The Self-amusing, Musing Mind

Recently completed: Himnae, 42 x 84″

We all have a favorite go to distraction we turn to when things aren’t flowing (or don’t seem to be, which is a common deception.) Books, especially really great ones, are my Balm of Gilead.

And right now, for whatever reason, I have a huge stack of new and “must read” books.* It is like someone brought a truck load of mangoes and emptied them in my front yard, all of them perfectly formed, fragrant and ripe.

Managing excess has never been my strong suit.

As deep and delicious as my book stack is right now, reading in that full immersion manner comes at a cost. Too much of it, even when it is so satisfying and insightful, precludes other things from happening that are important for creative practice. I’m a painter, not a writer. While books will always be an essential part of my creative life, they are not my métier. My work is turning ideas, impressions, hunches and evocations into a visual language.

I found some needed grounding from the poet Jane Hirshfield. In her new book (but of course!), Ten Windows, she articulated the work I need to do:

The mind does not remain rooted in any one statement; it, too, moves ceaselessly from one state to the next. One of the ways it does this is by musing—no accident, that word used to describe the ways in which thought’s more fluid transformations occur. “To muse” implies entering a condition of idleness, outside the responsibilities of the fully adult: a playfulness marks the self-amusing, musing mind. It lifts a thing, turns it over, licks it, sees if it moves; explores in a way that leaves behind both simple preconception and the directionality of strict purpose. Here, too, etymology reveals. “Muse” derives from the Latin mussare, meaning first “to carry in silence,” then “to brood over in silence and uncertainty,” and then only finally “to murmur or mutter, to speak in an undertone.” Musing, it seems, is a thing that happens best in the circumstances of quiet. Undogmatic and tactful before the object of its attention, musing does not impose, but bears witness. It quietly considers, and then, when it finally speaks, does so with the voice, respectful of other presences, that we use in a library, church, or museum—the voice used, that is, when we feel we are in the company of something more important than ourselves. The mind that muses is modest and un-insistent, permeable to what lies beyond comprehension, amenable to some sense of proportion and the comic. Arrogance reserves itself for the more self-involved.

To lift a thing, to turn it over, to take a lick. To sit in quiet, in modest un-insistency. That’s my job: engaging with the self-amusing, musing mind.

For those of you who are, like me, always on the look out for that next great read, here’s my current list:

Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art, by Nancy Princenthal (and another book about Martin written by Briony Fer is coming out in a few weeks)

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel, by Annie Cohen-Solal

Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview (Thank you Kitty Bancroft for flagging this Getty Publication from last year)

The Contemporaries: Travels in the 21st Century Art World, by Roger White

The Artful Universe Expanded, by John Barrow

Ten Windows, by Jane Hirshfield (her earlier volume, Nine Gates, has been quoted from repeatedly here on Slow Muse)

On Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín

No Other Gods, poems by Todd Hearon (and so honored to have one of my paintings on the cover)

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, just the first of what could be a double digit volume set of this unexpectedly hypnotic account of an ordinary life (thank you book lover and kinswoman Rebecca Ricks for encouraging me to jump in now)

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, by Lynne Tillman

Open City by Teju Cole (thank you Tim Rice)

Euphoria, by Lily King (recommended by the reliable book scouting team of Michael and Mary Pat Robertson)

And my favorite indulgence: Games of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. After getting completely seduced by the HBO series, I had to research how the storytelling could be so expertly crafted. Amazingly, Martin’s writing is really compelling. Who knew?

19 Replies to “The Self-amusing, Musing Mind”

  1. Great list. I’m reading the Martin bio and have read the Rothko and Hirschfield books. The latter also has a new poetry collection, ‘The Beauty’.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Maureen, I thrive on your book recommendations! I hope we can keep sharing our lists.

  2. Musing perhaps usually comes with quiet but not sure it must. Certainly it can burst into Eureka’s of excitement. Musing differentiates from “purposeful activity,” as Hirschfield says.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Useful distinction Andrew. Thank you.

  3. I must disagree with one point, dear Deborah. You ARE a writer and a brilliant one. Juicy list of books. I have the same addiction to distraction, a huge pile by my bed. But I have to check out “My Struggle Book 1.” Thanks for a another glimpse into your beautiful and voracious mind.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      We are cotravelers in this fantastic world Cindy.

    2. Deborah, I would agree. Writing is definitely one of your métiers!

  4. Mary Bradford says:

    Love your list and love you—fond memories!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Mary!

  5. A little protest jumped up in me too (Cindy and Holly) – our Deborah not a writer? Holy moly, where does that leave the rest of us?
    I love this post. Thank you for the musings and the book list – I can see myself being distracted from the studio with an excellent literary excuse… except that your “Himnae” is so inspiring I rush to take up the brushes. x

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you thank you MLS!

  6. Thank you, a wonderful post! In my imagination “a truck load of mangoes” could easily become … rather nauseating.

    I’m really looking forward to read your reflections what you are reading. I have read some of the books you have listed, and would love to take a closer look on those I haven’t.

    Today I’m reading Nancy Princenthal’s “Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art”. I like it a lot! Princenthal is presenting Martin in a very respectful, but still not naive, way, letting Martin stand out as a strong and highly original artist.

    Happy reading!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Sigrun. I think Princenthal is a very thoughtful, intelligent writer.

  7. Thank you for this excerpt from Ten Windows. Licking. That is such a familiar response within me and I have not heard anyone else mention it before. I will purchase the book to earmark myself, but I enjoy your reflections too. xoS

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Suzi!

  8. Muse: a goddess, guide, inspiration itself: our very breathing. Daughters of memory, she who is named Mnemosyne.
    The Greeks had a way of engaging the full brain, their metaphors translucence, image dissolving to image.

    Thanks for you musing.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for this. A lovely add to my post.

  9. i, too, have quite a pile of ‘tsundoku’ – new, but as yet unread books – a good score and ten of them!… slowly working my way through them, but – mad as i am! – adding to the pile as i go…
    i absolutely love reading and would gladly have taken a job doing just that had i been able to find one, but now, as you say, it eats into time, and mine, which is bespoken elsewhere, seems, as i approach ‘seniority’, to also be fast ebbing (though this could just be hypersensitivity to ‘impermanence’ in the Buddhist reading of the word)…
    not to mention that my eyes seem to be a bit on the blink now, too!…
    oh well! – i’m sure it’ll sort itself out one way or the other… always does, doesn’t it?

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Full of wisdom here…Thank you for sharing here.

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