Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘John Updike’

“Inspiration is for amateurs…”

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the artist Chuck Close. I remembered this as I sat down to my computer, lifted my fingers over the keyboard and stared at the screen. After a bit I went over to Facebook, then scanned my RSS reader, came back to the blank screen, stood up, walked around some, looked out the window a while, sat back down and typed the Close quote.

I’m a creature of habit. I get up with the sun, drink my coffee, have breakfast, walk my dog, workout, read, have lunch, then I sit down for an afternoon of writing. I am usually at my desk by one o’clock and leave around four or five. Sometimes I get something of value, sometimes not. Regardless, I work. Mr. Close is a creative genius–and he works. I’m far from a creative genius so I must work that much the harder. After time, I’ve found, the work adds up and pays off. Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Wait for inspiration and you…wait. One hundred-fifty years before Chuck Close, Émile Zola said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

I am fascinated by lives slouching toward the creative. I want to know who did the work and how it was done. I turn to biography, autobiography and memoir when in this mood.

I’ve pulled a few books off my shelves, books that represent some of the creative lives I most admire. I thought you might enjoy some of the titles. For fun, I’ve included the first sentence to each. Here goes, in no specific order.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feyman, by James Gleick. “Nothing is certain.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. “I was born in San Francisco, California.” (Not an autobiography, nor a biography. That’s Gertrude Stein for you. Yet a wonderful look at the creative life.)

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it. (This is the definitive biography–and perhaps the best example–next to Boswell, of course–of the art of the genre.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. “The figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein exerts a very special fascination that is not wholly explained by the enormous influence he has had on the development of philosophy this century.”

A Movable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.” (A memoir by which to measure all memoir. This is my favorite Hemingway.)

Diane Arbus, by Patricia Bosworth. “As a teenager Diane Arbus used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stores above Central Park West.” (This biography depicts the most unsettling and frenetic portrait of creative genius I can recall reading.)

Off to the Side, by Jim Harrison. “Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrion in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskeon River.” (Harrison, my favorite living American writer.)

Self-Consciousness, memoirs by John Updike. “Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown up on the carrousel in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylavnia, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for pennies.” (That’s such a lovely first sentence, maybe a perfect sentence.)

Bruce Chatwin, a biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. “On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria.” (Chatwin casts a huge influence over me. I’ll write about him at a later date.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!’–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!’–to ‘the whole play and performance’.”

I’m not sure this constitutes “work” as Mr. Close meant it. But it must suffice for now.

First sentences…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Thinkers, Writers on June 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

…from a few of my favorite books:

“He awoke, opened his eyes.” The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

“Life changes fast.” The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

“They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow.” Dubin’s Lives, Bernard Malamud

“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”  Rabbit at Rest, John Updike

“The amber light came on.” Blindness, José Saramago

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Essays of E.B. White

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

“When you write, you lay out a line of words.” The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

The Americans

In Writers, Writing on February 7, 2009 at 9:06 pm
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Robert Frank’s The Americans

I am just back from the Robert Frank exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (Looking In: Robert Frank’s, The Americans)and ache to do something of consequence. Is that not the definition of inspiration? There is nothing I can say about The Americans that will be fresh and of any importance. Beside, there is nothing I want to say really. Sometimes a thing is best talked about. Sometimes not.
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John Updike died a week or so ago. I am struck by this comment from Adam Gopink in the current The New Yorker:

“Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture.”

I think about mass culture a great deal these days, in particular these days when mass culture is melting and consumerism is melting, along with confidence and arrogance and self-defining destiny. The great sucking sound foretold by Ross Perot is not the loss of jobs to overseas labor, but rather the drain-plug being pulled in the basin of American hubris. What an interesting time to be an observer. And a painful time. Everything interesting has an element of pain associated with it, it seems. If not for the participant, then for the observer.