants, laments his sales figures, gets depressed when he sees his books (inscribed by him, no less) in used bookstores, writes that he doesn’t translate more often “for I possess only talent enough to bungle my own poems.” He describes reading at a Barnes & Noble to an audience consisting of a single member who listened to a single stanza before waving his hand and saying “Stop, stop, I’ll buy the book.” This is endearing but overfamiliar. If you’ve heard anything about poets in America, it’s probably that they are unknown and unread, except by other poets and perhaps a few freaks on the fringes.
With his easy in/easy out short fiction form, Soto talks with candor about the ignominy of being overlooked, under appreciated, unrewarded and feeling just plain left out and left behind. Which are all feelings with which every artist I know—be they poets or musicians or visual artists—is intimately familiar. Soto is dogged by the specter of being rejected by yet another obscure Midwest journal, being invited to read and no one showing up, or being asked the dreaded question, “Where do you get your ideas?” (We all have our list of those painful occupational rites of passage that don’t deliver on the passage, just the pain.) Soto has found a sweet spot between the gentle insouciance and lightheartedness that are his nature and the intense desire he also possesses to have his work read, appreciated and admired. The humor and self-mockery are his survival skills.
Soto’s little book is about a 1/4th the size of another artist’s memoir: Louise Nevelson‘s Dawns + Dusks: Conversations with Diana MacKown. Famously self-confident, supremely brash and direct, Nevelson was born with a sense that it was her destiny to be famous and very successful, both of which she was.
John Canaday shares this anecdote in his introduction:
One woman asked Louise if she would have felt that her life had been well spent—if she would have felt sufficiently rewarded for a life in art—if the recognition had never come…”if it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” Louise paused for a moment, puzzled (not typical of her). Other artists of the kind called “dedicated” would have answered, “It would still have been worthwhile,” which I suspect is what the questioner wanted to hear. But Louise finally said, “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”
The transcripts that form the text of this book are full of Nevelsonisms: “I was very sure of what I was doing. I believed in myself and I was utterly satisfied with what I believed in. I wasn’t going to let a soul on earth judge my life.” “I don’t want the safe way. The safe way limits you.” “I wanted one thing that I thought belonged to me. I wanted the whole show.” “I believed in my work and the joy of it. You have to be with the work and the work has to be with you.” Her sense of herself and her work is staggeringly clear.
No one can parse the formula behind Nevelson’s bravado and extraordinary career. Surely it is a blend of genius, guts, hard work, timing, and the secret ingredient in any successful venture, luck. But the mantra still stands, no matter who you are: Nobody can tell you what to do.