ART AND THE CRUCIBLE
A person with talent may follow two possible roads: she can be a liar, or an artist.
Being a liar is easy. It can take a hundred forms: propaganda for religion, political ideas, personal freedoms or against them. Advertising your own cleverness, or goodness, or alienation. Setting up a series of smoke machines and mirrors to convince others, or yourself, that you are in fact an artist. The common thread through all of these examples: talent turned to a persons own ends, rather than leading them.
Art, on the other hand, emerges when a person with talent quiets themselves to listen to the voice that already speaks inside them. That voice, as Borges has noted, is remarkably consistent through history, giving the somewhat eerie impression that all great work may have been written by the same hand, although it is always heavily inflected by its named authors.
To me, the most interesting examples in the history of art are those that trace the pattern of the artists work as they make this leap from practice or propaganda, into art. Dostoyevsky, already lauded for his first novel, the now almost-forgotten Poor Folk, returns from Russian prison and begins to turn out totally idiosyncratic works that are now foundational to world literature. Cortazar, after releasing a handful of competent, pedestrian stories, responds to the brutal political spasms of his native Argentina and his subsequent self-exile by bursting forth with some of the strangest and most gorgeous prose of the past century.
Far behind them on the road, my work has followed a similar pattern. I began by listening to experts, working with discipline, and doing an enormous amount of math to create each of my carefully crafted and totally uninteresting early stories. But at a time of severe personal crisis, the math began to crumble in my hands. The lessons of experts no longer helped me. Only one thing remained: the compulsion to write, not to prove my competence, but to survive.
Amazingly, the work that began to emerge at that bleak time in my life was richer, more vivid, and stranger than anything I had ever attempted. It bore almost no relationship to the work I had been doing just weeks before. But it hadn’t come from nowhere . Looking back, I could see its antecedents in stories I had been scribbling since I was a child: all so strange themselves that I had never taken them seriously. I’d thought they were scraps of construction material left over from my serious work. In reality, those scraps were the stories I had always been meant to write, leaking into the construction site where I’d been misusing my talent trying to build a house that looked like everyone else’s. When the circumstances of life weakened me to the point that I could no longer hold them back, those stories streamed in, bringing with them the voice and power I’d sought without success for so long.
Is there a lesson here for other artists? Can we find our way through the noise in our own minds without facing a Russian firing squad? Should we be seeking out trouble to refine us in our own lives?
We don’t need to chase disaster — any life will provide us with plenty. The secret of inspiration is both simpler and more difficult: it’s when we quiet ourselves to listen that we discover what we were always trying to say.