“Trees Burning,” by the Rev. Amy Petrie Shaw.
‘There’s No One Way’
By Anne Skove
Our summer reading included Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. This book began as a blog that cataloged the various rituals, waking/sleeping hours, substance intake, etc., of artists, writers, scientists, dancers and others. The book presents a comprehensive look at what drives (or, in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, hinders) creative types.
While we can’t recommend the methods of Ayn Rand – decades’ worth of amphetamines coupled with a personality disorder – or the uncontrolled Corydrane habit of Jean-Paul Sartre, this is an interesting read.
Not every subject had a substance-abuse problem. George Sand, for example, denounced artists who worked under the influence. Many simply had strange routines. For example, this book contains a mental picture of Ben Franklin that readers will not be able to unsee.
This quotation from writer Bernard Malamud is contained in the final entry:
There’s no one way – there’s too much drivel about this subject. You’re who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place – you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time – not steal it – and produce the fiction. If the stories come, you get them written, you’re on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.
Had this passage appeared first, I suppose the author might have had a shorter book on his hands, not thousands of words to offer. But Malamud is onto something. This book is a testament to the variety of ways people get things done, even if that thing happens to be Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night or Darwin’s scientific works.
While art, like Unitarian Universalism or Golden Corral, contains many paths, we thought it would be interesting to apply the concept to local artists. What makes them tick? How do they operate? Three-hour walks, like Charles Dickens? Working from bed, like Truman Capote? So we asked a few questions. The response was tremendous. Each issue, we will highlight a few artists’ routines, rituals, habits, or lack thereof.
“Too much drivel?” Hopefully not.
Where to begin? With our editor, of course. Gregory Flannery shares his secrets:
Whenever I write, I begin by burning tobacco as a sacrifice to my muse. I inhale the tobacco smoke, symbolically making my muse one with me, then exhale the smoke, symbolic of the words I will write going forth to my readers. Every 20 or 30 minutes while writing, I go outside and burn more tobacco as a sacrifice to my muse, inhaling the smoke and so on. No cigarettes? Then I got writer’s block.
You’ve been a writer for a long time. You’re also an editor. What habits do your best writers have?
From the start, the best writers punch readers in the gut or smack them in the head. The best writers give readers a reason to keep reading. Make them weep. Make them laugh. Make them think. News isn’t news if it’s boring. That’s the first rule.
The second rule is that the best writers understand meeting deadlines is as important as respecting the law of gravity, the infield fly rule and the theory of relativity. A writer who misses deadlines is half a writer, less than a writer, no writer at all.
True or false? Writer’s block is a thing.
It is a thing in the sense that the bogeyman is a thing: We can convince ourselves of almost anything. “I can’t meet my deadline. I have writer’s block.” Writer’s block, schmiter’s block. Do your damn job. Sometimes the mind must lie fallow to allow inspiration to gurgle forth, but once you take an assignment, you have no right to invoke writer’s block.
Mark Twain claimed that lager-beer “was the only thing to make you go to sleep.” He also relied on hot scotch, sleeping on the bathroom floor, and champagne. Eventually, his insomnia went away on its own. How do you fall asleep?
I once slept on a bathroom floor in a hotel during a newspaper conference in Norway, because my god-awful snoring deprived my roommate of a good night’s sleep. I didn’t know Twain invented that.
To sleep, I pray. I pray until I fall asleep. It’s the only thing that works for me except ice cream. Ice cream is like knockout drops for me. I fall right to sleep. But the next morning I have this awful ice-cream hangover, like I’d been on a three-day bender, so I only use ice cream as a last resort. Prayer doesn’t give me hangovers.
Gregory Flannery is the editor of Article 25. He imagines himself a tall person. He will gladly show you photographs of his grandchildren.
Next up – Reverend Amy Shaw, formerly of St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Cincinnati, now of Hartland, Wis.
You are a visual artist and writer, but your day job (which is really a round-the-clock job) is Unitarian Universalist minister. Do these callings complement each other? How do you manage to do both?
Art and ministry go together amazingly well. Both are about creation and making new spaces for transformative experience. When I create a piece of visual art, I have no control over the observers’ reactions to it – it exists, and they will make of it what they will. I have created a place for them to experience, but what they experience is their own. In my ministry I do the same thing, or at least I hope I do. I present ideas about intersections between lived reality, values, and the nature of existence. How people interpret those ideas is up to them.
Both my art and my ministry call people to assessment: What am I seeing? How do I feel about it? What does it make me question? What does it reaffirm? How am I connected to it?
I can’t tell anyone how to see the Divine, or “that thing beyond which they cannot imagine.” I can, however, continually challenge them to see the world in new ways, and to examine the web of life that links every piece of life to every other piece. This is ministry, whether I do it with a brush or a computer or a sermon.
Because I approach art as a spiritual practice, I put it into my schedule as a daily necessity. Every evening I give myself at least one hour to create. For me, using my time this way often lets me get back to the nuts-and-bolts work of ministry with fresh eyes and new perspective.
