The Artist’s Journey, #11
Welcome to the continuation of our serialization of The Artist’s Journey. To revisit any of the previous chapters, click on these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10.
47. EACH TRIP FROM LEVEL #1 TO LEVEL #2 IS A HERO’S JOURNEY
We said a few chapters ago that the artist’s skill is to shuttle from the material sphere to the sphere of potentiality and back again.
Each one of those trips is a hero’s journey.
Jay-Z in his studio may complete ten thousand hero’s journeys a day.
You do it too.
Ordinary world to Call to Refusal of Call to Threshold to Extraordinary World and back again.
Watch yourself today as you bang out your five hundred words. You’ll see the hero’s journey over and over.
48.THE HERO’S JOURNEY IS REHEARSAL FOR THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
Our real-life hero’s journey—the passage we’ve undergone in the material universe that has carried us to our “return home”—is practice for the next stage in our maturation, the artist’s journey.
Write your first novel. Produce your first movie. Yeah, it’s true that you’ve never done it before. But you’ve had practice. You’ve already endured all the trials and passed through all the stages.
You did it on your hero’s journey.
You crossed the threshold, you encountered allies and enemies, you entered the inmost cave, you’ve died and been reborn. And you’ve made your return safely to the place from which you set forth.
The stages of the artist’s journey are the same stages you’ve rehearsed (even though you had no idea that that was what you were doing) on your hero’s journey.
What, then, are the stages of the artist’s journey?
What is their nature?
How are they different from the stages of the hero’s journey?
B O O K F I V E
S T A G E S O F T H E A R T I S T’ S J O U R N E Y
49. THE MYSTICAL AND THE MATTER OF FACT
The artist’s journey is enacted on two opposite but linked planes: the mystical and the matter of fact.
(Or, if you prefer, left brain/right brain, Dionysian/Apollonian.)
The artist’s journey is an alchemical admixture of the airy-fairy and the workshop-practical. On the one hand we’re teaching ourselves to surrender to the moment, to inspiration, to intuition, to imagination. On the other, a huge part of our day is about discovering and mastering the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of how to reproduce in the real world the stuff we have encountered in the sphere of the imagination.
Monet spent years figuring out how to affix blobs of paint to canvas in such a way as to produce the illusion of sunlight reflecting off the surface of water. This was blue-collar labor. Trial and error. Seen from the outside, it was the most tedious, excruciating activity imaginable.
Yet at the same time the process was absolutely mystical. What went on in Monet’s mind as he wrestled month after month, year after year with a problem that had bewitched and confounded painters for centuries?
Monet, like every artist, was working simultaneously on both planes.
On the Dionysian he could see in his mind’s eye exactly how sunlight bounced off the curvilinear perimeter of a lily pad. On the Apollonian he was thinking, “If I apply a double-thick blob of gentian violet with a medium pallet knife and twist it left-handed so that the weightiest section of the blob accretes on the right side, then studio daylight reflecting off that, in juxtaposition to the 40/60 mixture of puce and fuchsia of the adjacent blob, should create the exact illusion I’m seeking.”
Like an alchemist laboring to turn lead into gold, the artist operates simultaneously on the planes of the ethereal and the elemental.
50. THE MATTER OF FACT PLANE OF THE ARTIST’S JOURNEY
In the sphere we call the artist’s journey, we “get down to business.” Crazy-time is over. We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
Our aim now is to discover our gift, our voice, our subject. We know now that we have one—and we are driven passionately to identify it and to bring it forth in the real world with optimum wallop.
Here’s Rosanne Cash in her extraordinary memoir Composed.
From that moment I changed the way I approached songwriting, I changed how I sang, I changed my work ethic, and I changed my life. The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, who had written “Runaway Train” for [my album] King’s Record Shop. John encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind. I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. Oddly, it turned out that Marge also worked with Linda [Ronstadt], which I didn’t know when I sought her out. I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams—an old, entrenched habit—I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range—never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks … I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them. I took painting lessons from Sharon Orr, who had a series of classes at a studio called Art and Soul.
I remained completely humbled by the dream [that had been the epiphanal moment at the end of my hero’s journey], and it stayed with me through every waking hour of completing King’s Record Shop… I vowed the next record would reflect my new commitment. Rodney [Crowell, my then-husband] was at the top of his game as a record producer, but I had come to feel curiously like a neophyte in the studio after the dream. Everything seemed new, frightening, and tremendously exciting.
Here’s James Rhodes, the English concert pianist:
Admittedly I went a little extreme—no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35 lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall.
My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure (playing 120,000 notes from memory in the right order with the right fingers, the right sound, the right pedalling while chatting about the composers and pieces and knowing there are critics, recording devices, my mum, the ghosts of the past, all there watching), and perhaps most crushingly, the realisation that I will never, ever give the perfect recital. It can only ever, with luck, hard work and a hefty dose of self-forgiveness, be “good enough.”
On the matter-of-fact plane we set ourselves the task, not just of learning our craft, but also of mastering those professional capacities that are even more basic. In the succeeding chapters we’ll attempt an index of these fundamental skills.