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"Until he outran running itself and the sure life of the spirit, moving and not moving, carried on, yes, carried on into the glow that smiles upon birth and death alike. That smiles upon the entire stir-fry of existence." 

Philz Blog

Time, Creativity and Grief

July 13, 2015

When my youngest son was in elementary school, we had some rousing conversations walking the dog after dinner. Many of those talks featured mind-boggling exchanges on the strange world of quantum physics and most ended with him calmly explaining to me that time does not exist. Something about the nature of those encounters convinced me that he was probably right.

And yet, for writers and artists, time feels all too real. Whether it is the press of deadlines, the long gaps separating bursts of inspiration or the impossible challenges of fitting in time for creative work, time seems to hang heavy over our heads. In fact, it seems as though this invisible, perhaps non-existent force we call time is an ever present obstruction to what we want to do.

I work with lots of artists, I’m happy to say, and I work with many people who don’t call themselves artists but want to do something creative in their lives. Most of these people complain in one way or another that they don’t have enough time. Almost to a person they believe that if they had more time they could accomplish what they desire. For many, that time never comes.

I was in that camp for a long time and spent many frustrating moments planning, fantasizing and despairing that I did not have time to write. This was especially true when I gave up making poems in hopes of writing a novel. With a full time psychotherapy practice, a dog to walk, a family, including two teenagers, and being convinced that I needed huge blocks of time to have any hope of composing my book, I felt sure I would never get to chapter one.

When I read that my favorite author, Toni Morrison, wrote her first novel at night after a hard day’s work and raising three children by herself, I felt silly and began to reconsider my assumptions. And then my wife challenged me to jump in and use whatever bits of time I had. This usually amounted to 15-20 minute blocks, 30 when I was lucky. One hour on a rare day. But the strangest thing happened: taking advantage of those gaps in time, the sentences turned to pages and began accumulating like overnight snowfall.

Six months later my first book, all 93,000 words, was ready for the editor and my notions of a writer’s needs were shattered. It is now clear to me that the worst thing for me is to have too much time to write. A sure recipe for overthinking the project and daydreaming. I love the sense of urgency that develops and the yearning to write that cooks while waiting for the opportunity to dive in. I love the tension that builds in the connection to an unfolding work and the creative spark that arrives in the form of unbidden memos from the unconscious. Seize the day my friends. Seize the moment.

In so many ways my young philosopher scientist was right: time does not exist. At least not in the static way it is conventionally thought of. Our relationship to the moment involves a paradox: time is fleeting, always slipping through our fingertips, and we have more time than we know what to do with. Standing in the midst of this paradox we just might find that time is on our side, not our adversary.

Most of us hang our heads in shame when we contemplate the time we have wasted in recent years. I used to be a pro at this. Not that there is anything terribly wrong with wasting time. Dunbar, in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 became an overnight hero for nothing more than his ingenious ways of creating boredom, thus slowing down, and in a sense, defeating time. Wasting time is sometimes something more. It is often a period of incubation which allows the unconscious to turn over material and make compost out of ordinary experience. But more often than not the wasting of time is avoidance and resistance stemming from fear.

The mention of time, mortality and waste reminds us that in all life, including creative work, we live in relation to grief. Joyous as life and creativity may be, it is grief that often speaks loudest. Some who yearn to write may never pick up a pencil because of the shadow of sadness that accompanies any work of art, knowing it will never reach to the height of our longing. The hunger for an ideal expression of our inspiration will always be left wanting.

As artists, we encounter the truth of grief every time we sit down at the writing desk, or approach an empty canvas. Encounters with disappointment, rejections, the limits of our skill, the difficulties getting our work out, the anxieties that flood us when we do get our work out, the financial woes, all of these common challenges, and a host of others, confront artists at every turn. Though to work in the creative realm is a great privilege, there is no escaping the reality that all too often the artist’s way is really hard.

Look at the photos of great artists and writers; most look very sad. Why? It may be because they suffer the wounds noted in the previous paragraph. It may be they are acutely sensitive to the suffering and injustices of the world. But could it also be their faces are etched in sorrow because they live on this perilous, wonderful border between the immanent world of time and space and the timeless eternal world of creative vitality? Perhaps contact with that expansive and fertile field touches us so deeply that the separation from that which enlivens, but can never be had, is deeply painful.

The artist is visited time and time again with the pain of Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up the hill in an endless cycle of triumph and defeat. The writer comes back to revision after revision. Mary Oliver rewrites her poems 50 to 60 times. My friend Shannon paints over her paintings too many times to count until something says yes. The creative process is not for everyone. It demands the blood, sweat and tears of our deepest self.

For this reason, many never begin. For this reason, many quit. Not for lack of talent, but because they don’t have the stomach to stand the blows to the quest for mastery and perfection, the humbling dependency on a force greater than oneself, the countless nights alone with failure. Many more cannot bear their longing for that sublime moment when it all works and the self, time and suffering disappear into the arms of creation itself. The magic of that kiss evokes a yearning for more and the subsequent hurt when the beloved muse turns her face is at times more than can be tolerated.

Rumi said, “People can’t tell if I’m laughing or crying, I wonder myself.” Often it seems true, we are both elated and dejected, delirious and furious. Glad and sad. How to deal with time, with failure, with longing? The way is narrow. Dive in. Engage. Write two sentences a day. Write terrible poems like I did. Paint five minute paintings. Weep when you need to. As Beckett said, “Fail again, fail better.” When you waste time, waste it well! Try not to fight the ticking clock, try to love it, run with it, play: “Oh boy, ten minutes to paint!” Turn minutes into hours, or better yet, into no time, when you, the creative work and the creative force are indistinguishable, and time is a concept children find amusing.

Stay tuned for next month’s entry: Longing and Art.

Namaste,

Phil

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