December 2, 2019

Block Diary Confabulation

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[This text was originally published in Sarah Pierce's catalogue No Title.]



For the past few years I have had the worst writers block in my life. With this text, like everything else I have recently been invited to write, I find myself wondering if I should push through and force myself to write something, or if instead I should write to Sarah and say I’m sorry, I tried, but I just can’t, nothing will come out, and then hope against hope that I’m allowed to graciously pull out of the project. The fact that I have now already gotten this far makes me feel, for now at least, that I’ve chosen to push through.

Along with the block comes an enormous and ongoing rush of anxiety. The anxiety has many shades and aspects, but mainly it wonders: will the rest of my writing life be like this? Will I never be able to write easily and with great natural pleasure again? Has something been permanently lost or is this just a temporary phase? I think of this anxiety as a subset of a larger anxiety about getting old.

Leonard Cohen died last week. I live in Montreal where Leonard Cohen is so much part of how the cultural city thinks itself. I don’t really want to write about Cohen but he died last week and he’s in the air, and as I consider getting older I remember this morning, fresh out of the shower, examining my hair in the mirror and noticing how much more grey there was since the last time I could remember examining my hair. Instantly the opening lines of that song are happening: "my friends are gone / and my hair is grey / and I ache in the places that I used to play." And then the next line: "and I’m still crazy for love / but I’m not coming on." My friends aren’t gone. In fact, most often I announce that I don’t have any friends (while at the same time telling myself that I really have to stop saying that.) And I’m not still crazy for love, in fact most often I say I’ve never been in love and I don’t exactly know what people are talking about when they say that love is so important. But my hair is getting grey and more and more my writing life feels like a struggle to the death with some sort of neurotic block.

I believe that artists should do less, should make less. So in one sense the block falls very much in line with my more general beliefs. I no longer watch films, but when I was younger cinema was important to me. Back then I also thought that artists should do less. I was struck by how Leonard Cohen made eight albums during the same time period that Bob Dylan made nineteen, and believed that Cohen’s albums were each considerably stronger and more consistent because of this fact. I noticed that Andrei Tarkovsky made only seven films and attributed the remarkable consistency of his work to his relatively limited oeuvre. And then, years later, I read Tarkovsky’s diary Time within Time and was startled to learn that there were dozens of other projects he had begun to develop, that he absolutely desired to make, but for mostly bureaucratic reasons could not get made. The small number of films he made was not because of any great artistic purity, discipline or quality control on his part but simply because of worldly obstacles that prevented him from producing more. And this made me question my theory that artists should make less, made me realize that so many artists I admire had this enormous creative energy, an energy that just wants to keep producing and producing, and it was often only extremely frustrating obstacles that created an artificial degree of quality control. That an obstacle might force an artist to decide which of their many ideas, which of their many potential projects, are actually the most important to them, which ones they abandon and which they push through. My current creative life is certainly not without obstacles, but it occurs to me that, along with the grey hair, there are also now somewhat fewer worldly obstacles blocking my practice than there were in the past. And to compensate I need to become my own worldly obstacle, which may or may not have something to do with the aforementioned block.

I feel completely stupid when I write or say this, but my greatest fear about getting older is that my work will start to suck. This fear has something to do with gradually losing my faculties, losing sharpness, but also, simply put, with becoming old-fashioned, outmoded, out of date. It makes me question the ways in which my conceptions of art are in confluence with our advertising-driven, youth obsessed culture. I now know how problematic it is, but I can never seem to completely divest myself of the idea of the radical or modernist break, that the most striking art breaks into us in the form of a paradigm shift. But new ideas are most often variations on old ideas, often stolen from other places or other cultures, most often falsely pretending that there was nothing there before. And yet a more circular idea of art and life, while now striking me as more honest and true, is also tainted, for me at least, by stogy, conservative ideas of respecting and preserving traditions. What traditions to keep and what traditions must be burned to the ground?

As was frequently noted, the week L. Cohen died was the same week Donald Trump became president. I want to write something like: it seems that American imperialism is entering into some sort of strange fascist senility. But I’m afraid to make light of the situation in any way, thinking of just how many people will be harmed and killed in the years to come. We are living in dark times and I’m sitting here worrying that as I get older my work will begin to suck; perhaps a metaphor for the artist in relation to the world at large. It is because our lives are relatively short, and we often find it so difficult, on a day to day basis, to see beyond them, that as a culture we are not able to more fully reckon with the world we are handing over to future generations. Does the world get older as well?

I have now written enough that my claims of writer’s block seem somewhat unconvincing and yet I know, or at least feel, that this text is only a small oasis in the desert. I strike out blindly at larger-than-life questions as a cover for the fact that I have so little relation or connection to the small daily struggles of actual life. When I got the invitation to write in parallel or in connection to the theme of dementia my first thought was that I should write about my grandmother. I clearly remember her saying to my mother, quite near the end: "I feel so crazy. Why do I feel so crazy?" My grandmother suffered from manic depression her entire life, frequently underwent electroshock, and I felt very little connection to her as a child. To this day my mother strongly believes that my melancholy outlook on life is the hereditary remnants of my grandmother’s manic depression, which may or may not be true, I honestly have no idea. For the most part my depression doesn’t interfere with my ability to work or to be an artist, which I suppose is why I tell myself that it’s all right. But then I look around, I look at the world, and it seems that nothing is all right, and I wonder how much of this observation comes from my melancholy perceptions and how much comes from the actual world. And what kind of art to make in such a situation.

I’ve never thought of my writing as stream of consciousness, but it is often a kind of structured (or unstructured) improvisation. I’m continuously trying to surprise myself, to walk the line between control and out of control, but in real life, even with much drugs or alcohol, I am so rarely out of control. I don’t know what it is holding me together but it’s definitely something. And yet that something constantly feels on the precipice of slipping away.

An artist should do less, should make less, in order to have more time for experiences that connect him or her to the world. Art should be a reflection of living, not an activity which prevents it. In this respect I have always done it wrong. Quotes I noted down when I was young:

Friedrich Nietzsche: "Witness: I do not live, I write."

Thomas Mann: "I tell you I am sick to death of depicting humanity without having any part or lot in it."

The older I get the more clearly I see the error of my ways. Two more quotes that strangely influenced my formation:

Henry Miller: "Celebrity is merely a different form of loneliness."

Pier Paolo Pasolini: "Success is the other face of persecution."

I look at these quotes and can see the path I long ago set myself upon and that I’ve now lived. But I also don’t want to be melodramatic. I usually try to avoid writing that seems like little more than a plea for therapy, but somehow the theme has unlocked it in me. Getting older is a form of looking back. (And I know that I’m actually not that old. But it’s starting.) Writing and thinking are so close to one another, so close together. Writing is also a form of memory. Someday people will forget that Cohen died the same week Trump was elected, but then perhaps someone will read this text, or some other recently written thing, and the facts will be revived. Whether or not, at that point, they will seem in any way significant is another question altogether.



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