The purpose of art is the lifelong construction of a state of wonder.
— Glenn Gould
A book is an outgrowth of the writer’s personality. To write Moby Dick one must first live Herman Melville’s life. The thing that makes Melville Melville is the sea, and the world he bumped up against and the life he lived. If a book is made out of the character of its creator, and the character of a person is shaped by world and life that person inhabits, then the first step to writing a good book is to live well.
One school of thought is that the artist must live life like a burning tyger. In this way they will see and taste the fuel that they can turn into beautiful poetry and prose. This school of thought gives us Hemingway, Rimbaud, Christopher Marlowe, Jack London, the Beats (Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac.) These people understood that if they live a life of excitement and adventure they have plenty to write about. It is a good way to do things, and fun. The danger lies in burning too brightly and burning out.
Just as a stone can be polished to give it burnish and glow, a person’s character/soul can be made bright, bold and beautiful by polishing itself against challenges, obstacles, and deprivation. This is the path of the adventure, it is effective but risky.
The other path to consider is the way of the romantic, the poet,the dandy, the dilettante, it is the path of the aesthete. (One might say the path of the adventure is masculine, the path of the aesthete feminine.) It is wine instead of whisky. The idea is to surround oneself, at all times, with things of aesthetic beauty, with flowers and music, and starlight. One can do this by carefully making ones own surrounding beautiful, or going to beautiful places, and beautifying the world and the day. Or consider the strategy of the dandy, which is to just do this for one’s own self and thereby create a mobile bubble of good taste and beauty.
I was reminded of the aesthetic path recently while taking a brief writing retreat at the Sou’Wester in Seaview Washington.
I wrote these notes while sitting in a beautiful, tastefully decorated room, at a small table with lots of light and sweet air. A room with timeless decor and attention to detail. Flowers on the table in a cream pitcher, wood paneling from the 40’s everywhere, and actual art on the walls not reproductions. A room with a view and an oriental rug . . .
I know that some would argue this is a less effective path to inspiration than adventure. But there really is something to it. Living in surroundings with no plastic, no logos, no junk. It does something for the mind, it relaxes ones senses and sensibilities. One might argue none of this should affect the process of making art. But sitting here, even for a moment my intuition tells me otherwise. (Note, living an aesthetic life soes not mean surrounding yourself with expensive $hit, in fact vintage second-hand stuff has a much more poetic and soulful quality.)
Of course these two strategies: that of the aesthete, and that of the adventurer are not mutually incompatible. They can work in tandem. The combination is akin to zen mindfulness.
Let us be like samurai, able to wield both the warrior’s sword and the poet’s pen!