By Jack Canfora
“How hard it is to be simple!” –
Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo
I start with this quote not merely to lend my post an unearned credibility by associating it with the sentiments of a genius, but because I find it an amazingly true insight into creativity and, ugh, I’ll just get this out of the way by admitting it upfront: Life.
Last week, I posted about the necessity of being thrown out of your usual habits to grow as an artist, and for all I know, a person. I believe in that still. And yet…and yet…I come not bury that thesis, but offer some caveats, a word derived from the Latin “wimping out”.
And this is the reason I’m convinced I’m not invited to many parties. I’m always flip-flopping. Can’t seem to stick to one set of ideas. So not matter what someone says, I’m inclined to disagree. Or agree and then immediately question that agreement. That’s got to be the reason. It’s certainly not my bringing my guitar and insist we have a singalong but make clear I will NOT be taking requests. Nor can it be my reflexive habit of referring to everyone, even lifelong friends, as “Chief.” Really.
No. It’s definitely the equivocation thing. I think. Or maybe not. I don’t know.
I watched Nomadland this weekend, and thought it was magnificent and deeply moving. Art with a capital ART. But rather than enthuse about its many great qualities, I’d like to focus on some of my thoughts afterwards (and even during) that film. I loved virtually every scene in that movie, and marveled at how economically it approached the telling of its narrative. And I kept thinking, “I would love to write like that. But it’s the mirror image of how I write.”
And while last week I wrote about the necessity of setting up challenges and obstacles for yourself to whack your brain out of its well-worn grooves, I also realize there is more than one way to make art, and there is more than one kid of artist. There’s no formula. That often becomes the antithesis of Art. A fundamental problem in making “art,” as I see it, is that your strengths are often over time transposed into your great weaknesses.
Am I good at pithy dialogue? A little, I think. So great! That’s a lovely skill. But lean into that too often, and I become at risk of being merely that. It becomes a substitute fir the stuff that MATTERS. It’s all dessert.
I can only speak for myself. My strengths turn inevitably into my crutches. And in the immortal words of Chico Marx, “Thattsa no good, boss.” I try to be on guard about getting mired in technique and habit, both of which are invaluable by themselves but not the sum of good writing. This delineation is harder for me to pick our in viewing my writing than it sounds.
I always try to curtail the worst excesses of my many writerly indulgences. Like I said last week, I think it’s essential for artists to stretch themselves. And yes, all of these discussions on writing orbit none-too-subtly around the ides that these concepts apply equally to Life.
But, in the end, there’s only so much of your tendencies and style you can change until you cease to become you. Would I love to be able to write the stark, and as I understand it, at times improvised dialogue that madeNomadland so moving? I think I would, yes. But, for better or worse, that’s no the writer I seem to be. At least this far.
And while I maintain it’s important to constantly challenge yourself as a person to see if you’re approaching things critically and intellectually form a fresh perspective (hard to do), I think you can’t do that until you come to an honest understanding of who you actually are. Which, I mean, if you’ve got any life hacks into solving that, please reach out.
Hemingway famously advised to write your story, and then take all the good lines out, and then and only then do you have your story. I think this is worth bearing mind as a guard against prose that’s too purple or self-consciously clever, and especially sage advice for young writers, who likely became writers because they did love the sound of their voices (why else would you write to start with)! However, (here it comes, the reflexive doubts about rules and absolutes), would we have truly wanted Fitzgerald to take out his “good lines” in The Great Gatsby? Or Baldwin in “Sonny’s Blues,” or Morrison in, well, anything?
Faulkner wasn’t Hemingway, who wasn’t Morrison, who wasn’t Fitzgerald, who wasn’t Baldwin. And while I’m all for greedily snatching up anything I can from these geniuses, I also need to realize what my basic nature is, and honestly challenge it at times, never to go to war with it.
Take out Tom Stoppard’s good lines and you’re more likely than not left with a ten minute and equivocating essay on quantum theory and the like.
As a fellow Long Islander – one who never met a line of his he seemed to dislike (feel free to set me straight, Whitman scholars) – once wrote, “9￼Do I contradict myself? Very Well, I contradict myself.” As the Greeks, whose dramatists I turn to whenever I feel the need for raw human emotion or to reassure me my family isn’t my truly that bad, phrased it: Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
So writing, and again (Jesus, we get it, you’re drawing parallels to life at large, don’t make a meal out of it, Jack), Life, seems a constant series of internal recalibration. Anyway, that’s one of the hardest thing so for me about writing. That and titles. well, everything else. Including fonts, at times.
And so, to circle back to my perhaps misleading title (told you titles are tough for me), my cyber-comrades, yes, this is why, as the title suggests, my constant going back and forth among even deeply held theories on, well, everything, is among the reasons I’m not invited to a lot of parties. But let me be clear. My Calendar’s pretty open. Hook me up, Chief.