Perhaps such a situation does not arrive in every artist's life, but I would bet that it does, in some key, major or minor, at some length, brief or protracted: that situation of wondering just what living as an artist means. For me, right now, this situation frames itself this way: after a decade of dedicated playwriting without quite reaching a (to me) satisfying zenith, why continue to do it?
In my past, when faced with this question, I always quit what I was doing to start something else, figuring that the "failure" of that particular "career" signaled taking just such an action: my unmet expectations as an indicator of the road I "should not" have taken as well as a signpost for the road I "should" take, now that I have had my vision "corrected" by reality. (Note the ironic quotation marks.)
In short, I have often been an unreliable lover to my muses.
But with writing plays and screenplays — I can't do that. I can't give up on Melpomene. She has hooked me deep -- no getting off that line. So what do I do while I wait for her to reel me back in?
I have been trying to live an artistic life rather than practice an art.
Exhibit 1: Irish step-dancing. I don't know why, but I don't argue with my solar plexus: let me watch the video of Riverdance, and I tear up at the opening number as the dancers ram the floor with their metalled shoes at the same time they float above their percussions. I think what resounds in me with the dancing, and what reveals something about the ethic that gives me spine while I walk through the world, comes from this art form's self-decision to limit the creative energy with pattern and stricture in order to free it for expression and delight. I liken it a swan gliding through the water: all s-curved neck and folded wings an image of majesty at rest while below the water line, below sight-level, the feet pump like mad. Self-governance married to wild exertion.
So I now take an Irish beginner's step-dancing class at the Irish Arts Center here in New York. First observation: an art form better suited to young ankles and Achilles tendons. Second observation: aerobic to just beyond my lungs' capacities. Third observation: delight every Monday at 7 PM. Fourteen of us bounce in jigs and reels, our upper bodies rigor'd, our legs paddle-wheeling, none of us expecting to audition for the traveling cast of Riverdance yet still there because we enjoy the challenge of making our bodies resist gravity's claw.
For me, the class drags me off my head-stage, exits me from the word-welter and shuts off the mind-chatter by making me focus on the forgotten fundaments of sucking down oxygen and wielding the thingness of my corpus through, and against, the world. In short, it refreshens me by stripping away the over-importanced tics of my oh-so-New-York-life and narrowing the moment down to one body moving in space on musical time.
Exhibit 2: Celtic harp. Well, since I go to the Center one night a week, why not make it two, and so on Wednesdays I sit with a 26-string harp between my legs and thrum out "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean," "Barbara Allen," and other folky chestnuts. Again, a straight-forwardness about the instrument and the playing of -- tuned to the untricky key of C, and two hands, nylon strings, and sounding board all held in a lover-like embrace.
Even simple scales sound the way delicious tastes.
And while I have to read notes and transfer that sight to fingers-on-strings -- the cognitive part -- the playing itself, like the step-dancing, relies on making the body memorize patterns. Hands must shape and ready themselves on the strings ahead of playing the notes they will play -- something like the swan's feet -- while the music sine-waves through the air. The hands must take the shape of memories of shapes, just as the step-dancer, rather than making steps, must body in his or her body the patterns of a reel or a light jig. The hands (and the brain cabled to them) can't think the notes into a music, just as the body can't think the steps into a dance -- the music and the movements come through memory rising like yeast and a refreshing relief from thinking.
So, the best way right now for me to get back to my writing seems a path made out of other arts that, in their ministrations, de-barnacle the brain, leaven the body, and fumigate the spirit. In essence, spring-cleaning.
Now, if I can only figure out a way to play the harp while doing the first step of the reel....