Sunday, December 11, 2011

Creating in Narrow Windows of Time

One of my favorite undergraduate English professors always claimed that politics had no place in great art.  She often went further and said that if a writer is political, the writer cannot create great art.  In many ways, she made us wrestle with the question which haunted the 19th and 20th century:  how engaged can/should artists be with the world?

Two authors with birthdays today have been seen as important precisely because their art or their lives forced their readers to think about the role of government in the world.  It's the birthday of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet writer who paid quite a price for his art.  I've always thought that writers like him played a role in bringing about the end of the U.S.S.R. by showing what life was truly like inside that regime.

Yet his life shows us the price that artists might pay when they engage with governments in this way.  We know that Solzhenitsyn was forced into exile, and in some ways, he's one of the lucky ones amongst Soviet artists.  He could have been killed.  As it was, he was sent to a labor camps.  He was allowed to leave; many weren't.  His cancer was treated; many prisoners were not so lucky.

In an interesting parallel, Grace Paley was also born today.  In her life, we also see a cautionary tale about the price that artists might pay for their creative works.  While she wasn't sent to prison or exile, her extensive involvement in political work meant that she wouldn't have the same kind of creative output as other writers.  I've always admired her fierce work in the field of disarmament, peace, and women's liberation.

Many of us these days may wish that political work was the force that kept us away from our writing --but for many of us, it's the actual work that we must do for pay.  We may think longingly of what we'd create if only we didn't have to work for a living.

In an essay in The Washington Post, Abraham Verghese talks about the challenge that many of us face as we try to balance our creative work, our work for pay, and our family lives.  He sacrifices sleep:  "What remains, then, is the time that belongs to sleep. And it is most often from that cache that I must steal. It’s not a happy or ideal arrangement; I have as much need for sleep as the next person. I wake up wanting more sleep, and even on days when I plan to catch up on my deficit and go to sleep early, a novel or something else keeps me reading past the 15 minutes I allow myself."

Along the way he has this interesting nugget about modern parenting:  "The current obsession for parents to be everything to their children, from purveyor of Mozart in utero to muse, coach, camp counselor and chauffeur to as many enriching activities as one can afford ultimately produces parents who accomplish too little at work. I wonder if it produces children who are more accomplished than the parents who had none of these things. (There, I said it. Someone must.)."

He contrasts this modern method to the one employed by his mother, and the advantage to a more left-alone approach to parenting.

And for those of us who only have a very tiny window of time, Dave Bonta offers encouragement in this post that describes the benefits of writing in brief increments.  He says, "I find that just a few minutes of mindful awareness can yield creative dividends for hours. In fact, I often purposely refrain from trying to write a small stone for a couple hours after I come in from the porch, giving my observations time to age. A mere grain can germinate and take root — or irritate, like a grain of sand in an oyster."  The post is full of rich nuggets like this one.

So, here we are, two weeks away from Christmas, the time of the year when most of us find our schedules increasingly busy and perhaps more frantic.  Now is a good time to remember how much we can accomplish creatively, even if we only have a smidge of time each day.


Sandy Longhorn said...

This is so interesting b/c my favorite undergrad English profs were hellbent on showing how nearly every piece of literature is political or can be read that way. So much to think about.

Hannah Stephenson said...

The idea of slow germination seems helpful and important today.

I read this article on the art of listening this morning---it seems related to this discussion (maybe from the opposite end--exploring our Western impatience with gaining knowledge and sharing stories):