“If you want to work on your art,” Anton Chekov wrote, “work on your life.”
When he began writing, Chekov wrote low-brow comical sketches without much success. It wasn’t until he wrote the autobiographical story “Steppe,” which is a journey through Ukraine in the eyes of a child, that he found an audience and began to truly develop his craft. His stories and plays became known for their author’s attention to detail and minutiae of daily life (people’s mannerisms, the way they interacted without even speaking a word, and their social and private manners). As he said of his writing, he “submerged life in the text.”
As I thought of his statement, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life,” I began to turn the words around, looking at them from all angles and asking my own questions of what makes an artist, a creative life and what is required of both?
Do we view our lives as creative acts? That our very living is connected to our creating?
How might our days be shaped differently, almost like a potter with clay, if we approached them in terms of creation?
Do we allow ourselves the space to be still, silent and do nothing? To allow our minds those moments of rest so that reflection will come and allows our spirits to sift through the silt of each moment to find that light in the darkness. It is to stop and reflect on the journey one takes in life and the significant events and the places that form oneself. To pay attention to one’s own narrative and the arc of one’s days.
Lewis Hyde writes in his book Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, “We are each born into a situation—a particular body (its race, sex, health…), a set of ancestors, a community, a nation—and born into the stories told of each of these.” We are not only our own stories but also a collection of the stories of our ancestors and families and neighbors and communities. As James Joyce once said, “I am a part of all that I have met.”
How many great authors can you read and hear the voice of their ancestors, the place where they lived and the social and political climate around them? Certainly one gets the red-dirt, post-Civil War South of William Faulkner in the language he uses to create his characters and their stories. How different his portraits are compared to the South of Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers or Walker Percy. And can one not walk through Dublin without thinking of James Joyce?
Art is the translating of the daily life into something more transcendent such as James Joyce did in Ulysses or Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf wrote in her journals, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, quality of his mind, is written large in his works.” She struggled to take what was there before her, some experience, and how she sought to translate that reality with her pen and write it down. Joyce expressed that he wrote to discover the “mode of life or of art.” Like Chekov, he understood that to create great, meaningful art, he must first live a life that offers up such depth. As he wrote, “The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring?”
A deep life does not necessarily mean that one has to live an adventurous life like Ernest Hemingway. Some of the most powerful art comes from those who are rooted to one spot, such as Emily Dickinson or Eudora Welty. It is not about wandering and discovering the outer world as much as it is plumbing the depths of ones inner one. To see in the minutiae and the mundane, the tender beauty of all experience. Such artists take what so many overlook and force us to stop and pay attention to what we have forgotten to see. The make the common uncommon.
Ordinariness is the stuff of magic in the hands of writers like Anton Chekov, Eudora Welty or Alice Munro. Their stories so often mirror the casual movement of reality. As observers of the worlds they are living in, each one is able to translate the commonness into something that is profound and more meaningful, in a way, enormously more alive than the reality they are describing.
When asked how she created such convincing characters, Alice Munro answered,”I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth — what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc. And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”
To create art, the artist must balance the real world with their creative one. In her memoir Just Kids, Patti Smith writes, “The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.” It’s what developmental psychologist Erik Erikson describes as the “fullest” life: a balance of the three realms of work, love and play. This is not always an easy thing to do because time is precious. Singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant once said in an interview about the struggle of balancing her creative life with her role as mother, “”During the day, when I’m doing laundry or making dinner, I’m not humming melodies or writing down lines. I have to sit and focus on the process, but finding the time to do so is so difficult. I blew so much time before I became a mother. I could have written novels, with all the time I used to have. Now time is the most precious thing in my life.”
Someone who echoes Merchant’s sentiments is another singer/songwriter Regina Spektor, who told an interviewer for Harpers Bazaar, “I felt personally that I was more creative, I was able to do more work than I had before, and I was able to really use my time more. If I had 30 minutes that I was sleep-deprived and covered in baby puke, I could go write a song. Whereas before, I could have wasted three days in a row, just thrown it away, now I could never do that. Now I have this little being to be there for and to play with and so I have to work hard and organize myself so that I’m present and not a slacker.” Yet Spektor says that becoming a mother gave her a greater realization of herself in relationship to her parents, her ancestors, and her heritage; thereby creating a richer source of creativity for her more mature songs after her last album, Remember Us To Life.
All of these artists sought or continue to seek to do what Konstantin Stanislavksi once described, “Every person who is really an artist desires to create inside of himself another, deeper, more interesting life than the one that actually surrounds him.” But to do that, they must first have that other life to translate and transform into art. Through experience, memory, and the daily routines of what is required, they find the conditions for creativity whereby they concentrate on what makes a life, both the conflicts and tensions, that are born of every day relationships and of self, and they transcribe their own worlds into reflections of our own that remind us we are not alone. Artists make us understand that all of life is creation, all is the stardust of stories and songs.