Morris Graves, an American painter who died last spring at the age of 90, told a close friend that of his many paintings over the years, perhaps five or six were good. "And they painted themselves," Graves said. "The rest were by Morris Graves."
This was another affirmation of the many testimonies I came across while writing "Expect a Miracle," and later in "Creating From the Spirit," about the mystery and miracle of artistic creation. Painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians throughout the ages have declared their feeling that some of their best work seemed to have "come through" them or sprung fully blown through brush, pen, or piano keys, rather than having been consciously created by their own effort.
|Painters, sculptors, writers, and musicians throughout the ages have declared their feeling that some of their best work seemed to have "come through" them.|
Just as Graves said his best works "painted themselves," the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said certain poems seemed "dictated" to him. He wrote to a friend that "in the way they arose and imposed themselves on me, the 'Sonnets to Orpheus' are perhaps the most mysterious, most enigmatic dictation I have ever endured and achieved; the whole first part was written in a single breathless obedience, between the 2nd and 5th of February 1922, without one word being in doubt or having to be changed." Acknowledging the miraculous nature of such an experience, Rilke said, "How can one help growing in reverence and endless gratitude, through such experiences."
I myself have had times when a piece of writing seemed to come "through me" rather than "from me." It was clear that it was a gift from God or Spirit or whatever concept one has for the Holy or Divine, for the creative power of the universe greater than ourselves.
Dan Wakefield can be reached at his website. His books include "How Do We Know When It's God?" and "Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Slylight Paths)."
The first time it happened, I was a self-proclaimed atheist at Columbia. After writing a story in my dorm room, I looked up to see that it was light outside. I realized that I'd written all night--more and better than I ever had--and in a kind of outpouring of a narrative I didn't know before I sat down. I felt such awe and gratitude that I got to my knees and said a prayer of thanks.
The best description I've heard of this phenomenon came from the San Francisco sculptor Ann Honig Nadel, who told me, "I think creating art is God's gift--it's not the skills. You have to work to learn the skills first, but then you come to a point where something else takes over, where something is coming out of you that's not you."
|I think creating art is God's gift. |
Ann Honig Nadel
What comes out "that's not
you" seems to me the most profound proof that there is something beyond us, some power or Spirit that acts on and through us, something beyond our five senses and our learned skills.
In "The Secular Journal of Thomas Merton," the Trappist monk and author wrote, "When William Blake told somebody his poems were dictated to him by the angels, he did not mean that all other poetry was merely written by men, and was therefore inferior to his own. On the contrary, he meant that all good poetry was dictated by the angels, and that he himself could not claim any particular praise for the poems he had written because they were not exclusively his own."
This perspective acknowledges that we may be more like transmitters than creators of art. Yet the very idea of giving credit to something beyond ourselves seems almost quaint and archaic in our present era. In today's American culture, self-promotion is a key to success; self-aggrandizement, an admired asset. Perhaps it started with Norman Mailer, who trumpeted his own approach in the very title of his early book "Advertisements for Myself." Mailer became a model for literary wannabes.
Making headlines by such "existential acts" as stabbing his wife, championing the release of a prison inmate who then committed murder, getting into fist fights, running for mayor of New York City, all enhanced Mailer's "image" as a celebrity and boosted popularity and sales of his increasingly bombastic prose.
Following that example, Hunter Thompson made his abuse of drugs and alcohol an advertisement for his work, creating a persona of debauchery that became his trademark, a popular brand that helped sell his books and enabled him to publish non-books like the one based on fragments of the novel he was never able to complete.
|The very idea of giving credit to something beyond ourselves seems almost quaint and archaic in our present era.|
Thompson also emulated Mailer by running for public office as sheriff of his community. Fortunately for the citizenry, each writer's campaign was successful only in gaining him further notoriety, rather than getting him elected--but that was the idea.
The importance of personal image and its promotion was recently displayed in the pages of The New Yorker magazine, whose summer "debut" fiction by new writers has been accompanied by full-page, full-color photos of the authors, who have all turned out so far to be either beautiful young women in glamorous clothing (one debut author, identified as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, is pictured wearing a beautiful gown while sitting on a lush oriental rug in her Manhattan apartment) or handsome young men looking firm-jawed and hip. It occurred to me that Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor were lucky they did not have to meet The New Yorker's standards of physical beauty and stylish attire to get their first stories published. If that were the case, we might never have had the chance to appreciate the beauty of their work.
To reparaphrase Wordsworth for the values of the new millennium: "Milton! Thou shouldst not
be living at this hour." Those blind eyes wouldn't look good in a full color photograph.