Excerpt for Minding the Muse by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


the Muse

A Handbook for

Painters, Composers,

Writers, and

Other Creators

Priscilla Long

Smashwords Edition

* * *

Coffeetown Press

PO Box 70515

Seattle, WA 98127

For more information go to: www.coffeetownpress.com


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Cover design by Sabrina Sun

Cover art The Painter’s Hand by Chuck Smart

Minding the Muse

Copyright © 2016 by Priscilla Long

ISBN: 978-1-60381-363-1 (Trade Paper)

ISBN: 978-1-60381-364-8 (eBook)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2016939844

Produced in the United States of America

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return it to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author's work.

* * *

To Geri Gale,

Jack Remick,

and Don Harmon.

To M. Anne Sweet.

To Gordon Wood.

Peerless peer artists

* * *

This thing for which you have sought so long is not to be acquired or accomplished by force or passion. It is to be won only by patience and humility and by a determined and most perfect love.

—Alchemist Morienus, 1593,

quoted by C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy


You are a painter. Or you are a composer. Or you are a poet or a novelist or an essayist. This little book gathers insights from creators both past and present, as well as from creativity researchers, on the experiences and working methods of poets, painters, and other artists.

The choices and strategies of effective creators—creators able to shape a significant body of work over a lifetime—often differ from those of talented and creative people who end up with a small, scattered, or unremarkable pile of effects. Some of these effects may be excellent, but taken as a whole they fall short of the creative worker’s potential.

Over the years I’ve studied the lives of artists and writers from Picasso to Patti Smith, from Raymond Chandler to the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. I’ve wanted to see what I could learn about how they went about their lives and work. I’ve used my own discoveries and those of creativity researchers to inform and improve upon my own strategies as a writer and poet. I find that no matter how experienced I get, there’s something more to learn. Here you have what I’ve gleaned so far.

Whether you are an old hand or just starting out, it can be helpful to reflect from time to time upon your own art practice. What has worked well for you? What could you improve? Minding the Muse is intended to aid you in this process of reflection. If you find here even one or two ideas to fertilize your working process, its purpose will have been served.

Questions to Contemplate as You Continue Your Practice

Peruse these chapters in any order that strikes your fancy. I suggest beginning a notebook in which to reflect on your own art practice. On each subject, begin by describing what the reality is right now, since our efforts to move forward must necessarily proceed from a good comprehension of reality. Write for ten minutes on your present situation (“My current situation with regard to — is …”). Do not stop. Do not worry about correctness or eloquence. Then write for five more minutes in response to the question: How can I make my practice in this area more effective by 5 percent?

First session: Write for ten minutes, looking in on your art practice from the outside. What do you see? In your own terms, what are your most effective habits and strategies? What could use work?


Productivity: Learning to Work

I am a work horse. I like to work. I always did …. I’ve never had a day when I didn’t want to work …. And even if I didn’t want to compose … I painted or stacked the pieces or something. In my studio I’m as happy as a cow in her stall.i

—Louise Nevelson, sculptor

Learning to work is about learning to sink into the work. Learning to be patient with the work. Learning to work every day, even if only for a short time. Learning to eschew distractions.

Learning to work is learning to drop conditions under which you “can work” or “will work.” Conditions like “When I get more time” or “If this novel ‘works’ [meaning gets published and makes me rich and famous], then I will write another.” Or, “I can only work when I can get a block of three or four hours.”

Work begets work. When we learn to simply work—without fuss, without undue anxiety, without trepidation concerning whether we will create the masterpiece of our dreams or fail to create this masterpiece—the work begins to carry the worker. It begins to make itself.

For the disciplined creative worker, working is not a decision or a big effort. It’s a daily habit, a routine. In her book The Creative Habit, dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “I come down on the side of hard work.”ii In 1920 the painter Joan Miró wrote to a friend, “I am working as much as I can. People who have managed to do something have followed different paths, but they have never deviated from hard work.”iii

Work can be trouble and no fun and seem to go nowhere. One of the effective strategies of effective creative workers is to keep working anyhow. At the age of thirty-three (in 1935), the great Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti decided to begin working from a live model once again. He estimated that this departure from his current practice would take about two weeks. “But,” he wrote to a friend, “the more I looked at the model, the more the screen between reality and myself thickened. You begin by seeing the person who is posing, but gradually every possible sculpture interposes itself between the sitter and you. The less clearly you actually see the model, the more unknown the head becomes.”iv His two-week digression ended up lasting five years.

