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?