Thursday, February 04, 2010

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him, and he is usually too busy to wonder why. -- William Faulkner

We have all heard the clichés: suffering writer, tormented artist, etc. etc. ad nausea, and to some degree there seems to be a correlation between artistic inclination and psychopathology: eccentric, demented, or just damned depressed, whatever you want to call it, it happens more with those inclined towards the arts. Whether or not genetic disposition or post-traumatic stress plays any part it in or not, I don’t know. Bonnie Kozek wrote an interesting article over on her site about the matter, but I don’t always try to pin a medical diagnosis on things. I am more of a Karma kind of person when it comes to ethereal bits and bobs like art.

For me, my love of art -- all art -- started when I was fairly young. In my years, I have dabbled in a variety of things with varying degrees of success: sculpture, illustration, painting, photography, and writing. Of them all, writing just felt the most right. It came naturally, or rather, easier than the others, and I was a big reader as kid. My brain is geared towards language -- I excelled in English -- and to me painting with words was as artistic as painting with paint. The palette was slightly different, but the same effects, the same illusions, could be achieved with words on a page as they could with paint on a canvas. I never had trouble imagining the written word, and I have never had trouble deciphering what the words actually mean. So my artistic inclination was not a choice. It runs in my family and seems to attach itself to the first born females for some reason. So choosing art as a medium for self-expression seemed natural, because in fact, it chose me. I can understand art, even in the most abstract sense, and yet in stark contrast, mathematics looks like an alien language to me, and I just can’t wrap my head around it.

Now, even though writing chose me, I, as a writer, do make some choices, or rather, I micromanage a bit of the process. I choose the subject matter I wish to write about, and I tend to choose subject matter that not only inspires me but affects me deeply -- subject matter that stretches my mind and pushes boundaries. I have a passion for philosophy and psychology, and I look at the world through those eyes, and because those eyes are also the eyes of an artist, I see things in garish detail with all the fiddly philosophical and psychological stuff gnawing for notice just off in the periphery. Much of the time what I see is beautiful and disturbing, and this is strictly my opinion here, but I think that is why artists suffer so: we just see things differently, and it affects us. We not only see the love and the truth, but we also see the motivation and the need, or rather, we can see the rose, the compost, the decomposing rat, and the maggots squirming beneath. We can see cause and effect, and as we write, we can feel the emotional impact of that on so many different levels. How could it not make a person feel a little bit insane? All those voices, all those emotions, all those infinite existential and philosophical choices we must make -- all the paths we must take a cursory glance down before we choose to wander, or not.

So sure, I can be a bit eccentric at times, and sometimes I can be moody and manic when I am in it. I pace the floors, I talk to myself, I live through my characters occasionally, and more importantly, I re-live emotionally brutal episodes from my own life in order to feel what I need to feel in the words. Hell, my novella Sin-eater has been sitting in a drawer for a year. With that one, I felt the fear. I lost site of the context when I found myself frightened by my own words. Yes, I had a few months where I bottomed out, and I mean bottomed out. It could have gone very wrong, but I have a few writer and artist friends who can relate. I also have a very patient husband, so I got the support I needed to get my head back on straight. I too tend to isolate myself when I am in the throes like that, and isolation isn’t good when one finds themselves affected in particular way. It’s here that I think modern writers have some advantage over the writers of old. Most of us also have day jobs, which gives the mind a chance to reset itself. It also brings with it a world of interaction, for good or for bad, as does the internet. Writer groups and friends are only a click away. The odds of reaching out when we are in dire need and slamming into someone who can understand and help us is much greater today than it ever has been. Alone doesn’t have to mean completely shut down and shut out anymore. Our idiosyncrasies don’t have to haunt us anymore or make us feel like outsiders and freaks. We can rise above the rejections. We can just be writers and artists. We can be different and be ok with it. All the truths, the lies, and the conflicts that seem to bleed from us to the page don’t have to consume us in silence as they once did.

Now I am not saying that camaraderie is a cure for the isolation and rejection one feels as an artist. It’s not, but it can help, and should the artist also be predisposed to depression or other psychopathology they should seek relief from a professional. However, I am always on the fence when it comes to the chemical altering of the mind. If you blur the mind, then wouldn’t you also blur the vision? I don’t know. Where does the line between imagination and second-sight become indistinct, and if you alter one, where does that leave the other? Again, I do not know, but I will leave you for now ... it’s time for me to sit in my corner, drool, and pick scabs. Anyone for Yahtzee?

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence -- whether much that is glorious -- whether all that is profound -- does not spring forth from disease of thought ...” Edgar Alan Poe

The Painting is titled “Nachtmahr” by Johann Heinrich Fussli 1802

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Jim Murdoch said...

I think the Internet is a wonderful thing if you’re a writer. It keeps you in contact with real people who can relate to what you do and you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to attend to them; they’ll wait in your inbox or feedreader until you have time or happen to be in the mood. You can’t knock that, you really can’t.

On the subject of medication, it’s a big ‘it depends’ – I wrote my first two novels while depressed and on drugs, I’ve written some of my best poetry over the last three years whilst medicated and yet I’ve not been able to get an in into my current novel. Bukowski self-medicated with alcohol for decades and seems to worked fine as a ‘functioning alcoholic’ so who knows. I guess it depends on finding the right drug. I couldn’t function on Prozac so I came off it. It stopped me being depressed but it also stopped everything else – what good is that except in the short term to give yourself a break or, to use your expression, to give “the mind a chance to reset itself”?

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Exactly Jim. I don't think medicating is always the answer and each artist is different.

I don't think Burroughs could have written Naked Lunch with the clarity he had if he hadn't been overcome by the heroin himself.

It's hard to say if drugs enhance or hinder or if they clear the artistic mind or just numb it.

And many artists can be diagnosed as clinically depressed, but what if they aren't? What if their nature makes them inclined to look at things from a certain perspective and it's society who slaps the label on them because it's not "normal" to be so moody, so dark, so skeptical, so whatever.

Maybe artists are naturally inclined to be that way and because society says they aren't normal and people don't accept them as normal, maybe that is what tortures them instead -- the perception cast upon them that they are not meant for polite society because they are crazy.

If I didn't have people who accepted my eccentricities, sure, I would self-medicate too.

We have a cable TV show here called United States of Tara and it's about a woman artist who has what they used to call multiple personality disorder. She couldn't paint while on the medication, so she and her family decided to take a different approach. They deal with her various personalities as if they were part of the family, because they felt she had lost herself on the medication. Of course she still gets therapy as does the entire family, but I think it's a good case in point that sometimes the difficult road is the better road for some. For some medication can be the answer and for some it has dire consequences for the artist.