Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Creativity on the Edge of Despair

At times when I should be concentrating on composing (assuming I’m not distracted by other things like reality in general), I’m might be unpacking boxes of books and papers (still) or picking up a book I’d like to read. An old notebook fell open to a quote I’d written down years ago from one of May Sarton’s journals. She’s a poet and novelist who wrote numerous journals about her creative life – I’ve read all of them but her Journal of a Solitude is one of my favorite books, period, and something I highly recommend to any reader interested in how a creative mind lives and works – and so I wondered what, in particular, this excerpt might have for me, thinking of it as a kind of timely fortune cookie I’ve just opened up:

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“... [I] no longer have distant hopes, anything ahead to look forward to with a leap of the heart. What I have lost this past year is the sense of destiny, the belief that what I have to offer... is worthy. ...In naked terms, I simply feel a failure. Too old to hope that things will ever get better. I have been ‘put down’ in such brutal ways that recovery is only possible by dogged self-discipline. And it is not true recovery, it is simply not committing suicide...”
May Sarton, “Recovering,” a journal entry for January 5th, 1979
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Whoa. That hits quite uncomfortably close to home.

While I have not exactly been thrown into an emotional maelstrom after having been “terminated” at work, it’s impossible at my age and with today’s economic reality not to feel raw and vulnerable. Sarton had written this after a year in which an important relationship ended and a new novel she’d worked very hard on and felt quite hopeful about was savaged in the New York Times Book Review.

When so much of your life work has been abruptly trashed (for that is what it seems like despite the kindness of friends and fans), it is easy to feel like a failure. I’m not sure – at least at this point – that’s how I would describe my current state. It’s true, I’m not sure how things might get better, looking for a new career and not interested in pursuing one I cared little for, in the long run (the one saving grace).

It’s not likely I’m going to realize old cherished dreams – like becoming recognized as a composer – over night when I never worked at them for the past 20 years or so. But I do wonder, looking back on some of the music I’ve composed in these last few years of renewed creativity, if there’s anything there worthwhile, much less (as Sarton puts it) worthy.

I have written several pieces solely for my own gratification, simply to prove that I could do so, as if taking it any further is not really necessary. Is it good enough to be of interest to anyone else? Do I really care if it isn’t, if it at least meets the standards of my own integrity?

In the past few months, I have felt more comfortable with my own convictions, especially after hearing a couple of concerts this year of works by one of my favorite composers, Elliott Carter, who turns 100 this December. Rather than writing for the widest possible audience, he composes works that admittedly appeal to a very small percentage of that already small percentage of music lovers who like contemporary classical music, a small percentage of those who claim to love classical music (at least as one judges the buying of CDs and concert tickets) which we are constantly told is a very small percentage of those people who like any kind of music today at all. It’s not that he doesn’t care what audiences think because the whole purpose of art is to make some kind of connection with someone, but that is not what drives his (or my) need to create.

If I wanted to reach a wider, more popular audience, I would be writing a very different style of music than the kind I feel compelled to, as difficult as it is to explain that to someone else without seeming arrogant about it. It is was I write naturally, not a conscious decision to create in this style or that style – the conscious decisions come in trying to figure out how to get everything down on paper to be the best realization of those ideas that come to me. If that’s not how other people compose, it’s how I do.

And the process is susceptible to constant insecurities. It is how a bad review can send a published writer like May Sarton beyond the edge of despair, though frankly even a bad day working over a poem that is not going well could send her into a tailspin of smaller proportions.

So as I’m working on this new violin and piano piece – a chaconne (I’ll get into more detail later) – and making several trips back to the drawing board, refining the structural plans, working and re-working the individual phrases, their various components and their greater context in the stream of creativity, I was reminded of another quote, one I wanted to track down, something by Samuel Beckett, not a favorite author of mine (I read Molloy years ago and was so depressed afterward, I doubted I could endure the next two novels in the cycle, Malone Dies and The Unnamable) but one who, like Joyce, tempts me once in a while with the beauty and power of his language. This was actually something I’d read in a book about Beckett, though - ah, there it is, in the next box to be unpacked, how lucky!

It’s taken from an uncredited interview used as an epigraph to Michael Robinson’s 1969 study of Beckett, The Long Sonata of the Dead:

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B. – The only thing disturbed by the revolutionaries Matisse and Tal Coat is a certain order on the plane of the feasible.
D. – What other plane can there be for the maker?
B. – Logically, none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary roar.
D. – And preferring what?
B. – The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
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And I’ve always loved that resonant line Robinson used as a title, “The Long Sonata of the Dead.” I had thought of using it for the title of an opera, back in the late-70s, though it had no relation to Beckett’s works, not sure it even had any relevance to the three contiguous stories that were the basis of its plot. It comes from the first of those three novels I’d mentioned, Molloy:

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“All I know is what the words know, and the dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead.”
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