September wasn’t a good month for me. A short story I thought was one of the best things I’d written failed to make the short list in a competition. My application for an arts bursary was denied (again). And my play failed to wow the readers at the theatre where I had submitted it. It felt a bit like this:
The bad news continued into October with a health crisis, the outcome of which remains uncertain.
However, the Universe can sometimes be gracious to despondent artists and she responded by sending me a letter artist Sol LeWitt sent to fellow artist Eva Hesse. It’s funny, irreverent, and full of excellent advice. Eva, a disciple of Josef Albers and a pioneer of the postminimalist art movement of the 1960s, was going through one of those dark nights of the soul. Suffering from self-doubt and a creative block, she turned to Sol for advice and support. He replied:
It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just
From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing — clean — clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder… real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful — real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever — make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you — draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to
I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work — the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell — you are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work — so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working — then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to
It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible — and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work — not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can — shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything…
Much love to you both.
You can also see the letter magnificently read by actor Benedict Cumberbatch for Letters Live here: Benedict Cumberbatch reads Sol LeWitt’s Letter to Eva Hesse
The two artists continued to support and inspire each other for the remainder of Hesse’s life. She died of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of thirty-four.
The help and support of a fellow-artist can inspire and support us when our creativity and energies are in short supply. Not that such support comes with sugar coating or easy answers.
Hemingway once wrote to F Scott Fitzgerald about a new work Scott had sent him. His letter is full of sound advice, tough love, and insight. I am particularly fond of the last paragraph.
There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn’t come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don’t need to… A long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn’t need. That’s what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That’s no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening…
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live…
Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.
Go on and write.
I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in knowing that Fitzgerald and Papa Hemingway had their own downturns. If giants such as they should suffer from doubts, then why on earth should I be exempt? And what about the demons that sat on the shoulder of Pulitzer Prize-Winner and Literary Nobel :laureate John Steinbeck? Here’s an excerpt from his diary:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
Later, he says,
This book has become a misery to me because of my inadequacy.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is self-doubt is part of what it is to be a writer. In typical human fashion, we are all too quick to forget our successes and embrace our failings.
Difficult times are part of life. As creatives, we try to endure those periods while they last, and use them to inform our work. And, as The Beatles said, I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.