Loneliness and creativity

Published : Tuesday, January 11, 2011

“When there is no painting, you get lonely”: words that belong to an aboriginal painter from out Broken Hill way, I think. Shared with my friend Roland Hemmert, the painter; shared again with me.

I’ve been thinking about them these past weeks, healing myself, feeling close to content again, by giving myself to writing, day after day—writing, in my case, the long essay on the weather and, as is often the case with me, working up some new poems on the side. It’s hard to get such time these days. It’s especially hard for the artist with a family. I managed it over Christmas because I had a deadline and because my family understands. For ten days, I touched lightly but frequently on their daily lives, which they went about beside me. And they let me get about the words I had to write—to meet my deadline, but also to keep myself sane (beside them; not beside myself).

Making poems is lonely work. You must write them out of your deep solitude: Basho was not afraid to name it for what it feels like to me—loneliness. Singular poems and paintings have to be made by an artist standing (or sitting) in his or her deepest, freest, self. The kind of self you also bring to and find in the beloved. But in the making, I find not peace and solace, but deep belonging, quite often. Deep absorption in something larger than me, to which I must bring my truest, bravest self, though, and out of which I learn more and more about my self and the larger Self to which I belong. And as a consequence, when there’s no painting upon you, when there’s no poem insisting on itself, when the muse is laying off, there’s loneliness. And there can be loneliness, a sense this time of a kind of exile, even when one is back in the place and with the family one loves. So it is for me, anyway.

I found myself saying to Roland this week, it’s as though my art is the Beloved. And it’s no good coming to the beloved in company. As a family. That’s not going to work. Not for anyone concerned. You must come to the beloved alone.

Some of my poems, “Insolvency” in particular, and “Ecologues”, explore the exquisite beauty and difficulty, for the maker of original things, of this relationship—between the work and the world; between the poem and the family. And so, I was taken by these words of Geordie Williamson’s in a review of Gunter Grass’s new memoir, The Box, in The Australian, 8–9 January:

“If writers are gardeners of the mind, careful cultivators of a solitude from which imagined worlds grow, then what are authors with families? They face the extra challenge of preserving that sense of autonomy and mental freedom usually won through isolation, while enmeshed in the most intimate and consuming of social structures.”

Grass, of course, has been married and is the father of many children. His own book acknowledges—by letting his intimates speak often disparagingly of him and his books—that work such as writing which others may love, and which may work to the greater good, can be a mixed blessing, if not a curse, for the family of the man or woman who makes it. He acknowledges that life can be hard, even hellish, for the families of creatives. Yet also rich. “Godawful messes are part of life,” he writes. But then he would.

Neither Grass nor Williamson is making an argument against the family or marriage. Nor am I. But I find consolation, as well as challenge, I find myself recognised, in these words that speak so clearly to the workable, maddening—and for some of us necessary—incompatibility between the long-distance solitude of art, and the long-distance intimacy of the family. Society, I think, treats family sentimentally and uncritically; without asking ourselves what a family really is, how many ways of going about it there might be, too many of us presume that family comes first. Family, I would almost say, has become the idol we worship with our lips, if not always with our hearts or the rest of our body; it is the god the narrow-minded wheel out to punish non-conformists—solitaries, artists, in particular, who are unspeakably lonely when they are not by themselves with art that we all need made. Family doesn’t trump everything. We need it. I need it. But it is not more important than the work people like Roland Hemmert, and the old feller who gave him the words about loneliness and art, do.

All of us self-absorbed, autonomous, lonely, free-thinking writers (all artists) would do well to remember to thank those who love us, as often as we can, for giving us the space from them in which the art arises; for bearing what art often demands. I know I fail to acknowledge this gift often enough, or well enough, at home. (Laurie Brinklow, in a review of Fire Diary, which appears in the February 2011 issue of Famous Reporter is kind enough to note that I pay that debt artistically, at least, in that book (in the poems and in the acknowledgments).)

But I’d like to hope, too, that more people would find a way to understand that family does not trump art. Family and art have to find, sometimes, a way of living together. But let’s let the artist get on with her work, free from, loved by, beside, her family. Let’s not make her choose them over it. I have no idea how good a father and husband, for example, JS Bach was, but I know I’m glad he and his family found a way to let him get his music written; and I think we all should be glad, regardless. I’m not even sure how interested we should be in how the artist is at home—though inevitably we all are.

Let’s try to be thankful for the art that gets made; let’s remember the solitude out of which it has to come; and let’s open our hearts to the artist and their family, struggling to reconcile love and autonomy, home-making and art-making. Bound as they are to that fiery turning wheel.