I had to say “no” the other day. It’s not a word I like to use. It speaks of disappointment and hurt feelings. When I just can’t (or, less often, simply “won’t”) do it, I know I’m letting people down – and ingrained in me from the start has been a compulsion to help, to offer aid, to sort things out.
I was always the most responsible child.
Relinquishing the reins and letting someone else take over is another kind of “no” – one I find even harder to deliver. But surrendering can set you free. When I can bring myself to abdicate, to surrender, to yield to forces greater than myself, burdens are lifted and I feel capable of taking on new and existing tasks with vigor and enthusiasm.
All of which is a fancy way of saying that closing one door opened up a whole roomful of windows.
Reading Honor Moore’s essay (“Overcome by Intensity, Redeemed by Effort) in Writers [on Writing] , I was struck by the connection between defeat and reanimation; particularly in relation to artistic endeavors and the expectations that plague our creative efforts.
In the essay, Moore – a poet – describes her struggle with writing a biography on her Grandmother, a troubled painter who gave up her art years too early. The biography was planned as a kind of exorcism, “I thought that if I wrote her life, I would not have to live it.”
Moore was unprepared for the tumultuous endeavor that awaited her. As she researched and pieced out sentences, she found herself succumbing to numbness and despair.
“I did not imagine that my worst fear would come true, that in the process of writing about Margarett’s art, I would abandon my own,” writes Honor.
In the end, a trip to Havana and an attack of bronchitis set her back on track.
“As the waves driven south from Key West sheared up and pulled back, crashing against the sweeping curve of stone, I felt myself reenter my imaginative life,” explains Moore. “Suddenly this romantic city, stripped of the contemporary was an embodiment of the place in my psyche where past and present collide, dream and dread coexist, from which the only release is some kind of making.”
Moore credits her voyage and unexpected illness with clearing the path for her creative spirit, allowing her to dive back into her poetry and discover a new voice and a new outlook. But in between the lines, I see the story of a woman who felt trapped not by the present, but by a possible future played out in the life of her grandmother – another creative soul who Moore physically resembled.
When Moore asked her grandmother, while they sat in a room surrounded by her unfinished canvasses, why she had stopped painting, Margarett replied, “It got too intense.”
“That was all she said,” writes Moore, “but I thought I could understand what she meant. There were times when the intensity of my feeling fueled my poems, times when I could imagine no greater pleasure than writing. But there were also mornings when my words lacked any dimension of the magical, hours I sat blank before the page or began a sentence only to fall asleep.”
I think we’ve all found ourselves ensnared by lassitude and lacking inspiration. Times when our words feel hollow and fake, and fall tuneless from our pens and keyboards. I know that for me, every spark of inspiration is followed by a void, a blank space that I’m always afraid – like Moore – I won’t be able to fill.
There are many strategies that can help you weather these storms. The Artist Dates and Morning Pages are invaluable. Taking up another creative project can help too – perhaps a craft or household project. I’ve spent whole weekends painting and repainting the rooms in my house, working through the lethargy of the page.
And if you can afford it, a change of scenery can work wonders. Sometimes when I’m particularly stumped, I’ll just take a few minutes to jot out notes on a past trip or adventure: the hippo playing with a beer keg at the Dublin Zoo, watching one single leaf fall slowing from a tree while sipping a café con leche on the island of Mallorca, staring out my bathroom window and watching the sunset rage across last night’s sky.
And once I start writing, the rest of the words arrive and the work can begin. The sentence might not be dressed up in all their finery, and it might feel like I’m trudging through a swamp in the middle of a Florida summer – but I give up on expectation and focus on the mechanics.
And the work gets done.
And the writing continues.
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