How to Set the Inner Artist Free

IMG_0337For the past 11 days, I’ve been in San Francisco, staying in a neighborhood that has often inspired writers:  North Beach, the epicenter of the Beat Generation. This writing expedition is funded by the McKnight Artist Fellowship I won earlier this year.

So far, I’m nearly 170 pages and nearly 35,000 words into an entirely new novel based on a glimmer of an idea that came to mind before I left. Every word I’ve written in the novel has been written in the past 11 days, in a hotel room at the Hotel Boheme. It’s the story of a missing girl and a boy named Fish who is hiding from his past. There are bits of magical realism in the story, and that’s about all I will say about the book.

Just a few days before I left, a letter arrived from the McKnight Foundation which included this quote from President John F. Kennedy:

“…if art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him…”

JFK said this in a speech just before the National Endowment for the Arts was established. While McKnight is funded by an independent philanthropic organization, so my generous patron is not subject to the political push-and-pull of  NEA funding, I wondered what it really takes to set the artist free. Don’t get me wrong — the McKnight has changed my artistic life, and I’ve been using the affirmation (?) to push myself to a new level. Still, why do I hold myself back at times?

Today I visited the de Young galleries and took in the Richard Diebenkorn retrospective of his years at Berkley. I was inspired by the following list, which was found among the papers of the painter after his death in 1993. (Spelling and capitalization are as in the original.) I thought they are exactly how I’m trying to drive myself through this period of intensive writing. There were many other things Diebenkorn had to say about his process along the lines of the list.

There are areas in the new novel I’m writing where I’m feeling uncertain. I’m so glad that the McKnight Foundation is giving me faith in myself and my process. At the de Young, I felt I was with fellow artists, all trying to, in Diebenkorn’s words, “tolerate chaos” in the artistic process. In other words, don’t worry too much about making meaning out of everything, making sense. Just practice the art. Get it out there. The rest comes later.


Notes to myself on beginning a painting

1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Dont “discover” a subject—of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

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