Lately I’ve been reading books about writing, among them Ralph Keyes’s The Courage to Write. I was wondering when I saw it why writing would require courage. If you are writing a powerful exposé on a dictator and you have the misfortune to be a citizen living under the dictator’s rule, I can understand why writing would take courage. But why would the writing of ordinary books evoke authorial fear?
The blank page has something to do with it. Mr. Keyes has a nice quote by James Baldwin: “You go in with a certain fear and trembling. You know one thing. You know you will not be the same person when this voyage is over. But you don’t know what’s going to happen to you between getting on the boat and stepping off.” Seeing writing described in that way makes me want to get on the boat. It provokes such longing. Doesn’t Baldwin make writing seem like an breathtaking adventure?
Certainly various kinds of self exposure can evoke fear. And embarking upon a project which has no predictable end to it could definitely seem daunting. But in other respects I like the idea of the blankness of beginnings. I am never afraid of starting a picture. I am sometimes afraid of “wasting”materials. I worry that the canvas I’m using is too expensive and maybe the painting will be a flub. But the pursuit of a new idea always makes me feel like a kid — it’s better than childhood because I have ever so many fewer qualms than I had when I was a child.
The first lay-in of an idea seems like the most open and vibrating moment. In those early steps, anything is possible. A painting closes down as choices follow upon each other. It comes to be more definitely “this” or “that.” But even the narrowing of the path doesn’t faze me because by the time I arrive there I find that different kinds of new possibilities arise. The surface lends itself to a million interpretations.
It’s not that I’ve never felt this artistic fear. I used to approach a new project with fear and trembling. But these days my worries run more toward concern whether I will succeed in finishing the many things I have started. The starting of things is so delightful that it’s hard to discipline oneself to stay the course with any particular one. I have, however, one painting that is taking me years to finish. It is full of details, and I can imagine a circumstance in which the details keep yeilding to others more minute. Yet I have no reluctance to work on the picture. Indeed, it’s one of my favorite pictures. With it I experience the opposite of my financial qualm: had I known it would become so complex I would have used a better canvas!
I don’t quite understand the whole “fear” thing. I have no wish to denigrate it, though. Perhaps I should write a book. Maybe then I’ll know what they’re talking about, they who say that writing takes courage. But of those who say that painting takes courage — and we have our fair share as well — I cannot understand them, I have to admit. I only used to feel that way when I was younger, and I had so many things that I didn’t know how to do. I was afraid of getting everything “wrong.” I feared making mistakes.
I have none of that fear now. It is not that I know how to do everything! My ego is not that big. It’s just that I’ve learned how to learn. When I don’t know how to do something, I find that some path toward it appears, and I just start going down that path. Anyway, I’m much less hung up about “mistakes.” A mistake is such a subjective thing. Sometimes “mistakes” have such lovely ideas hidden inside them. They are still mistakes, mind you. They are those parts of the picture that look out of place. But I find that a willingness to live with them can open all kinds of doors of thought.
After all “reality” in that sense of what an optician means when he says you have 20/20 vision is all around us, and we can look at it all day long. But thoughts are so personal. I like a picture that is full of thoughts. And we so often find them in our mistakes if we will but look, for what is a mistake except something one aimed for and missed? Or did you even miss? Do you know what the idea even is?
Contemplate your mistake a little, and you learn what it was you aimed for and what you desire.
[Top of the post: Early stage of a painting posted earlier in this blog, Woman in White, by Aletha Kuschan]