Living the Word

What to make of the oft-heard dictum that writing is hard?

For one, I don’t think writers have a corner on the market. Obviously it takes skill, study, and discipline to get the words right, but this is true for any creative endeavor. Maybe we hear more about “writer’s block” than “painter’s block” because writers write about it! But, yes, writers, like all artists, need to practice, and study the masters, and spend many hours working on their craft.  As Oscar Wilde once said, “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”

But what of the times when an artist just can’t face the empty canvas?

Up until recently, I’d experienced a frustrating season of not writing as much as I wanted to. I had a lot of free-floating artistic angst; sometimes this imploded as hopelessness, other times it exploded in tiny fits of envy toward other writers who were seemingly more prolific than me.

I feel pain when I don’t write, because I’m happy when I do; nothing like the river of words cascading down the page. But often in life I leave this place of glory — sometimes aggressively marching off, other times getting distracted away. This is what is difficult — the inexorable separation from the very pursuits that make me happy. What I’m not writing, the grace I’m not feeling — this, to me, is the hard work of writing. Writing itself, then, is arduous because it is difficult to get to.

I believe there are some hidden passages back to the creative sweet spot. I taught a course recently at the local community college called “Write Where You Are.” In it we aimed to shed the delusions of the writer we should be and embrace instead the writer we already were. What we found is that we were all writing — sometimes on the back of a shopping list and sometimes in an email to a friend — but the words were there to prove it, even without the validation of a contract or a book editor’s stamp of approval. We had all become so enslaved to the story of our own underproduction that we couldn’t see our own virtuosity. A friend of mine told me her version of such artistic re-framing; she started calling her creative time “the making hour” instead of “when I’ve got to write.” Sometimes she wrote; sometimes she knitted, but the fact is she was being creative and fruitful, with much less stress.

Still, there are times (days, months) when I just don’t feel like writing.  Some may rush to tag these seemingly unproductive periods with the label of “writer’s block,” but I like to approach the impasse differently. I think most writers fret needlessly over their pencil’s silence. I once heard a radio interview with the novelist Richard Ford. After being asked what he thought about writer’s block, Ford replied, I don’t. “When I’m not writing,” he said, as best I can recall, “I’m busy living, which gives me material for writing later on.” As another story goes, in Buddha’s day monks spent most of their time wandering. It was only during the three-month rainy season that they actually came in for formal practice. And here we are freaked out because we didn’t meditate (write, paint, sculpt) during our pre-assigned slot today.

Artists, then, have a choice: to label an unproductive period as a failure, or to unwring their hands and dig them instead into the fresh dirt of the days ticking by. Because if quiet periods are labeled as dead, what material will artists draw from when inspiration somehow picks the lock on their door and grabs them by the collar again?

I say abandon the self-recrimination, and honor rather than curse the broken pen. Fill the buckets with life’s rich imperfect waters and believe the words will arrive again. Seeds find the fallow field. As Wendell Berry put it, “The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.” I sometimes wonder whether this burden, which I truly believe is self-imposed, is part of why so many incredible artists fall irretrievably to their demons.

The Bold and the Beautiful

Portrait of Alberto Morales by Anna Blackshaw

Seven years ago when Annie was pregnant with Rio, she and I spent three weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the most memorable adventures was visiting the ruins of Monte Alban, once the site of an ancient city that was a hub for the indigenous Zapotec people.

Atop the mountain we met a man named Alberto Morales who was selling handmade clay replicas of indigenous holy figures. Annie, in her indomitable style, became fast friends with this gentleman, and within minutes we had an invitation to visit him the next day in his tiny town at the foot of the mountain.

Alberto lived in Arrazola, a place well-known for its original art: small, intricately carved and painted wooden animals called alibrejes. We had seen these figures throughout Oaxaca and recognized them as well from the living rooms of people we knew back home. We took a taxi to Arrazola and exited on a dusty road at the town center with no one in sight. “Just ask people for me,” Alberto had said, and so we began walking around looking for someone to ask. We were soon approached by curious children, who beckoned us to follow them to their homes to see the art they had for sale. Once there we were greeted by their mother, who gave us a quick tour of the family’s alibreje operation: father and sons fetched wood and carved; mother and daughters painted; the young children solicited customers. Leaving that house, we were immediately approached by another team of children, and we continued our impromptu art tour until we finally met a woman who pointed us to Alberto’s adobe.

There we got a tour of the Morales’ home production line (a little bit of traditional iconography; a little bit of modern art). He then told us his version of the history of the alibrejes: for years the entire town had created handmade replicas of what the indigenous folks had used in their religious rituals back in the day. They all looked about the same (dark clay hand-pressed into figurines), and the men would hike up to Monte Alban and sell their wares to tourists. One morning a local man named Manuel Ramirez was home sick and had a dream of a different kind of art. He began creating elaborate and intricate wooden figures of the area’s animals: iguanas, armadillos, frogs, coyotes, snakes. He painted these bright, vibrant colors and hauled them up the mountain. At the top, he showed his goods to his fellow salesmen from the village and they had a good laugh over his ugly art.

Surprisingly, however, Ramirez began selling his new creations at an unprecedented pace, and before the day was half over he’d sold his backpack’s contents and was heading back down the mountain for lunch. Next day, same fortune.

Seeing the profits Ramirez was making, his neighbors asked him to teach them how to make alibrejes. He did so, encouraging each family to bring their own style and flavor to their creations. Before long, every man was hauling a pack of alibrejes up the mountain, and the town turned from backwater hamlet to a self-sustaining art village.

Flash forward three years. While I am at a final job interview in Chapel Hill, Annie, in her indomitable style, becomes fast friends with Sarah, the bartender at our hotel, and within minutes we have an invitation to visit her the next day in her tiny town on the banks of the Haw River. There we notice huge, colorful wooden animals gracing every front lawn. I think to myself, Those look like huge alibrejes. Sarah explains that the artist’s name is Clyde Jones and that he lives right there in Bynum. Would we like to meet him? We do, and Clyde explains how many years ago he was home sick when he had a vision of chain-sawing a cedar trunk into sections and creating colorful animals. Since then he has made thousands of critters and donated them to charities throughout North Carolina. Clyde says his work is all over the world, “from Russia to Zimbabwe.” People from around the globe regularly come visit Clyde’s zany art palace, and it is not unusual to see smiling child sitting atop saddled blue horses and pink giraffes in his front yard.

I like to believe I receive the messages the universe sends me, but sometimes I need to hear it twice. As I sit here these years later in our living room in Bynum, staring at Clyde’s red-reindeer critter under our oak tree, I think about the boldly colored iguana we bought in Arrazola that sits just a few rooms away on Rio’s bookshelf. Believe in the vision you have inside you, these animals seem to be saying. Bring forth your own mad art and share it as a gift to those around you. Otherwise, the world is a little less bright.