Another time, at the end of 1941, Giacometti decided to return to Switzerland from his home in Paris to see his mother. He planned a stay of three months. His sculptures, to his distress, had been growing smaller and smaller. Before leaving Paris, he promised his brother Diego that he would return with a sculpture of a “less absurd” size. A larger sculpture.

Three months went by. Giacometti worked for hours and hours every day. This too went on for five years. In 1945 he wrote to his lover, “I started the same thing over and over, never getting it right. My figure ended up so minuscule every time and the work was becoming so imponderable and yet it was nearly what I wanted to achieve and it’s only during the last year I’ve managed it but not to the point I want, the size, yes, yet I know that I shan’t give up the one I’ve been working on since September [he’s writing in May] and that I shall finish it in spite of everything ….”

That year, according to his friend and biographer David Sylvester, he returned to Paris on the night train, “bringing with him the residue of three years’ work in six matchboxes.”v

We could ask here, what was Giacometti’s problem? Why not just get the job done? But Giacometti was attempting to actually see the figure. He was struggling with perception. The strangely thin and elongated figures he became known for resulted from how he perceived. In an interview he said, “I think we have for so long automatically accepted the received idea of what a sculpted head should look like that we have made ourselves completely incapable of seeing a head as we really see it.”vi

It’s not about working fast. It’s about returning to the work day after day, inquiring of it what it needs and giving it what it asks for. It’s a conversation, a dialogue, at times an argument. It’s a relationship. As long as we keep steady, keep the faith, keep on returning to the work, the work will keep on giving us back what we need to complete it.

The dancer Twyla Tharp writes of her workout each morning: “My morning ritual is the most basic form of self-reliance; it reminds me that, when all else fails, I can at least depend on myself.”vii

My own intention is to put in four hours of work a day, but my bottom line is to write for a minimum of fifteen minutes every day. On some days I get my four hours. On most days I get at least an hour or two, but there’s virtually no day when I do not write at all. I write in a notebook by hand. I connect to the page, I connect to who I am and to what I do and to what I want to do. I connect to the day, to the quality of light, to the state of the leaves or branches at my window, to the sound of traffic or airplanes or to the silence (early on a Sunday morning). I do not put conditions on this first write of the day, but write whatever comes to mind. I let my mind drift.

There’s such a thing as making a decision to be productive. Being productive as opposed to being saddled with a sporadic work habit gives a lot back to the creator. You can play with different forms, each form informing other forms. In creative nonfiction, for instance, I’ve found it entertaining to go from diptych (two parts that mirror or react to each other) to triptych (three parts, ditto) to abecedarian (the form that goes from A to Z). You get, piece by piece, a lot more experience. You develop more skill to bring to the next piece. Also, each piece is asked to carry less weight in the artist’s lifetime body of work, and this in turn affords an easier, more fluid working process.

A key strategy toward sinking into the work you dream of doing is giving up the requirement for a long stretch of hours in order to do anything. Work in short stretches of time. Push out distractions. Try fifteen minutes. Try a half-hour.

Another key strategy is to work on more than one piece at a time. The pieces begin to interact with one another. And, if one story or painting or poem is giving you trouble, you can give it a rest and turn to another. The painter Françoise Gilot—originally better known as Picasso’s partner (Life with Picasso) than as the significant artist she developed into—writes, “Often in the same day I will work on three or four different paintings. I always have about ten to twelve paintings in the making at any given time …. When I enter my studio each morning, I find canvases under way as well as blank ones, and if I feel pretty good, or, if after an hour I feel pretty good, I then get a larger canvas and begin something new.”viii

The writer and translator Lydia Davis, whose quintessential creative form is the very short story, said in an interview, “One habit I have that is helpful, I think, is that I will often work on several stories at once, leaving one and going on to the next. Then I will sometimes let some days go by before I look at the stories again. By then they are less familiar to me, so it is easier to see how to work on them.”ix

If you are writing a book, especially a first book, I beg you to work on short pieces at the same time. This gives practice in finishing pieces. I’ve met way too many writers who are dabbling on a first book year after year, bogged down, never finishing. Learning to work is in part learning to finish, and this is easier to learn—much easier to learn—on short pieces.

Make goals that are specific and reachable by your own efforts. A goal is a product, such as a painting or a poem. It’s not a process. For example, “I will work for three hours tomorrow” is not a goal. It’s part of the process for working toward a goal. In his book Creating, Robert Fritz lays out how creative goals should be expressed as products to be created.x My goal this month is to write four poems on glaciers in the context of global warming. It’s a goal, whether or not I attain it, which depends entirely on my own efforts. A goal such as publish four glacier poems mostly depends on other people (although I do have to send them out). It might be a fine goal, but it’s not a creative goal.

