Today I'm flying low and I'm− Mary Oliver
not saying a word.
I'm letting all of the voodoos of ambition
When I told my husband about the title for this blog post, he made the obvious joke. Yep. Getting my ego out of my art also means getting it out of my a**. Because nobody wants to read work by someone with their head totally up themselves, do they?
I’ve found, over the fifteen-plus years of being a published writer, that I suffer intensely every time if I let my ego get in the way. Even if I give it permission to stick its tiny little toe out. It always trips me up. In fact, the only way for me to write at all is to let go of any expectations entirely. Otherwise, the disapproval of others, the hot shame of not being enough, the squirmy feeling of not making the grade – or of being simply ignored by the critics, pundits and gatekeepers, is enough to make me want to give up.
My journey as a writer has been a mishmash of success and disappointment: big grants, small grants, awards, publications, residencies overseas. And low sales, failed projects, novels that were stillborn. Enough positive reinforcement to keep going, to keep chipping away at a vocation that never offers enough financial security, or encouragement or short-term gratification to finally say, ‘I’ve arrived.’ Moments, months, years, when I’ve thought of giving up and going back to teaching or opening another café bookshop. Anything to feel normal again. But I keep coming back – and it’s the transcendent feeling of no-self I’m always chasing.
Many ‘how-to’ manuals advise fledgling writers to clearly define their audience and genre, and to write within those parameters. I find that doing the exact opposite usually helps me. I may be planning to write Young Adult Fiction dystopian sci-fi or a blog post or an obituary, but it’s only when I forget about this wanting and obsessive planning that the writing has an empty enough vessel to pour into.
And with that letting-go of labels, constraints and calculations comes the untrammelled joy of co-creating with something bigger than my small self, and the humility that provides the necessary spaciousness around this free ride. It’s like swimming in the ocean: only when you surrender to its power, flow with it, be one with it, let it fill up your eyes and hands and the pores of your skin, can you truly own the experience. When there’s no demarcation between the ocean, or the writing process, or the paint, or the dance, and you – then you can make something out of nothing, the way the sea has been making those intricate jewelled patterns in the sand for millennia.
Forty thousand years ago, during Paleolothic times, or even in early Mesopotamia, I’m not convinced there would have been much ego attached to the making of art. You blew red clay between splayed fingers from your mouth onto the cave wall, or spent all day painting frescoes in the temple of Marduk, with the aid of some helpful deities from other worlds. The gods spoke through you, as expressed in the words of the Persian mystic Hafiz: ‘I am a hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.’ The spirits guided your heart and your hand. You took no credit for your work, and were just as delighted and in awe of it as the people around you. And if you made a mistake, you didn’t flagellate yourself over it. Everyone could be and was an artist, from the potter to the stonemason to the carver of spears. Even today, I meet hairdressers, teachers, cleaners, gardeners and plumbers who make art from every living moment of their daily work.
When we look at the cave-paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira we feel that there’s more than human handiwork involved. Here we meet the shaman as artist, fully surrendered to spirit. These matriarchal and mystical cultures saw no break between human and nature, the world of form and the world of dissolution. Even the digging-sticks, baskets and ornaments, traded amber beads or whittled ivory or teeth, were in themselves works of art. And the ephemeral arts flourished too – songs and oral histories, ecstatic dances and drumming – here to be enjoyed for a brief time, then vanishing.
This tells me not to take myself too seriously as a writer. To experiment, compose, throw it away, start again, scribble, play. When I get my ego out of my art I can experience the freedom of non-attachment to outcome. What a sigh – no, a yell! – of relief. When I approach the empty page as if I’ve never done this before, I can access the simple vastness of not-knowing. And not caring too much about it, either.
At my best, I do feel this way. I’ll look back at certain passages of my novels after publication and ask myself: ‘Did I write that?’ Other times, I can groan and say: ‘That needed another edit!’ Either way it’s fine, but only within that generous space of openness I can choose to cultivate. When I’m in the ‘flow’ (which doesn’t happen often), I sometimes feel as if I’m channeling the words on the page, taking dictation. Other times, it’s like I’m breaking apart rocks with my bare hands, blindfolded. Most days, it’s just work, like any other kind. I’m a bricklayer, building word upon word, cementing it with kindness for myself.
If I can keep my ego out of my art, I can learn to accept all parts of this process, and even make a conscious choice to be grateful. A fellow writer friend and I used to joke that we were more accustomed to non-attachment than a Tibetan Lama. And seriously, this is true. The amount of rejections, silences, setbacks and frustrations a writer has to endure on a weekly basis guarantees that you either give up – or drop the resistance. One day, you just stop taking everything so personally.
And that is when you can truly take your head out of your art.