The first time I read the article about Gay Talese getting
ready for his writing day, an image of John Cheever came into
my head. I remembered reading a description of him sitting in
his basement and writing in his underwear. Clothing preferences
of artists and writers is the stuff of biographers, offering
yet another layer to be interpreted. The subject this month
is about the decision to "go to work" in the first
Pablo Picasso made his decision as a child to dedicate himself
to a life of art. A prodigy with family support and the encouragement
of teachers can do that. Some of us make the commitment later
in life and for reasons wholly our own. All artmakers' stories
differ. My reason for leaving full time teaching was not to
become a writer and a visual artist. The compromises necessary
to remain where I was became intolerable, so I decided to leave,
ethics intact and small pension in hand.
By that point in my life, I already considered myself a serious
practitioner of my other vocation, writing. My criteria were
simple: I wrote regularly and got my work published. In other
words, I worked at it. I considered every effort, from writing
syllabi to writing a book to making a poem, as opportunities
to practice my craft. I took classes and attended workshops.
When I wasn't actually writing, I was thinking about writing,
making notes, reading about writing, and reading others' writing.
Every event that became meaningful in my life was illuminated
by the fact that I could write about it. I always believed that
being a writer is an earned identity, not just wishful thinking.
When I made the difficult decision to leave full time teaching,
I thought the door had opened to the writing life. I already
knew from experience that royalties would not do much to supplement
my income. I already understood what it meant "to be a
writer"*and had my outfits ready for work: sweats or shorts
and tee shirts. I owned several long, swoopy garments for when
I was invited to read. At least one person appreciated my style,
but revealed more than she meant to when she said, "Well,
at least you look like a poet."
A more challenging decision was to come a few months later.
The boat was rocking. I had not allowed myself the time to mourn
the loss of the "teacher" identity that defined me
since childhood. I needed to mourn that part of me that unpredictably
connected to students whose faces and words still visit me in
memory; the part that read students' journals and recognized
their struggles and their brilliance; the part that holds the
image of my mother clasping her hands in joy when I was accepted
into a doctoral program.
It was in the thrall of this severe emotional crisis that my
husband, John Gaumond, advised me to return to painting after
decades of not practicing it. He knew that I was obsessed by
art. Four years of studio art in high school had burned an indelible
mark in me. When it was time for college, I had heeded my mother's
advice that "art teachers are the first to be laid off,
but they'll always need classroom teachers." I have no
regrets. I loved teaching but, thankfully, art became my life's
motif even as I had chosen security over passion.
When my husband suggested that I take a class with an artist
whose work we had purchased a few years earlier, I said, "You
don't know what you are saying." I remembered the large
amounts of cash I really didn't have going for materials. I
remembered losing track of time when I painted. I remembered
the struggles and the failures, the embarrassing pieces of work
I had destroyed. The great painter/teacher Hans Hofmann said,
"You must struggle." He wasn't kidding, and I knew
After my first class, I came home with the assignment to make
a painting using a limited palette. Under the skylight in the
back hall, I laid out the tubes of acrylics on the blanket chest
and propped the canvas board on my easel. When I squeezed out
cobalt blue and titanium white and mixed them with my palette
knife, I cried.
It's nearly a decade later, and I paint and paint and paint.
Six years ago, I used my life savings to build a studio on the
back of our house. I write and write and write. I could do other
things with my life. Some of them would even generate more money
(and less rejection) than painting and writing do. That would
be nice. But not nice enough.
There is such wisdom in the following excerpt from Joan Didion's
1975 commencement address at the University of California, Riverside.
When I read it the first time, I thought, "This is why
I made the decision to do what I do."
"I'm just telling you to live in [the world]. Not just
to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through
it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture.
To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and
take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why
you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave's
a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.
Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal
bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that's what
there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it."
("Every Day Is All There Is," New York Times Book
What makes artists and writers commit to a life of art? One
answer is: We make art because we can, and we must. Artists
and writers stories are different, and we inspire each other
by recounting them. A recent PBS program about Paul Cezanne
told how disappointed his beloved father was when Paul gave
up law after years of studying in order to serve his passion
for making art. I watched it and wondered what my mother would
have said about my decision to leave teaching. Stockbroker and
Sunday painter Paul Gauguin gave up his business suits to make
art. Henri Matisse was primed (no pun intended) to take over
the family seed store after he finished his schooling. Frida
Kahlo's rigorous high school education prepared her for medical
school. One September day, as she began her senior year, she
climbed aboard a bus to go to school. The accident that followed
has become a legend in art history. And then there was the Dutch
minister's son, who became a preacher himself, but whose compassion
for poor people made him a misfit among his peers and elders.
The pressures turned him to another calling. This was Vincent
Are you committed to a life of art? What are your biggest concerns?
Talent? Money? Fame? If you have comments, questions or experiences,
contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For September, I will do some thinking on last month's promised
journal topic: themes in poetry.