by Joseph Sherman
A Cultural Life
Republished from February 2003
In 2001, an accomplished and disciplined writer I know said to me, “Writing is what I do.” Hungry to write, he does. Constantly. Years before, another writer of fiction, then lean as well as hungry (who went on to claim rich book prizes and see his novels into films), bellowed, over a 12-pack up along the Miramichi, that any writer who took a day job and didn't devote himself to his craft 100% could never be a “real writer.” Cadet academic that I was, I felt wounded by his remark. I had no dream of becoming a full-time writer, but I chose to think myself a pro.
I accept now that the upstart was essentially correct, certainly where fiction and poetry are concerned; and that the senior fellow’s modus operandi is the model for a serious writer. (The younger guy had a wife who willingly toiled so that he might be free to novelize, but that’s another topic.) The best artists in any discipline are those who think as artists, unencumbered, as much as is possible, by the mundane. A working academic is almost free enough, but some would say there’s the danger of, well…of being an academic.
To this I add my conviction that a determined artist must be brutally honest with himself, and needs to talk to himself—for real. Otherwise, he is never as ‘clean’ as he needs to be to create, invent, animate. An artist may stretch the truth with others, and should, but must follow a diet of veracity in his own life.
The making of genuine art requires genuine commitment, if not total sacrifice. I don’t think that artists should suffer. That’s hooey, the hinge to a deleterious stereotype. I’ve never been creatively productive when distressed or grieving. Uncertainty, tension, the unknown…fine. But real suffering…no, it does nothing for my elusive Muse or her train.
I knew a fine poet who one day announced that she was abandoning her craft for a specialized professional life. She felt she couldn’t handle both. I was appalled. Two books published and much promise. A few years later, when her marriage ended, her new skills were a lifesaver. Perhaps she’s had no regrets about the poetry.
The late Henk Ykelenstam (to use an actual name), when he decided to become a full-time painter on PEI, abandoned his established career as a concert flutist and even sold his instrument, never to play again. I couldn’t comprehend that, either, though he was at least trading one discipline for another. Some artists agonize when they eyeball the steps to the pantheon. It can be a relief to fall back on that day job. A painter friend has spoken to me of A-lists and B-lists and how painful it is to know, if you think such thoughts, that you’ll never achieve a celestial ranking.
I used to say that I valued and respected the teaching profession too much to settle for being less than fully committed. I feel the same way about creativity, even if my own pace is erratic. But becoming a celebrated artist may as well be a lottery win. Talent, opportunity and luck are like a juggler’s clubs in flight, sometimes disappearing into low cloud. I know wonderful artists who have yet to be recognized as they deserve, and others who have been luckier than they deserve. It’s like life writ large. Justice isn’t waiting around the corner with a fast horse.
If you care enough, you do your best rigorously and constantly, pray that your best is superlative, and hope that there’ll be an appreciative audience to sustain you, and a monogrammed pin on the map.