Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘memior’

“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.

The birthday gift.

In Dogs, Happiness, Life, Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on March 31, 2012 at 7:00 am

I’ve spent much of my adult life contemplating how best to live. I probably should have been a monk or a philosopher, but I have no appetite for monastic life and lack the systematic intensity of a philosopher. Anyway, today I was planning to write about dogs because I find encouraging clues to answering this question when in their company. For instance, a dog would never ask such a question–how best to live?–which in itself is a refreshing bit of wisdom. Too, they appear to live in the immediate moment; they are present, as we often wish to be present–and yet, they don’t know it. More wisdom in that. Dogs (presumably) don’t have self-awareness and consequently don’t know they’re going to someday die. Where there is no knowledge, there is no angst. Only life, bounding, run-over-that-hill, what’s-that-smell, life.

But I must start over. I now realize that my first sentence is not accurate. It is not just my adult life spent contemplating this question. I was eight years old when it first occurred to me, a sister form of this question, how best to live?. I will set aside, for now, my rumination on canines and tell you the story of my eighth birthday.

October is my birthday month, and in the mid-west, where I was raised, it is a glorious month. It is a time of crisp and especially good-smelling air. Usually there is a nice bit of sun. It was on such an afternoon, while walking to the house of my best friends, brothers Rick and Jeff, that I had my epiphany. Our backyards were catty-corner and the block had yet to be partitioned by chain-link fence. It was my eighth birthday, and I was full of my grown-up little self. Somewhere crossing those backyards a thought struck me, out of nowhere, a bolt–and this is exactly how I remember it: If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

I recognize that memory is not to be trusted and that much of the information we store in memory often lacks the accuracy of history. But the memory of our memories, to put it awkwardly, is not the stuff of history. It is, rather, the stuff of myth, an archive of stories and recollections. It’s where we go to fuel the engine of awareness. I put my epiphany in this category.

My eight-year old self, sun on my shoulders, on my birthday, standing in a nicely mowed yard, was dumbstruck by an existential question of significant magnitude. I have no idea its origin, and there is nothing in my early existence, no family troubles, sickness or death, that would account for it. No Proustian madeleine this; it simply arrived, out of the blue, as if released from an autumnal cloud.

It was a question that changed everything.

I’ve shared this story many times. It is most often received with a look that can best be interpreted as: My, what a morbid little bugger you must have been.

I wasn’t morbid, and it was not a morbid thought, nor did I grow morbid over it. It was, indeed, an affirmation–a gift, even. I have been well served by keeping the question at the ready. It is my mantra. My eight-year old self still asks, If I die tomorrow, will my life have been well spent?

How many other things can I not know?

In Memoir on March 19, 2011 at 8:18 pm

I am reading Sarah’s Braunstein’s novel, the sweet relief of missing children. It is a remarkable book, perhaps even brilliant. But that is not what I am writing about this evening. I am writing because in the novel a man pays a visit to the house in which he grew up, saw last when he was sixteen. There is a rap on the door at night and there he stands: “‘I grew up here,” he says. “‘See, I haven’t set foot inside this place since I was–‘ And here he paused, looked down at his feet. He said, ‘Sixteen.'” I read this and realize that I cannot remember the time I left my “growing up home,” cannot remember when it was I rolled down that steep driveway and sped off, not knowing it then, that I would never again cross that transom. What an odd thing, I reflect this evening, to come to realize.

I cannot recall, either, the last memory of my mother alive. I think I know, but I cannot be sure.

How many other things can I not know?

Several years ago, maybe two or three, maybe four, I took my elderly father back to Indiana to visit his brother. I spent the day–it had been maybe twenty years since I’d been in Ft. Wayne–I spent the day alone, driving around town, visiting my old haunts. My high school. Driving past Kelly’s house, my old girlfriend. The YMCA, now replaced. And so forth. And of course, the homestead on Bolton Ave. Or was/is it Drive? I went to Bolton and parked on the street and peered up at the house. It is a modest house and sits on a small hill, more like a knoll. I sat there and noticed that the bay window curtains were drawn. Then I left.

At the end of the day, I returned. One last look. And while looking, the curtain of the bay window pulled back so slightly, and someone looked back at me–me there in the street looking at the house where I had been raised, and sitting, inviting the memories to wash over me, interrupted by the woman–it was a woman, elderly–looking back at me. And I turned the ignition in the rental car and drove off.

Tonight I sit here, many years later still, and realize I cannot recall when I walked out of that house for the very last time. I wonder too, at how many things are the last, and the knowledge of that escapes me and will likely never be realized.