The Artist’s Journey, #16
Now, at this sixteenth installment of The Artist’s Journey, we’ve left the Apollonian mind behind and have entered the Dionysian. Way fun! To catch up on any posts you might have missed, use these links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. And Part 15.
76. WHAT IS THE ARTIST AFRAID OF?
The artist is afraid of the unknown.
She’s afraid of letting go. Afraid of finding out what’s “in there.” Or “out there.”
I’m not speaking here of unearthing within ourselves heretofore-unknown sordid, depraved, vile, degenerate urges. I don’t mean the fear of realizing that we’re all child molesters at heart or that we would have joined the Nazi Party if we’d lived in Germany in 1934.
The artist is afraid of finding out who she is.
This fear, I suspect, is more about finding we are greater than we think than discovering that we’re lesser.
What if, God help us, we actually have talent?
What if we truly do possess a gift?
What will we do then?
77. THINKING WITH YOUR OWN MIND
What exactly are we trying to accomplish on the artist’s journey?
We’re trying to think with our own minds, not with anyone else’s, and thus to speak in our own voice. On a deeper level, we are learning to bypass our front-mind, our ego-consciousness (and self-consciousness) and go directly to the next level, the unconscious, the superconscious, the Self, the Muse.
As in zazen the student is seeking to sit, i.e. meditate, without thinking. To empty her mind of all ego-spawned “thought”(which is really mindless chatter) until her consciousness becomes as clear as a glass of formerly-muddy water after the silty particles have settled to the bottom.
This is exactly what the artist does when she sets her brush to the canvas.
It’s what the musician does when he places his fingers on the keys.
The artist and the writer enter the Void with nothing and come back with something.
78. THE VOID
How does a writer write a scene, or a choreographer design a dance sequence?
They start with nothing. An intention only.
They reach into the void and they pull out a sentence, a first step.
They go back in, like James Spader reaching through the liquid-metallic membrane in the movie Stargate. They pull their arm back out with the next sentence or the next dance move.
Now they have momentum. A tiny bit anyway. They feel a glimmer of courage.
They reach through the membrane again, this time up to the elbow.
Next: the shoulder.
They step all the way through.
Their hearts are hammering.
It’s terrifying releasing one’s hold on the known.
79. THE OTHER SIDE
What’s on the far side of the Stargate?
The writer and the dancer and the filmmaker ourselves.
Our selves wait there, breathless, trembling, pulling on the ego-writer and ego-dancer and ego-filmmaker with all their strength.
“Come through! Hold out your hand! Here, take this!”
80. MY OWN EXPERIENCE
From the moment of turning pro (my “dishwashing moment” in New York City), it took me nearly twenty years of full-time trying before I could write in my own voice.
I was close in those two decades.
I had moments.
But I could never really do it.
I tried everything to break through. I tried trying super-hard. I tried giving up. I employed psychology. I used reverse psychology. I was like Nuke LaLoosh wearing women’s undergarments beneath my Durham Bulls uniform.
Anything to make myself STOP THINKING.
I watched thousands of movies, read hundreds of books. I literally copied pages from writers I loved, trying to find a voice, any voice.
Was there an Aha moment?
Yes, and it came in the way I least expected.
81. WRITING IN CHARACTER AS SOMEONE ELSE
I was fifty-one when I started writing The Legend of Bagger Vance. The narrator of the book was a physician in his mid-seventies. I realized right away that this character, whose voice I was going to write in, was smarter than I was.
How could I speak as him?
How could I know what he knows?
It seemed functionally impossible.
I stuck my hand through the stargate and it worked.
I found my voice by writing in somebody else’s.
I was absolutely amazed when it happened, and when it continued to happen, day after writing day.
In my second book I wrote as another character, completely different from the first.
In my third, I wrote in the voices of three characters, each one different from the others and from all others that had come before.
It worked seamlessly and effortlessly.
All at once, I could do it.
82. THE AMAZON MIND
In Last of the Amazons, I tried to imagine on the page the ancient race of female warriors.
Here’s a description of the Amazon mode of thinking, offered by one of the characters in the book, a young Athenian who has traveled to the Amazon homeland near the Black Sea and lived for a time among this legendary all-female culture.
The Amazons have no word for “I.” The notion of the autonomous individual has no place in their conception of the universe. Their thinking, if one could call it that, is entirely instinctual and collective. They think like a herd of horses or a flock of swallows, which seem to apprehend and respond with one mind, acting intuitively and instantaneously in the moment.
When an Amazon speaks, she will pause frequently, often for long moments. She is seeking the right word. But she does not consciously search for this, as you or I might, rummaging within the catalog of our mind. Rather she is waiting, as a hunter might at the burrow of her quarry, until the correct word arises of itself as from some primal spring of consciousness. The process, it seems, is more akin to dreaming than to waking awareness.
To our Greek eyes, this habit of pausing and waiting makes the speaker appear dull-witted, even dense, and many among our compatriots have lost patience in the event or, concluding that these horsewomen of the plains are a race of savages, have given up entirely on attempting to communicate with them.
To the Amazons, of course, it is we Hellenes who are the witless ones, whose “civilized” consciousness has lost access to the well of wisdom and sense upon which the plainswoman readily draws, and who as a result are cut off from the immediate apprehension of the moment, immured within our own narrow, fearful, greedy, self-infatuated minds.
The Amazon mind as imagined in this passage is not far off from the artist’s mind when she is at work.