In Fritz’s useful protocols, after setting the goal, you break down steps required for reaching the goal. Here’s where working for a specified amount of time fits. Work doing what? For my goal of four glacier poems, for example, I will spend time gathering language (Antarctic, glacier snout, calve). I will write for a half hour or more in the writing-practice manner (in which you set a timer and write continuously without stopping, also known as discovery writing) on the subject of the poem. I will fiddle lines. And so on.

Of course creative products are not predictable; that’s the territory we’re in. We are not a tire factory. We are not delivering newspapers or flipping hamburgers or calculating interest rates. In his book Art Heals, Shaun McNiff, artist and art therapist, writes of the “ancient truth that the journey [of the creative process] will take us to surprising and unexpected places if we submit to it” and that “the most significant discoveries cannot be planned in advance.”xi

We submit to the process and take pleasure in the journey. The art weaver Joan Potter Loveless described (in Three Weavers) how she began one particular tapestry. Her first step was to dye “a batch of oranges, brewing and mixing skeins in several pots, trying to get many steps of orange—rosy ones, bright light ones, rusty ones …. What I’m really after is colors that I can’t easily name—strange colors. It’s good when I can’t predict just how they’ll look when they are together, which direction they’ll go in. Then they demand real attention and direct their own handling and create surprises for me, leading me where I had not planned to go. This is what I really like ….”xii

When you have completed a piece, celebrate. Even when you have achieved a step toward completing a piece, celebrate. This is no empty requirement. Reward yourself. Give yourself something spiffy and cool—an afternoon at the museum or zoo, an ice cream, whatever pleases you immensely. For your average workaholic creator—of which I am one—this can be a rather trying step to take. But do try.

What I like to do is to spend a few hours at an art museum, by myself, musing and looking. Then I treat myself to lunch at the museum café. Then I go to a coffeehouse and write in my favorite notebook, currently a Leuchtturm1917 “Master Classic” notebook. It has a hard black cover with rounded corners and an elastic fastener. Its 233 large pages, ruled and cream-colored, have a place at top for the date. It has contents pages in the front, a pocket in the back, and a page-marker ribbon. I fill its beautiful pages with whatever strikes my fancy.

Meeting a goal gives you a resting place. We need resting places. If you’re working on a big project that’s never done, you never rest. You may develop resistance to the whole bloody thing. Making a goal, breaking down the steps required to reach that goal, celebrating when you have achieved a step or two, celebrating the finished work—these strategies give you resting places.

Once we experience the feeling of deep rest after completing a work, it’s natural to strive to get there again. And again. This practice has nothing whatever to do with external praise or rewards—exhibits, prizes, publications, sales. It has to do with attitudes and practices that we creators put in place for ourselves. It’s private and it’s personal. It’s our relationship with our own work.

Questions to Contemplate as You Continue Your Practice

What is your work practice? Do you work every day? Do you place various unattainable conditions on when, where, or how you can work, resulting in a sporadic work habit? If so, how might this be improved?

What specific products do you aim to achieve during your next period of work (week, month, year)? What are the steps to achieving them?

Do you work on more than one piece at once? Do you allow the pieces to interact with each other and influence each other?

When you next complete a work, what will you do to reward yourself? Which work will this be?


Gathering, Hoarding, Conceptualizing

Each book has a notebook—a kind of first home that scraps of it might be tempted to visit. The notebook must be small enough to fit in my pocket, big enough to accommodate drawings, screams, doubts, plans, journal entries, records of self-loathing, and fragments of whatever story I’m trying to invent. The notebook must be willing to go with me everywhere: to be wet, worn, dirty, and occasionally thrown across the room.xiii

—A. L. Kennedy, writer, performer

Any particular planned work benefits from a gathering stage. Objects, lists of words and phrases, photos, pictures and words cut from magazines, maps, fast drawings, discovery-writing sessions, studies of the sort done by visual artists—all are forms of gathering.

Joseph Cornellxiv—the great collagist and assemblage artist, maker of scenes within shoebox-sized boxes that function as windows into his dream-mind or into our movie-star, Barbie-doll culture—gathered and hoarded obsessively. He collected, categorized, and placed in dossiers objects that informed his works or that might become part of a work. He sorted, fiddled with, fingered, re-sorted, purchased, and at least once, purloined these objects. He haunted thrift shops. His detritus filled the house he shared with his mother. He assembled and re-assembled. Out of these gathered and hoarded objects, he created worlds.

