Dec 28, 2012

Posted by in The Creative Process | 6 Comments

Balancing Life and Art: Advice from Two Novelists

With a world of New Year’s Resolutions waiting on the threshold of their public debuts, what is it that writers, or artists of any kind, resolve to do?

  • Type no less than 10K words a day?
  • Sit at the desk, laptop open, no internet, no phone, no moving, two hours a day, six days a week?
  • Read at least ten great books a month?
  • Publish/sell/produce X-number of brilliant pieces by the end of the year?

Fiction writer and professor Aimee Bender said she once tied her ankle to a chair leg with a scarf—more as a symbol than an actual restraint—and she left it there till her self mandated, two-hour writing slot was over.

For the practicing writer/artist, such resolutions can be great. At some point, all these self-imposed dictates are almost necessary (at least for us mere mortals). Just as it requires athletes hours of training certain muscles, respiratory systems and mental capacities for endurance, so too it takes artists a great deal of time and effort and focus and practice and reading and exercising and talking shop with other artists to get good at what they do.

But there’s another aspect to the writing life—with its formidable demands, its often zero outside support (sometimes even antagonism), and its infrequent tangible payback—that bears resolving to do something about.

A combination of factors brought me to this topic. One was a recent, time-sensitive push to revise a work of my own spanning multiple hundreds of pages. The effort looked something like this:

IMAGE - Garret's Writing Process

Photo by Garret Johnson

Other factors: First, a reading I assigned to my creative writing students at Houston Baptist University. And second, revisiting a book of reflections on the craft from one of the world’s bestselling novelists.

Bret Lott’s essay, “Toward Humility,” from his book, Before We Get Started, won Pushcart Prize and Best Spiritual Writing 2001 awards. And Stephen King’s book, On Writing, is a raucous journey through the author’s own experience that’s been lauded as a timeless work on the craft and life of writing.

IMAGE - Bret Lott

IMAGE - Stephen King

Both books feature powerful images about the place of art (and the work of producing art) in an artist’s life. Both come to conclusions that ask us to consider what art is truly for, and how it can sometimes dominate an artist’s life to the detriment of family and other definitional aspects of being human. It’s an interesting similarity between these two very different authors. And it seems to be essentially a message about idolatry: some good and worthy thing coming to occupy the place of ultimate things. The message, however, is very—maybe surprisingly—encouraging.

At the end of the first major section of On Writing, a section titled “C.V.,” King describes a desk he bought:

For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room—no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole . . . For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere. A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been, picking out the [furniture] and a nice Turkish rug with my wife’s help . . . My kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk—it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave. That eave is very like the one I slept under in Durham . . . I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover . . . and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job . . . It start’s with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

Bret Lott’s discussion of a similar idea is just as memorable. After reflecting on some of the most illustrious successes of his career—eight books, numerous awards, an appearance on Oprah—he describes an afternoon spent in a lawn chair next to his wife, at one of his sons’ soccer games.

He had recently been informed by his agent that the new book he’d spent years working on is not working. As he repeatedly—and much too loudly—yells out at his son for lagging on the field, causing more heads than just his son’s to turn, he wonders how it’s happened. He’d been so confident when he set out to write this one. Look at all he’d done—over decades by this point. His older son sits nearby and, embarrassed by his father’s yelling, shuffles off with a friend. And then, after more yelling across the field—“Get in the GAME!”—Lott’s wife stands, picks up her lawn chair, and moves it fifty feet away from him.

As he sits there, steaming, it’s his wife’s getting up and moving her chair that prompts a profound realization about both himself and his art:

This is no signal to you of the embarrassment you are. It is nothing cryptic you are meant to decipher. It is her truth and yours both, big and dumb: you are a fool. And it is because of a book. A stupid book. There are more important things, she is shouting to you in settling her lawn chair that far from you. There are more important things than a book.

Lott’s discovery, much like King’s, is that when the writing, the art, itself takes center stage—true center stage, occupying the throne, so to speak—of his life, then life itself suffers. It suffers to the point of being decidedly worse for the attempts at artistic creation. And, most significantly, not merely his life. More than that, elsewhere in the essay Lott, again like King, notices that the art itself also suffers. In fact, King and Lott both seem to be saying: Art always suffers when the artist thinks it—the art—is the whole idea. It’s not the whole idea. It’s meant to give people a glimpse, a taste, a beautiful or funny or poignant vista of the whole idea.

I had to keep asking myself, as I was working on my own project that was, on the one hand, exhilarating, exciting, energizing—despite being sleep-depriving—and on the other hand exhausting, extremely complicated, long: How much is too much? How do I take a break when I see, very clearly, X amount of things left to do, and I see, very clearly, exactly how I need to address them, all of which procedures take a certain amount of time? How often do I stop? For what? Just to eat? I took one evening off to pop a champagne cork and sit on the couch with my wife, listening to Christmas music with a fire and talking and laughing about friends, family, work. Did I do enough? I don’t know. These are tough questions to answer. They are, however, still very important ones to ask, even if no clear answer’s ever found.

It reminds me of a line from an old prayer called, “Christlikeness”—out of a wonderfully encouraging, reflection-inducing collection titled, The Valley of Vision: “Teach me the happy art of attending to things temporal with a mind intent on things eternal.”

Happy art indeed. It’s a difficult balance to strike.

By trying to reorient my thinking along these lines, I by no means want to imply that working hard—really hard—or spending long hours on whatever labor one has been called to is a bad thing. Quite the reverse. Rather, this—like all struggles with idolatry—is a matter of the heart, where its treasure is.

So as the New Year rings in, aside from resolving to work hard and accomplish much, I resolve to heed the wisdom of these two images: a massive oak slab being replaced by a beautiful, small desk in a corner, and a wife standing up to move her chair fifty feet away from a husband who’s forgotten what’s important. What life—and art—is all about.

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  1. Thanks for this. Incidentally, my sister just bought me _The Valley of Vision_ for Christmas. I noticed not only the literary mastery of the prayers but also Bennet’s imperative to “learn by paradox.” What comforting labor it is to write!

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jared. Yes, indeed! I completely agree with your sentiments: the paradoxical “comforting labor” of writing, the literary depth of many of those ‘VoV’ prayers, and the unexpected ways they often jolt me out of a temporal-world-saturated stupor.

      Blessings in the New Year!

  2. Amy Hollingsworth says:

    Two of my all-time favorite books on writing!

    • Garret Johnson says:

      I completely concur, Amy! I’d read King’s book long, long ago, and that image has been lodged in my mind ever since. Then the connection between these two gems crystallized when I read Lott’s book, much more recently, and actually started talking over that one essay with my students.

      Must wisdom (though, at times, in very different wrappings) to be found in both titles.

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