Thursday, October 13, 2011


It has been a while since I posted on "Persist: The Blog." This is not because I have not, myself, been persisting. Indeed, the opposite is true. I have been working to assemble a new collection of essays, and it's now ready for publication. It will be coming out in due course with Parami Press, as did "Persist." I have just completed a rewrite of the book's preface, which I think is appropriate for these pages. It's called, like the title of the book...


Sometimes I have to get back to my yellow pad.

I do love my computer, of course. It has made my life easy in so many ways, and it has certainly opened a window to the world for me, as a writer. It has brought me a readership that I scarcely dreamed of having. It is also much more like a yellow pad than the typewriter with which I started out many years ago. That trusty old machine had the advantage of making things legible (my handwriting was not, and never has been!) But it also locked my writing in progressively from word to word, from line to line, from paragraph to paragraph. It did not accommodate change in the same way as a scratch pad. By contrast, I discovered, working on the computer I could readily wipe out a thought and substitute a new one, change a word or a phrase, go back a dozen pages once I’d found a new direction and wanted to prepare for it. It was a miracle.

Still, there are times like the moment of this writing when I need the yellow pad, times when I need the contact between pen and paper, the barely mediated flow from heart to hand, the engagement of the whole body-mind process of finding my way through the enchanting thicket of words. It has to do, as I see it, with authenticity, with absolute directness. With having no digital intermediary between the inner voice I’m listening to as I write and the one that speaks out on the page.

I was standing in a gallery the other day, gazing around at the work of Leon Kossoff, a painter now 85 years old. We share the origins of birth in Britain before World War II—though he a decade earlier than myself. I fancy that I find in his work the evidence of centuries-long traditions of British—of European—art, an historical depth that seems to echo back richly through the ages. There is something of this, some sense of same substance in his landscapes, his Gothic churches, his portraits, all of which speak to a distinctly un-American (I should perhaps say rather, these days, pre-American!) part of my heart and soul, the part that remains unalterably rooted in the English soil. Looking at Kossoff’s paintings, it’s a resonance, a recognition, a sense of common origin. There’s something in me knows whereof he speaks.

But there’s more than that. Not matter how richly textured with their impressive layers of paint, these paintings are reduced to nothing but the bare essentials. Even the palette is subdued, reductive, as though color were now dispensable. What’s left is the palpable energy, the insistently personal vision, the quiet, unmistakable mastery of the brushwork, the tactility that seems to call for the forbidden touch in order to experience it to the full, even as it tells us of the painter’s touch and speaks to us of the interface between his heart and mind, his eye, his hand, and the surface of the canvas. These manifestations of a man’s hard-earned maturity are stripped of all pretension, all desire to conform or please anyone other than their creator, all need to shine or proclaim their virtuosity. They are, in a word, authentic.

So this is what I have come to think about. The essays in this collection are, to my way of thinking, all about that stripping down and stripping away, that need to get to the core of being, in order to fulfill what it is I’m given to do with my life. For much of our early lives we are driven by the need to establish an image of who we think we are, or who we are encouraged to believe we might be in the eyes of others, or even who we think we ought to be. To this end, we work hard to assemble fabrications of the self to which we soon become attached in the sincere belief that these fabrications are indeed our selves. And there is not just one, there are many of them, intertwined, inseparable, often bringing us suffering and confusion in their conflict with each other as we act them out. We work hard at being our “selves.”

The thing is, none of them are real. Each one is provisional, a product of our imagination, our desire, our fear, our need. Each one, in what I have come to understand through the teachings of the Buddhist dharma, is its own delusion—and if I qualify that understanding, it’s because I consider myself a journeyman Buddhist, an amateur, let’s say: an escapee from the Anglican faith in which I was brought up, I do not go much for the trappings of religion, still less for the dogma that too often accompanies them. But the idea of delusions makes perfect sense to me. We live with them, for the most part, unaware of the extent to which we have become their servants. We can, however, choose to open up our eyes and recognize them and, in recognizing, free ourselves from their subtle, unsuspected tyranny. And in shedding delusions, we have the opportunity to leave behind those selves that no longer serve us and, indeed, too often stand stubbornly between us and the fulfillment of our mission on this earth. This is the path to authenticity, to the creative core.

This is what I call “mind work.” It requires nothing but the hardest things: clarity, right intention, honesty, vigilance and effort. This is what I have attempted, however inadequately, in the essays in this loosely assembled and necessarily incomplete collection. They are the result of a continuing effort to deconstruct the self—to disassemble some of its component parts and take a look at how they work, or sometimes fail to work, in the broad context of my life. I say incomplete because the task is of such a magnitude and the self such a seemingly solid entity that I do not see myself quite ever achieving the final goal: to liberate myself from the stress of holding it all together, in order to come closer to that elusive happiness of enlightened clarity and peace of mind.

The epigraph with which I introduce the collection is bound to seem quite blatantly paradoxical when all this writing is about the self. Well, my self. My selves. The words are those of my favorite Buddhist mantra: This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am… I return to them for understanding and guidance every time I find myself entrapped in the delusion of my identity or enchanted by my ego; whenever I attach to those possessions I imagine belong to me; or whenever the vicissitudes of life become so overwhelming that I slip unconsciously into knee-jerk response.

