Henry Miller (on interest, beauty, forgetfulness)

We were about a dozen, and we were trying to work out the places where discipline, artistry, ends, practice, spirit, livelihood, beginnings and joy intersect. (My submission: all over the place!) We got quiet, and then we talked, and then we ate. I contributed this apparently velvety and colourful, but finally stone-cold prescription from the writer Henry Miller:

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) was best known as a writer of frankly sexual and otherwise unconventional novels which were long banned in his American homeland. He wearied of his reputation as that naughty writer; he was a rather good one. This passage is cited in Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. While it is good counsel for writers, it’s an even better idea for pret’near everybody.

Words AND Music?

I woke up this morning with a full-colour version of an old and quite likely vain imagining playing in my head. (Playing with my head, it felt like.) It already has a title: How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? First, though, it will be serially published, let’s say in Guitar Player magazine. Each month will chronicle some of the daily highs and lows, as well as account for this musical pilgrim’s progress in learning one of the standard riffs. We’ll start with the main rhythm from “Smoke on the Water”. And some month down the road? The Walsh solo from “Hotel California”. And one thing, anything, from Bruce Cockburn. “Foxglove”. Anything from Speechless. Yeah, in my dreams…

I want to learn how to play guitar. (There, I’ve said it. You’ve read it. “The temple is already built!”) That thought has been banging around in my brain for years, and it must terrify me. I’ve never taken even the remotest step towards it. It frightens me almost as much as writing does, except that when it comes to words I know lots of the basic repertoire. I just suffer from performance anxiety and bad habits. That, and a deep melancholia about the place of my scribbling in the parade. (As if place matters. Join the parade! Even if you’re the guy with the broom walking behind the elephants…) In any case, I’m trying to learn how to follow what Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way: “Creativity is a spiritual practice….The stringent requirement of a sustained creative life is the humility to start again, to begin anew.” And the courage, Ms. Cameron. And the courage. “The beginner’s mind,” says the guru. “A culture of learning,” says the International Teaching Centre. So.

Humility and courage, the Right Stuff, remind me of one of my favourite Far Side cartoons. (And where is Gary Larsen now?) It informed me when I was making a second stab at marital sustainability, and it sits above my writing desk now. The cartoon shows a dog on a unicycle riding on a high-wire. In the spotlights’ glare, our wide-eyed pooch juggles four balls, keeps a hula hoop whirling, holding a jug on his head and a cat in his mouth. The caption: “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog and this was a new trick.”

This writing trick is a hard one. A recent article in the Globe and Mail discussed the publishing trend that may have begun with Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and which continues apace with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, among many others. It’s a diary. (I can write a diary!) It recounts, more or less, a substantial, natural and imaginable block of time. (I can imagine a year!) It’s become something of a publishing cliché, but it seems to have staying power. (I hope I have staying power, and I know I can do clichés!)

How Long Will That Take In OldDog Years? This crazy notion reminds me of that lead-balloon anti-joke about heeding an ambition. Self-Doubting Desire complains: Do you know how old I’ll be by the time I learn to play the guitar? The Voice of Pragmatic Encouragement answers: The same age you will be if you don’t. (Borrowed that one from Julia Cameron, too.) I like it. Such dedication to a long-delayed dream scares me. (Yeah, so?) Okay, how about A Year and Six Strings? Or maybe Because A Red Miata Seemed Too Obvious: My Mid-Life Quest for Guitar Glory. I am Title Guy. Now I just have to Do the Deed and Write the Rambling Memoir. (Cool.)

The Writer’s Relentless Quest for Imperfection

“All along the way, Hans Christian Andersen kept writing.” The world paid a lot of attention to HCA last year, and the bicentennial celebrations of his birth ended on December 6. And the above bit of homely wisdom for the would-be writers of the world jumped out of my radio today. The commentator had been talking about the trials, his loneliness and sexual ambivalence, but returned to emphasize the following essential and enduring facts about Andersen’s life: we know about the fairy tales (though I hadn’t realized there were over 200 of ‘em!), but there were also 4 autobiographies, assorted travelogues, more than 1000 poems and 62 novels. Makes me feel like I should go out and buy a brand new pickup. Maybe an Escalade. (That was a witty aside about overcompensation for my inadequacy. Literary inadequacy, I mean.)

And so I’m thinking about what slows me down, keeps me running from the inkwell. Helping me do that is a terrific workbook called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. (Think I’ve mentioned this before. Well worth looking into if you’re interested in creativity and personal growth of any kind; she happens to be a professional (and an elegant) writer, but it’s about any art, any opening of the spirit.) And here’s what she has to say about perfectionism, one of my prowling, growling dogs of war:

Perfectionism has nothing to do with ‘getting it right’….It has nothing to do with ‘having standards’. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop – an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole….To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement. The perfectionist calls this humility. In reality, it is egotism.

I think she nailed it. Addiction to perfection is rooted in self-absorption and, Cameron goes on to say that, far from being a “quest for the best”, it can reflect one’s constant sifting of what is one of the world’s worst feelings: that nothing I do is ever good enough. Good enough for whom? Why? So screw that. Embrace imperfection! Uncertainty is life! (Exclamation marks are fun!)

Fumbling Toward Creativity

I’ve been working through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, one of the most intelligent and illuminating personal development books I’ve come across. It’s an openly spiritual (and determinedly non-religious) take on the act of creation, and its message is simple: there’s a Creator, whatever you choose to call Him/Her/That; the world may be material but it is infused with spirit (and so are we); creativity is not some hoarded magic bestowed only on the few, but essential to human life and accessible by the many. The book asks a lot – it’s a 12-week program in “creative recovery” and there’s a lot of work involved in finding that free and open acceptance of our possibilities.

And Carol invited me to talk about art and spirituality at a meditative gathering she does in her home. We prayed, we talked about the forms and the importance that creativity takes in our lives – beauty, order, reverence, making, delight – and then we demolished gorgeously adorned trays of spirit-lifting goodies. Sweet. I’ll do that again, even if the food is not so smacktacular. “Tapping the Creativity Within” was our title; sounds like maple-syrup time. And it was, actually. I was suggesting that we need to provide an outlet for the sweet and juicy stuff that unceasingly flows from our spiritual roots to our intellectual (and hand-some) leaves. Nice. I like this image because it makes art something useful, delicious, natural. Sappy if necessary, but not necessarily sappy.