Yesterday, I wrote a poem. I called it “Thumbelina.” It starts like this:
Sometimes I would like to be very small
so I could curl into a snail’s shell,
or a seashell: abalone, nautilus,
even an oyster shell. I would let the oyster
cover me with layer on layer of nacre,
come out shining.
This is something I’ve fantasized about since . . . probably since reading The Borrowers as a child. I’ve wondered what it would be like to be very small, to see the world on a completely different scale. I’ve never wondered about what it would be like to be larger than I am, to see things as tiny — no, I wanted to see them as gigantic. I think part of the impulse came from the realization that there’s nowhere to hide anymore, nowhere one can go to disappear. That’s not entirely true — I could probably buy a small cabin in a remote location and more or less disappear if I wanted to, live simply, disengage from modern life. It could be done. But there would still be satellites overhead. The world is a different place than it used to be.
When I first thought about writing this blog post, it wasn’t about becoming small, but about learning to hide. I was inspired by a sentence from a novel I read as a child. My mother read thrillers, and I think the sentence was in one of her books: Shibumi by Rodney William Whitaker, writing under the pseudonym Trevanian. To be honest, I barely remember the book. The internet tells me that it’s about an assassin, and I do remember that — the main character could kill people with a comb. I don’t remember whether he actually did. I do remember that it details his long training, and that a teacher told him to keep his skills, his very existence, a secret. “Hide, Niko,” was the sentence I remembered. Somehow, in my head, it got mixed up with The Borrowers, the way things do get mixed up. It seemed to me that one could not hide in this world unless one was, perhaps, the size of a mouse.
Later I realized that there was a way to hide: inside oneself. Imagine, your own body is a sort of shell, like a snail’s shell, a seashell: inside it is your mind, and inside your mind could be anything, anything at all, entire worlds of anything, and no one would ever know. This realization was intensely reassuring to me as a teenager. My outside could be monitored, controlled, but inside I could be thinking anything — I could write entire novels that no one would ever know about. We are all worlds, inside ourselves. A death is the death of a world, a universe.
We do not value this sort of interiority very much, nowadays. We are all supposed to be open, vulnerable. We are all supposed to share. But I think there is something valuable and reassuring about it. There is a freedom inside oneself, the freedom to be oneself in at least one place. And there is a freedom to choose: do I share this aspect of myself or not? I think that’s particularly important for artists. The art one sees is in a sense the detritus, the flotsam, of the art that happens inside. That is perhaps why we are fascinated by artist’s biographies — we want to know, what in the world was happening inside to create those paintings, those books? What world was happening inside that left those particular marks on our shared reality?
I think learning to hide is a sort of skill, and one we probably need in our modern world, where so much is open and shared, where we photograph our breakfasts and say look, here is my dog, here is my vacation, here is my life. I know it’s a skill I need, because for me at least, creativity happens in the small spaces, safe spaces, in the dark. It is when I am most alone, most myself, that I can write. (And how ironic, and modern, that I am sharing that information with you! Yet here I am, alone at my work desk, in the morning before anything has happened, before I have had to see anyone. Writing.) Artists in particular often need to lead a sort of double life: there is the public self, which goes to work, pays the bills. And there is the private self, which goes down deep into the recesses of the self, the soul, and creates something — like an oyster layering nacre over an irritant. (Isn’t that what we do when we write? Find something that itches, that we cannot seem to get rid of, and layer it over, make it aesthetically pleasing or at least not so annoying to us? Hope it turns out a pearl?)
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about this double life when describing how he conceived of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He described himself as a house, with a brownie in the attic (you know, those one of small Scottish fairies). He said that he paid the bills, and all the while the brownie was working, working. All his best ideas came from that supernatural helper. But sometimes I don’t want to have a brownie–I want to be the brownie, the borrower, living in the attic or behind the walls or under the floorboards, just doing my own work (and maybe stealing buttons).
I guess my advice for any artist would be, learn to hide. And then you can decide what to reveal. I know the more I do, the more I am out there in the world, the more my work is public, the more of an impulse I have to carve out a private space for myself. Who knows, perhaps someday I’ll find that cabin in the wilderness, although to be honest I think one can hide just as well in a busy city, where no one much cares who you are or what you’re doing, and the faces you pass are almost always anonymous. But I need my snail’s shell or seashell, a small nest, a room from which the rest of the world is shut out. (When I was a teenager, I had a small room, a sort of closet under the stairs, where usually brooms would be kept). Or even the inside of my brain, which so far despite our technologies is relatively inviolate. Make a space for yourself, or at least your brownie, where the creativity, the magic, can happen . . .
(The illustration is by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.)