When Ellie and I are in Los Angeles, we make a point of taking a half hour in the morning to walk around the hill on which we have now lived for forty years. We walk up past the little house we rented for a couple of years, starting in 1970, when we first knew each other; and down the other side of the hill past the big old Mediterranean-style house we bought in 1972 (we discovered it on one of the daily walks we had started even then,) and where we lived until about five years ago. Having decided to downsize, we spent a good while searching out other locations in the city but ended up in the smaller house on the very same hill, where we live today.
So this morning we were taking that familiar walk with the friends who frequently accompany us, and I was talking to our friend and neighbor, the artist Nancy Turner-Smith, about the book project she is just now working to finish up. Then the conversation turned to me and what's going on in my own work, and it proved to be a good moment to get clear about the clutter I have been carrying around in my head, and my need to create some inner space in order for new things to happen.
It seems to be easier to do in Laguna Beach than in Los Angeles. In part, it's surely because the physical environment itself is quieter and more spacious; in part because there is less in the way of those "busy" mental distractions with which we are all familiar. But making that space is an art in itself, and it involves a certain discipline, a practice, a determination that can easily be undermined. It involves an understanding of how time and energies can be economized, because their possible expenditure is boundless while they themselves are not. I need to start examining how much of them is wasted, and where I can make space.
And by "wasted" I don't mean doing nothing. In fact, I'm sure that "nothing" is what I should be doing more of. The "doing nothing" is actually the space I'm talking about. At our artists' group meeting last night we watched a video interview with the wonderfully subtle abstract painter Agnes Martin, often described as a minimalist though she rejected this association who died at the age of 92 in 2004. In this interview, she spoke about her need for an "empty mind" out of which to do her work. She regarded the thinking mind as the enemy of her creative process, and worked hard to abandon it. As she described her studio work, she would make it a point to empty out the mind in order to allow space for inspiration to arrive; then, when it did, to focus the mind on where the action of the painting was wanting to take her, rather than on thinking about what needed to be done. "I have no ideas," she said and wanted none.
It's a bit different for the writer. A bit harder, I think. Because words, unlike paint or musical notes, are freighted down with meaning. It's all they seem to exist for. And it's the first thing most readers look for: what does this mean? And the writer, too, tends to get caught up in this quality that language seems inevitably to have. But, to my way of thinking (there I go again!) the writer stands to benefit as much as the artist or the musician from the empty mind. Hence my own favorite adage, oft repeated: How do I know what I think 'til I see what I say?
One of the things I'm trying to make space for, as regular readers know, is a reacquaintance with the 18th century French writer, Michel de Montaigne. And Montaigne, I believe, would find much in common with Agnes Martin. His starting point is always ignorance: what do I know? And his answer: I know nothing. His Essais are ventures into the unknown, "attempts," with words, to observe the workings of the mind from inside its own spaces. As such, the essays are poems, dances with the medium in which the medium leads and the writer follows just as I imagine Agnes Martin followed her paint.
This, for me, is the hardest part: to stop "thinking," planning, and controlling, and to allow the mind to empty out before the words come along to lead me into the unknown. This is the risk I need to take, the space I need to make, if I'm to arrive at something new.
©2011 Peter Clothier. All rights reserved.
Next: Heeding the Call
Peter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. ...