Saturday, October 20, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 6 - Arts Anonymous
There is a program that used to be called Arts Anonymous. That was not its full name, but it was offered under the 12-step umbrella and that was what people were calling it. In 1987 I went to one meeting of an Arts Anonymous group on St. Mark’s Place at the request of a friend of mine who wanted company.
By now there was a burgeoning number of different 12-step programs meeting in Manhattan – not just AA and Alanon and Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous but also Messy Apartments Anonymous, and Latecomers and Procrastinators Anonymous and Co-Dependents Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous (not to be confused with Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous).
This one however seemed like a parody of all the rest. The participants in Arts Anonymous introduced themselves as if they were confessing a dangerous addiction. Instead of saying "my name is Harry and I'm an alcoholic" or "My name is Harry and I’m a compulsive over-eater," in this new program the introductory line was, "My name is Harry and I'm an artist."
When I went to this meeting I did not for a moment think I had any problem with writing. It was probably the first time in my life that I did not think I had problems with writing. I had usually seen writing as hard – whether I was blocked or whether the writing was flowing. But that did not matter now, for I had in the past year quit writing. I was in art school – actually taking classes at many New York City art schools, and having the time of my life drawing and painting and working with clay. I didn't think I'd ever go back to working with words. I said as much, when it came my time to speak.
The response was kind of unpleasant. No one had a word to say about this happy development in my life, my discovery that I could draw and paint and even sculpt. I was actually having some early success, and I mentioned it. Before this I had never been a visual artist, but I was learning fast and in less than a year I had, twice in a row, had realistic paintings of women on exhibit at the Art Students League and up in the Catskills my painting of a blue tree was reproduced in the catalog of the Woodstock School of Art.
Still, the pleasure I was taking in visual arts made no impression on the Arts Anonymous people. What did seem to interest them was this awful problem they presumed I was having. No matter that I was getting great joy out of painting. They could not see why I would not be writing unless I was suffering from Writers' Block. "How sad," said an earnest girl in overhauls. "How awful for you," said a middle-aged man wearing a T-shirt with Proust's picture on it. "I'll pray for you," said another earnest girl, who then brought out a small tape recorder and played for us a song about hope sung by Pat Boone's daughter. A motherly older woman said, "We hope what goes on in these rooms will give you the courage to start writing again. Remember, 'Fear and faith cannot live in the same house.'” And another said, “This program works if you work it,” and still another, “Keep coming back."
Most of the talk that evening came from writers, none from composers, and there were only a couple of visual people, both of them joyless, both saying they needed discipline, both eager for commercial success, one as a portrait painter, the other as an illustrator, activities that clearly had little appeal to either blocked artist. They were suffering, but the writers seemed to suffer the most. The writers who said they could not write. Either that or they were writing a little bit and it was a painful ordeal and it wasn't good enough.
The most vocal was a man with long hair and wild eyes, Harry, who said he had been a rock ‘n roll journalist. Recently he had had a great break-through in his career. He had signed a contract and taken advance money for a book, his first book, which was to be a history of disco music.
The idea had come from a publisher and Harry had leapt at the offer – even though he hated all disco music. His feelings about disco were beside the point, he said, because the important thing was that until now he had never had a book published. And now he was in real trouble because the deadline was nearing and he had not written a word about disco. And that was why, he said, he had come to this place looking for help.
The reason he could not write a word, he repeated, was that he hated his subject. But he kept insisting he had to write the book. Some of the people at the meeting backed him up, saying writing was always an ordeal and all he needed was greater discipline. Others suggested he try to get the publisher to agree to another subject, which he said would be impossible, and anyway hatred of disco should not stop what he called "a real writer" from writing its history. I suggested he simply drop the project – something that everyone who writes knows is frequently done. That too, he said, was absolutely impossible. He stressed that it was not the money that kept him from giving up, it was that it was so important to have a published book.
"All my life," he said, "I've wanted to be a writer." It did not matter that the book he wanted to do had nothing to do with his own life, nothing to do with any music he cared about. He wanted to be a published writer.
It was a little like something I had encountered a few years back in Washington when working on a magazine article about the shockingly small handful of U.S. Foreign Service Officers who resigned in protest over American war criminal acts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. One of them, Tony Lake, a well-presented boyish man who put his interviewer at ease, would later become National Security Adviser but for the moment was in exile with a private museum featuring antique decorative arts. He seemed like one of those people destined to be successful at something very respectable, like becoming a controlling executive in public broadcasting, or president of a liberal arts college. Instead, he had risen to a post on the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger. He said that only after he resigned did he realize why he had stayed so long even though hating the work and hating the direction in which American foreign policy was moving – stayed on even while hundreds of thousands of civilians were being mutilated and killed in Southeast Asia because of stupid, vindictive things he and the others who ranked high in America's foreign policy system were doing.
The reason he had stayed on so long in the Foreign Service, he said, was not that he really believed there he could move policy in a decent direction. It was, rather, he said, that he liked the picture he had of himself as one day being a distinguished, retired ambassador.
It sounded to me that Tony Lake had been in the same sort of situation as that of a person who wanted not so much to write as to be A Writer.
A retired ambassador. A published writer. Not a person. Not something important unfolding. Just a title.