What objects? Cornell collected mirrors, maps, dolls and doll parts, sheet music, watch springs, compasses, stamps, shells both natural and plastic, paperweights, clippings, and magazine cut-outs sorted into categories such as “nudes” or “birds” or “Garbo.” He collected bottle stoppers, thimbles, toys, plastic spiders, and cut-outs of figures from Old Master painting reproductions. He collected pillboxes and photographs and pencil sharpeners. He collected twigs and grasses. He collected rings, driftwood, ballerina dresses, swatches of blue velvet, newspapers, postcards, old phonograph-record sleeves. He collected coins and brass rods and scraps of paper with things written on them. Beyond collecting objects, he was in a nearly constant state of note-taking.

W. B. Yeatsxv filled notebooks with what he called “subjects” for poems—prose paragraphs with a concept and often an image or two. Although he wrote many more subjects than he wrote poems, almost all of his poems began with a subject. Often the poem ended up far from its subject, but the subject was the motor that got it going. Yeats’s subjects were to his poems what Cornell’s amassed detritus was to his boxes.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp starts each new composition with a box. “I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.”xvi

Raymond Chandler began writing crime stories in his forties. He published his first story at age forty-five. He published his first novel, The Big Sleep, at age fifty. Early in the process, he purchased an empty address book and began entering character names that occurred to him. In another notebook he collected titles. He also collected police, crime, and underworld slang and he composed one-liners, sentences like “He wanted to buy some sweetness and light and not the kind that comes through the east window of a church.”xvii He took detailed notes on people’s clothing.

The poet David Wagonerxviii speaks of how changing his process of composing into stages, beginning with a gathering stage, served his work. “In writing a poem I had tried simultaneously to be the dreamer, the explorer, the poet and the critic—all at once. As soon as I divided those into three stages, everything changed. I allowed myself to be crazy and very free in working, and then tried to make a poem out of the raw materials, and then criticized the poem after that.” Wagoner begins his day by typing rapidly without thinking much, a free-association type of thing. He next looks at the sheets to see if there are any usable images or ideas. He also spends time collecting language. He’s an avid birdwatcher and knows the names of hundreds of birds. Bird names constitute part of his resource base in the language.

Novelist Ian McEwan keeps a plot book. It is, according to Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile, “an A4 spiral notebook filled with scenarios.”xix He writes down story ideas, just two or three sentences on each. The notebook stores his ideas while his mind plays with them. Eventually, never rushing from notebook to new project, he takes one up and begins on a new novel.

The painter Gordon Wood makes intricate, brilliantly colored paintings and collages utilizing both traditional and digital means. His works, which fuse abstraction and figuration, engage extensively with nature and our place in it. They evoke, at one and the same time, the cosmos and the atom, the vast and the minuscule, the universe and the quark, birth and death. His gathering process involves extensive reading in science and philosophy. It involves hiking and camping in the Cascade Range, located near his Seattle home. There he enjoys and contemplates—often with his young son—forests, alpine meadows, glaciers, and the night sky unblotted-out by urban light. He also studies images on the Internet and manipulates them in Photoshop, and he takes notes on thoughts and ideas. Despite all this, the greater part of his creative process takes place in the studio, working on the work itself, which is, he says, “time-consuming, complex, and laborious.”xx

My own gathering practice has deepened as a result of a Saturday course I took recently in Writing Poems on Place offered by visual artist and poet Carletta Carrington Wilson.xxi Wilson invited us to bring a blank scrapbook, maps, colored pencils or markers, and an object or two connected to the place we were thinking of, in my case the Skagit River. This does appeal to my kindergarten nature, and I’ve fully adopted the scrapbook idea. My scrapbook on the Skagit contains lists of plants (cattails, skunk cabbage), lists of creek names (Red Creek, Coal Creek), and tributary river names (the Sauk, the Suiattle), maps, photos, and my own drawings—inept as they may be. I entered quotes by people like Jack Kerouac, who spent time meditating on the riverbank of the Skagit. I wrote down questions about the place. I pasted in pictures of the wild salmon that run on the Skagit—chinook, chum, pink, sockeye, and coho. The whole time I was working on my piece on the Skagit, I played with my scrapbook. After I completed the piece, there were scrapbook pages left over, so I continued using it for the next river in my series of river pieces, the Duwamish River. This was almost too much fun.

About this gathering business, sometimes known as research: Do not gather for too long before beginning to work on the piece. The best way is to begin gathering and to begin composing at the same time. The two activities exist in a dynamic relationship. The work itself points to what it requires. The gathering process can continue until the piece is done, but if you gather for too long before beginning to work on the actual piece, the dynamic relationship will never begin.

