Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

These days, when I sit down to write, I’m afraid.

That sentence, the one I just wrote, has taken me most of a week to produce. Lately I’ve attempted dozens, a hundred other sentences, all about what making a creative move feels like. This one is actually true.

In a program note to Maria Irene Fornes’s play “Mud” I read: “The possibility of being creative depends on not being shy with one’s intimate self and not being fearful for one’s personal standing. We must take very delicate chances—delicate because they are dangerous, and delicate because they are subtle; so subtle that while we experience a personal terror it could be that no one will notice.”

(A murky feeling high in my chest. An inner weight that moves, stirring, as someone stirs in their sleep, but mostly sliding, dropping…invisible. A deep that draws my throat closed from the inside—not a lessening but a thickening, a narrowing—by way of something not in but behind my heart.)

These days, when I sit down to write, I’m afraid.

Between 1943 and 1946, during what she called her “mud period,” the painter Lee Krasner produced a large number of turgid, unpresentable works self-described as “slab paintings.”

I went into my own black-out period which lasted two or three years where the canvases would simply build up until they’d get like stone and it was always just a gray mess. The image wouldn’t emerge…I was fighting to find I knew not what.

At the time, she was living on Long Island; if visitors came it was generally on account of her husband, Jackson Pollack. A friend recalls Krasner’s account of one visit made by Thomas Hart Benton, Pollack’s former teacher and mentor:

“I must have been god-damned cheeky,’ says Krasner….

“I had never met Benton, and I had no interest in his work. At one point Benton said to me, ‘I understand you paint; may I see what you’re doing?’”

“I knew what was in my studio,” says Krasner. “Jackson also knew. We walked [in]… We looked at the slabs of gray. There was such a stony silence…. I was saying, ‘I paint. I paint every day. This is what’s happening to me.’”

None of the painting survive, Krasner having drowned them in the bathtub so as to scrape and reuse the canvases.

Lee Krasner, 'Bird Talk', 1955

A few years later, painting happened to Krasner in a similarly headstrong and inscrutable fashion:

…it started in 1953—I had the studio hung solidly with drawing…floor to ceiling all around. Walked in one day, hated it all, took it down, tore everything and threw it on the floor… I don’t know why I did it, except I certainly did it… seemingly a very destructive act.”

She did not return to the studio for two weeks.

When I opened the door and walked in, the floor was solidly covered with these torn drawings that I had left and they began to interest me and I started collaging. Well…that ended in my collage show in 1955.

A show subsequently regarded as one of the most important art exhibitions of that decade.

I wonder, what if the writing can just be a record of the act of writing?

In the old days, momentous events—comings and goings, marriages, births, deaths, important financial transactions—might be reported to the bees. “Telling the bees,” it was called in parts of Europe and then North America, and it was taken very seriously. The master or mistress of the bees approaches the hive and bareknuckled or holding the house key, knocks gently on it, then tells the great news. If a death, the hive may be hung with black cloth, turned to face the funeral procession, perhaps raised slightly and lowered just as the coffin is laid in its grave. If a wedding, the bees will be invited, the hive decorated, a piece of cake left nearby. Letters from absent family members are brought to the hive and read aloud. If neglected, the bees could stop making honey, abandon the hive, even die.

“We are more forgetfulness than anything else,” I read in David Hinton’s book Hunger Mountain. Perishable, impermanent, unstable, contingent…is that why we’re to tell the bees? Is that why we forget?

Dear bees,
These days, when I sit down to write, I’m afraid.

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