Currey notes that writer Flannery O’Connor was “a devout Catholic (who) began each day at 6:00 a.m. with morning prayers from her copy of A Short Breviary.” Can religion, even (or especially?) a liberal denomination such as Unitarian Universalism, provide structure and discipline to artists?
It can. As a Unitarian Universalist, I believe that all lives have worth and dignity. It’s one of our Seven Principles. I value myself, my own worth, and I find the strength to explore my creativity as something of value in its own right because of that. I often use the more repetitive bits of my work as meditational exercises, centering myself as I fill in areas of a piece or repeat shapes and lines.
Religious experience happens where it will, and the discipline required to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning as a UU also allows me to search for new ways to examine that meaning through art.
Dippy Cat is notorious for interfering with your work. Working from home can be challenging, even without cats. How do you cope with pushy house pets?
This is a grand question. And yes, Dippy Cat makes life challenging. She drinks blue paint water, eats iridescent pigments and poops rainbows, and has been known to sneeze all over a commissioned painting and then sit in my palette.
In retaliation, I turn her into art. She has a blog, “The Tao of the Dippy Cat,” which explores the humor in her daily struggles with life, bugs, printers, evil Pod People and so much more.
Dippy is my reminder that life happens. It’s impossible to live in an Ivory Tower of high art when someone has just hacked a hairball into your sock. She is the reality behind all of the beautiful ideals.
And ministry and art both need reality. They need partnership with others who will experience the art, interact with the ministry. Without interaction, both are simply precious artifacts – meaningless in their isolation. Maurice Sendak tells a wonderful story about a little boy who sent him a card with a drawing on it. Sendak liked it so well he sent back a personal note with a drawing of a Wild Thing on it to the boy. The boy’s mother then sent Maurice a letter, telling him the boy loved the card so much that he ate it. Sendak said, “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
No one has eaten one of my paintings yet; but with Dip around, there is always that possibility.
Any other anecdotes about how you work, not covered in your answers above, are most welcome.
My art and my ministry are both woven through my life. About a year ago I gave up and got rid of my dining room table, replacing it with a massive wooden work table where Brian and I can both sit. The ends of the table are loaded with paints, canvases, paper, brushes, pencils, and chalks, the middle bogged down with keyboards and monitors.
Art happens. Ministry and writing happen. Meals and laughter happen. I don’t keep getting up and moving from place to place. I don’t force my space to conform to some image of what a proper home looks like.
My life is art and prayer and writing and talking. As I work, these things are wrapped together so tightly they can’t be pried apart. For me, there is never much of a sense of distance from any piece of my life.
Rev. Amy Shaw is a Unitarian Universalist minister, writer and visual artist who lives and works in southeastern Wisconsin. She has worked as a professor and as a nurse and nurse executive, and is fascinated by conjunctions of unlikely parts and unexpected pathways. She shares her life with her co-conspirator Brian and their furred feline minions, The Dippy Cat, Nike the Great, and Marshmallow the Outdoor Invader. Amy is typically found wearing black and poking at things to see if they do anything interesting.
Pauletta Hansel is a poet and teacher who was kind enough to share her insights.
Composer Igor Stravinsky preferred solitude. Writer Saul Bellow liked to have people around. Which do you prefer while writing?
It is difficult for me to settle into writing when others are around unless they, too, are writing. I do some of my best drafting when I’m leading or being led in writing groups—there is something about the energy of all that creative focus, and when I am leading groups I feel honor-bound to go down deep enough to bring something up with me. But I do my best work in solitude and with poetry especially I prefer long stretches of silence. I read aloud as I write and revise so it helps to be alone, but it’s more than that. There’s a kind of spaciousness that periods of solitude allow and I find a freedom and focus within that spaciousness.
Maya Angelou kept a hotel room so she could have a place to write. Virginia Woolf famously told women that we need a room of our own. What room or other space do you love to write in?
I have a lovely office in my home, but because it is where I do class prep and check email and pay bills and all those other necessary things, it is less conducive to writing than I had hoped. I often write in bed and then move to the office for revision. Several times a year I go off to the Sisters of Loretto in central Kentucky and stay in a hermitage or the old novitiate building that’s part of their retreat center and sit at a window and write. The inner spaciousness of solitude combined with the outer spaciousness of their beautiful grounds open me in ways no other place does.
Chronically and clinically depressed William Styron said, “Let’s face it, writing is hell.” Dick Hague said if a poet “ain’t happy, he’s a fool.” Which is it? Or is writing both?
Writing takes me down beneath emotion. Even if I am dealing with difficult subjects in my writing I tend not to feel the unhappiness or anxiety but more of a satisfaction that I am “getting it right” when I am or an insistent tug toward deeper truth when I haven’t gone far enough. Now, there is that place of resistance on the way down, so to speak, and often a reluctance to get started. But when I am writing (really writing, not just skimming along the surface) then I am neither in heaven nor hell, I am just there with the words.
Pauletta Hansel’s fifth poetry collection is Tangle, from Dos Madres Press. Her work has been featured in journals including Talisman, Appalachian Journal, Atlanta Review and Still: The Journal, and on The Writer’s Almanac and American Life in Poetry. She is managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, and community writing workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond.
By Anne Skove