Recently, I wrote the following:
The one thing you can always count on in life is your work. If you’ve found true, good work to do, it will always be there for you. If you put it aside for a while, it will wait. You may not make money at it, but you will feel that you’ve done something worthwhile.
I posted it on Twitter, and it seemed to resonate with people, so I thought I would write more about it here.
I’m trying to remember, now, why I wrote it. It was on a day that I felt like an author, but not a writer . . . I felt as though I was doing the things authors do (planning for appearances, looking over contracts), rather than the things writers do (writing). I enjoy being an author more or less, sometimes more, sometimes less. But I love being a writer. I love being in that space where it’s just me and the pen and the paper, or me and the document on my laptop, and we’re making words together. That sense of flow, of losing myself, is a feeling I want and need, a feeling I miss when I’m not writing. And it’s a sense that comes from writing, not authoring.
There’s a page on Facebook that I’ve been following for a while. It’s called Vincent Van Gogh, and it’s just quotations from the artist, paired with his paintings. There are many bad things about social media, and some good ones: pages and groups that promote art are some of the good things. I’ve seen so much art online that I would not have seen otherwise, and I would probably never have read through the collected letters and diaries of Van Gogh, but there they are, streaming by me like small bright sparks in my Newsfeed. What you see more than anything else, in Van Gogh’s words, is his love for the work.
On July 31, 1888, he wrote to his sister Willemien, “Anyway the work, when it progresses, helps a lot. I find it mightily beautiful here in summer, the green is very deep and lush, the air thin and amazingly clear.” I’m not sure where he was, I think in the French countryside. What was his work helping with? Probably his mental health. There are quotations from his brother Theo as well, and they are always worried, solicitous. Vincent wasn’t doing well, was never doing very well, and the work helped. It stabilized him, gave his life meaning. Notice him noticing: the depth of the colors, the translucent quality of the air. He was never not an artist. It’s very hard, actually, never not being an artist. Hard on the head, the heart, the life. The work helps.
On August 3, 1888, he wrote to his brother Theo, “There’s no better or shorter way to improve my work than to do figures. Also, I always feel confidence when doing portraits, knowing that the work is much more serious — that’s perhaps not the word — but rather is the thing that enables me to cultivate what’s best and most serious in me.” He was deliberate about the work, wanted to be better, but in his own way — better at understanding, better at representing what he saw. The work itself was the thing, rather than the sale of the work (although he would very much have liked to sell his paintings). But the vision he had of what the work could be, that came first. As did his sense, I think, of the work he could do, the work that was his to do.
I don’t know if I can express clearly enough, as clearly as the air of the French countryside, what I mean about the work itself. Vincent has already expressed it so much more clearly, probably because he was speaking out of necessity, compulsion — out of his direct experience that day. Whereas I am thinking and remembering, which is never as strong. What I’m trying to say is:
The work itself is the important thing. When I’m writing, that sense of flow I have, that timelessness, that disappearing act in which my self goes away and I become an instrument of the story, a way through which the story is written — that is the point.
The work itself is more important than the things surrounding it, like sales figures or publicity campaigns. I try to do the work as best I can, I try to find its shape, the way it wants to go. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I mostly succeed, when I fail utterly the work goes back into the clay bin of my mind, to be reformed into something else. But I’m satisfied or not with a particular work not because people read and like it, although yes, I’m always happy when they do. But because I was able to achieve what the work wanted to be — I wrote the poem or story as it was meant to be written, which I usually only discover in the process of writing it.
The work is what I work at, meaning that I’m trying to be a good writer, a good artist. Not popular, not trendy, not on brand. I’m trying to write the things that are in me to write, and the things out in the world that resonate with it, as grasses and trees and postmasters resonated with Vincent. In a letter to Gauguin, he described a painting of his as “Nothing more than ears of wheat, green-blue stalks, long, ribbon-like leaves, under a sheen of green and pink; ears of wheat, yellowing slightly, with an edge made pale pink by the dusty manner of flowering.” He wanted to capture those ears of wheat, to study them, participate in them, become them in a sense by painting them so precisely. I think artists are in love with the art itself, with technique and color and line. Just as writers are in love with sound, with the juxtaposition and euphony or cacophony of words. Sometimes when I write a sentence, it’s really about writing that sentence, about putting those particular words together, and I feel as though I have succeeded or failed depending on whether that particular sentence works. As Vincent’s does, even in translation.
And the work leads me somewhere deeper, clearer. It makes me more serious, if that’s the word (I’m not sure it is). It makes me, perhaps, more aware — of the world around me, of the world within myself. The work itself is what teaches me, not just as a writer but as the person I am. I perceive the world though the work — it teaches me to see more clearly, like a pair of glasses that I put on to improve my eyesight.
It’s very hard for an artist to articulate her relationship to her own work. That’s what I’ve tried to do here, and not very well either.
On August 4, 1889, his brother Theo wrote to Vincent, “I found it so strange to have received no letter from you that I telegraphed to find out if you were well. Dr. Peyron answered me in a letter that you’ve been ill for a few days but that it’s already a little better. My poor fellow, how I wish I knew what to do to get these nightmares to stop.” The work didn’t do that, of course. But Vincent continued the work anyway. It’s not a cure, it can’t be. But it gives you a world to go into, it gives you a thing to do that justifies, at least to you, if you’re doing it well, your own existence. Why was I put on this earth? At least in part to do the work.
And the work, finally, connects you to the larger world around you, the world of beauty and meaning. Vincent was in London when he wrote, “I walk here as much as I can, but I’m very busy. It’s absolutely beautiful here (even though it’s in the city). . . . The chestnut trees are magnificent. If one truly loves nature one finds beauty everywhere.” His own work as an artist allowed him to find and see that beauty, and to see it more deeply as he painted it.
For an artist, a good artist, I believe that art is not solipsism but a connection to the world, a way of connecting the inner world to the outer. At least, that is what I feel as a writer, when I’m doing good work, which is not always . . . but the effort, the task, that is for always. As long as I’m alive, the work continues.
(The image is The White Orchard by Vincent Van Gogh.)