Questions to Contemplate as You Continue Your Practice

Do you spend part of your work time consciously gathering, consciously dabbling and doodling, collecting, ruminating? Are there ways you could deepen your art practice and make it more pleasurable by putting into place a gathering phase, one that continues as composing begins? What sort of materials might you gather and where might you keep these materials?

If you are one of those creators who loves research, do you work on the actual composition—whether poem, painting, or film—at the same time that you continue doing research? Is the composing phase in sync with the gathering phase, or do you continue to do research for days or years without working on the work itself? Can you improve your practice in this regard?


Opening the Problem, Closing the Door

I like to have a lot of material lying about the studio for a long time—even for years—so that I feel intimate with each piece. An idea comes and the right piece of wood or stone—the absolutely right piece—must be found for it ….”

—Barbara Hepworth, sculptor

Upon beginning a piece, the “problem” of the work is still wide open. What will its shape be? What is the quest, what are the questions? What currents from history or mythology or philosophy or science or auto mechanics will flow into it? What materials will be used? How big will this monster be? The beginning is the thickening time, the discovery time, the dabbling time. It’s the time to just put in time. Artists, creativity studies say, are able to tolerate ambiguity.xxii This is the time of über-ambiguity.

It may or may not be a time of solitude. Many writers go to “writing practice,” where they sit at a common table and write to a timer and then read (with no critiquing) to each other; some painters and visual artists work in the company of other visual artists. Still it’s an exploratory time, an inward-turning time. It’s the wrong time to critique, including internal critiquing, derogatory or ironic comments from one’s own inner voices.

At this point, an external, outward-looking, audience-focused orientation works against the work. Hoping to please the crowd or some mentor or gatekeeper or hoping to make a pot of money or win some prize makes for a conventional piece of work or else for hack work. It’s not until a later point, when the work is far along, that it benefits from its first viewings or readings, from the critical eye of its maker and of peer artists.

In an interview, the novelist and poet Jack Remick said, “When I lead workshops or give talks on writing, I joke that writers have just three problems: How to start, how to keep going, how to finish. If you solve those three issues, you’ve got it made. In a roomful of writers, that usually gets a laugh. Then I get serious—the most challenging aspect of writing is learning to take the time. Most writers are in a big rush to get published and so they let the work go too soon. It then comes back at them—all those story holes, all those weak characters, all the bad sentences—and they feel terrible. Once writers master the need to be loved—which means getting the work out so people will read it, review it and tell them how wonderful they are—they can dive into the myth and bring back powerful tales with teeth and lasting power. But letting the work go too soon is the nemesis of the writer.”xxiii

The art-weaver Joan Potter Loveless reflects on her intent to keep the problem open as she begins a new tapestry: “My energy is high … and the shapes I’m working on are beginning shapes and could go anywhere. Also, my mind plucks at this and that string to avoid finalizing the shapes I’m working on too soon, to keep the choices open and let the paths the weaving takes remain free for longer—to find the other alternative, the not-yet-seen way …. My mind in its flight sees my lovely granddaughter, Rochelle, and a tapestry for her begins. I see a kind of veiled surface rising, a surface of naturals … and, as though the weaving is a web, I part it here and there and rounded shapes appear in the openings, perhaps clear light blues, the lovely unknown of her life …. Now I know I’ve started to weave again …. As I work, a wonderful thing is happening which I didn’t know I was missing.”xxiv

The beginning of working on a piece is the time to consider the work itself, alone. This is as true of commissioned work as it is for work whose destination is unknown. The Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim told a parable about a Chinese craftsman commissioned by the emperor to make a carillon stand for a temple. The resulting artwork was so beautiful it looked as if it had been made by magic. The craftsman explained that after receiving the commission, he had wandered in the woods for eight days to forget it was from the emperor, then wandered another eight days to forget the fame that would be his, yet another eight days to forget the money to be earned. At that point he found the right piece of wood. “You see,” Oppenheim said, “only then [did he] he set about his work. If you think about things like, ‘I’m going to make this thing and sell it for three thousand dollars,’ that’s the end. You cannot work like that.”xxv

In the beginning you open the creative problem, in terms of both its form and content. Do not rush. Do not think of the rewards it will bring or of how good or bad it will turn out. Keep the problem open for a good long time. Creativity researchers Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied art students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and found that the ability to keep a problem open without preconceived notions or hasty foreclosure predicted a more original result. “Artists who defined their problem soon after starting to work,” they reported, “produced drawings that were less original than those who kept the problem open longer. It seems that a creative problem cannot be fully visualized in the ‘mind’s eye’; it must be discovered in the interaction with the elements that constitute it. Delay in closure helps to ensure that the artist will not settle for a superficial or hackneyed problem.”xxvi

Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-14 show above.)