FALLING AND FLYING
There’s a great poem of this name where Jack Gilbert says that falling isn’t failure, it’s just the necessary end of success. So, there’s gravity, so what? So, there’s mortality. So we fall in the end. So, fall. Because falling just means that we flew.
Yes, yes, yes.
But apropos to all my anxieties and reservations about putting up a new website and to the mixed joys of creation and to the vulnerability we all feel as we share what we’re not sure of, I have gathered here my imperfect notes this month on braving imperfection, not just as part of the creative process, but as the most essential part…
Because what Jack failed to mention in his very perfect poem was that we also have to fall and fall and fall before we figure out how to defy gravity. And that most of being a happy artist is learning “to enjoy the sound of our failure.” That’s the musician Jonny Greenwood’s quote. He’s one of my very very favorite artists.
“It is so difficult—at least I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth,” says Reverend Bebee in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View.
It seems to me that what we’re really looking for as artists is not perfection but connection, which, if you are Proper, Victorian, English, Educated (well there’s your problem, as the mechanic says) is the exact opposite of perfection. Hence, the confusion. What is connection? Everyone behaving as expected? Or someone speaking the truth?
Behaving as expected, we were told as children, represented perfection. Follow the rules, get an A.
But speaking the truth? Reaching out with your vulnerable soul to touch some resonant place exactly? Rejecting lies, rejecting artifice?
I get up on the desks and yell I take off my shoes and break the lights I say
fuck arithmetic I start turning the people over in their desks the teacher
she is all messed up she signals for a fire drill and everyone gets up all in
order they walk out the door in two rows she turns on the intercom she says
Francis is having another fit….
lines from Frank Stanford
The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You
It makes me question the whole notion of teaching, or certainly of teaching craft. Because craft, for the most part, is artifice. It’s a bunch of rules we mostly agree on.
Well I am using rules. Without them, we can’t connect at all. I mean, here’s Samuel Beckett, in the most irreproachable language, writing, “As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind (be it something or nothing) begins to seep through. I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today.”
Yes, yes, but….
I accuse myself of overthinking, but this is, in some real way, a matter for me of life and death.
Because, in the material world, we live by rules. I mean, survive by them. Traffic laws, banking laws (no, really), pure food and drug laws, sanitation, environmental protection, we’re trying to stay connected with health and wealth and life, so rules help if they’re sensible. Rules are how we moderate and regulate our fear, they’re agreements we make on how to stay safe. We have bodies, we have money, we need to be healthy, we need to eat. The material world is the world of defense. Defensive driving. Public Defender.
But in the spiritual world, by this I mean the emotional intangible realm of the soul…what is safe feels dangerous, and what is dangerous feels safe. I mean the truth (something original, primal, slow in emerging, clumsy, strange) feels dangerous. I mean the lie (something known, familiar, derivative, easy, comfortable, commercial) feels safe. I mean art is about exposure. The opposite of defense.
This constant dissonance has me going in circles. That’s why I find great comfort in a book I’m reading this month by Michael McGregor on the poet Robert Lax. Lax, as a young man, a Columbia graduate, working at the New Yorker, is going in circles.
“Was he going to build on his commercial success by writing things he thought could sell, or was he going to write what he felt like writing and trust that the best would find its audience in time? He tried to believe the two could go hand in hand but he couldn’t quite.”
And I love this line:
“He tried to write a story about a character like himself but found it wandered.”
Yes, yes, yes.
“It’s not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul,” said Emerson.
Yes, yes, yes.
The provocation of Lax and of other artists who safely judged the practical demands of living and creating purely is this: That living within your means as a true artist means rejecting much of the material that gives art meaning. Lax chose to leave New York and spent his life living simply, purely, on an island in Greece.
I think about my life. I was living simply and purely, or at least safely within my head and my means until I married Dave, who, (as my friend Laurie has so memorably said), “was a stranger to introspection,” and, more recently, “was made of flames,” and who lived creatively in the material world, pushing the boundaries of how much we could see, and do, and build, and own, and make, and in all ways afford. Children, land, adventures, house-building, climbing, falling, flying, falling….
Every time I looked at him in exasperation, after some half-planned disaster, he’d look back at me and say, “It’s all good material.”
Yes, yes, yes. Material.
He broke material boundaries. Then demanded that I put it all into words. It was my job to break spiritual ones. Emotional ones. Artistic ones. By telling the truth, or something like it, in some way that allowed us to keep our collective composure.
I was supposed to keep us brave by making sense of falling. By singing the sound of our failure. So we could enjoy it. To enjoy your own mistakes is the ultimate liberation.
Sometimes I only had time to lie. Sometimes I had to let the lies stand. But more and more I’ve learned just to tell the easy lie and then do what the poet Elizabeth Austen reminded me to do: ask, “what else is true?”
What’s true is what I know. And its opposite. And the opposite of that opposite.
If I had lived safely in the material world and safely in the spiritual one, I’d have a sensible life with a job, or maybe a string of popular novels, written in odd hours.
If I had lived safely in the material world and dangerously in the spiritual one, my life might have looked like the life of Robert Lax.
But I seem to find myself living dangerously in both worlds, and going in circles, and looking for balance, and never sure whether I’m falling or flying.
A brilliant student this month said she had to keep reminding herself that she sent her pieces to me not for a final grade but for help in making them better.
It’s so hard to unlearn what we were taught in school. All those rules that make us afraid of flying.
And every day I start off bruised from falling yesterday, and vow to avoid mistakes, or the same mistakes, and have to remind myself that avoiding mistakes is the mistake.
Failure always leaves room for something bigger. There is no guessing what will occupy that space.
So, I tell myself: Don’t avoid mistakes. Just transcend them. Fly closer and closer to the source of what moves you. Don’t try too hard to make meaning. Let the meaning emerge. Coax it patiently. As Laurie said yesterday, “If you boss it around too much it won’t come out and play with you.”
And another bit offered by Mike McGregor, some words passed and passed..a quote from Conrad written by William Maxwell into a book he gave Lax, quoted by McGregor, written into my notebook over coffee, transcribed here…
The task approached in tenderness
and faith is to hold up unquestioningly,
without choice and without fear,
the rescued fragment.