They are words of great resonance for me; their profound truth never fails to bring comfort and reassurance. I have only to take a few good breaths and repeat them quietly to myself, and I find that I can usually re-establish inner calm in the most adverse of circumstances, along with a reasonable sense of proportion. Hearing them, I see my attachment to self-image or possession in the light of a greater perspective, and manage to let go of some of the stress and suffering these delusions cause me. The more I become aware of them and the power they exercise, the more easily I am able to free myself from their grip. That freedom, in essence, is what I would want this book to be about.

My daily blog, “The Buddha Diaries,” sent out into the world from my home in California, is the source of most of these essays. It is not particularly a “Buddhist blog,” in that it does not attempt to promote or explicate the fundamentals of the religion. Rather, it’s a journal whose pages allow me to explore any aspect of my life and any event that occurs in it from the wise perspective afforded by a strictly lay person’s acquaintance with the teachings. Collectively, these teachings constitute what’s called the dharma, but since I want my essays to have broader and certainly a not-exclusively religious appeal, I’ll settle happily for “teachings.” In them I have found the wisest and most practical guide to the examined life that I seek, in my later years, to lead.

Monday, June 20, 2011


(Cross-posted from The Buddha Diaries)

I'm the "persistence" guy, right? I wrote a whole book of essays on the the subject. It's ironic, then, that I find myself in the persistent doldrums. I can hardly bring myself to write. I chastise myself for failing to find anything new or interesting to say. I wake in the morning without an idea in my head, and without the slightest motivation to write another post. The only thing I feel is an unforgiving sense of guilt for not being able to do myself what I have urged others to do: persist.

I was talking about this to my friend Brian at dinner the other evening. At least he helped me find a way to laugh about it. We concluded it was time to take the opposite approach. Write some essays titled "It's Not Worth It," or "Why Bother"? "Chuck It In" might be another good topic. Or "Time to Quit." There was an interesting op-ed piece in this morning's New York Times, "In Praise of Not Knowing." With so much information instantly available to us, we are suffering from a surfeit of knowledge. The author, Tim Kreider, concluded that "learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simply not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life--why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us--are things we're never going to know."

I like that idea, and I see it as somehow related to my problem. It's like I have reached a plateau in my writing where I know what I'm doing, I kind of understand the things I talk about, and for this reason I get bored with myself, get bored with the sound of my own voice. I wish I'd just shut up. And I do toy with the idea of shutting up. Not blogging. Not writing tedious essays. Not trying to understand or explain things, even to myself. Not endlessly stroking my own ego with the imagined importance of what I have to say. Instead, I'd like to be able to "transform mere ignorance into mystery, simply not knowing into wonder." But I'm not sure how to go about it.

At our sangha this morning, after our hour's sit, talk turned to the matter of "letting go." I have two books in progress, one of which--the one I put on the back burner in order to concentrate on the newer one--is tentatively titled "This Is Not Me." The essays in this book have all to do with my interest in letting go parts of myself that are no longer particularly useful but which I cling to simply because I have so much identity wrapped up in them. Suppose I were to let go of "the writer"? A dreadful, fearsome thought. But a challenging one. I might just launch myself into the mystery, the wonder of it all...

Thursday, June 9, 2011


There are dark days, of course. How could it be otherwise? It would be absurd—even dishonest—to pretend that it were not so. I have been watching myself these past couple of weeks, slipping down from my normally quite balanced perch on the happiness scale, until ending up this morning in something of a snit. Well, actually, more of a funk. If not quite yet the slough of despond. I woke without an idea in my head. I sat down to do a little writing anyway—the words you’re reading at this moment—and looked out the window to discover that the pump in the fish pond had ceased functioning. Just one more spoke in the wheels. That’s how it goes…

I’m thinking of the John Lennon song, “Strange days, indeed.” He was onto something a little different, of course—the whole social shift that’s taking place, and the resistance to it; but somehow my mind managed to catch on to the words and give them a spin to reflect the mood I’m in. Dark days, indeed.

The last thing I need when this mood strikes is to sink into self-pity. It’s also, unfortunately, the easiest thing. But once I start feeling sorry for myself I become the passive victim of the nasty tricks that life can play on any one of us, of which the fish pond pump is only the most recent in the series. But sliding into victimhood is not only pathetic and undignified, it simply makes things worse. If I’m willing to relinquish responsibility for my own predicament, I might as well give up.

Which is the big temptation. As of this writing, I actually feel like nothing more than chucking the whole thing in. The writing, the new book, the blogs, the social and political commitment to doing what I can to leave this world a slightly better place than when I found it. I hear myself asking, what’s the use? Why waste my time putting in all this effort when it seems that no matter what I do, the difference I can make is insignificant.

This always seems like a good time to bring in the prosecuting attorney and allow him to have at me. Let him bring on his whole list of indictments. What’s the very worst he has to say about me? It’s not a bad idea to dispense with the services of the defense attorney, which just bring it down to the level of petty argument and will always seem inadequate. Better just to cop to it: “Guilty, your honor, and… ?” (An “and” is always better than a “but,” in any circumstance) This leaves me free to go through the whole list and, hopefully, purge myself and leave it all behind.

You’re lazy. Guilty as charged, and…?

You’ll never make anything of yourself. True. And…?

Self-important. Ouch, and…?

Incompetent. You never achieve what you set out to do. Yes. I get that. And…?

You’re just not as good as all those other writers. You just sit around and envy their success. Okay, and…?

No gumption... Right. And?

What happens is that sooner or later my nemesis will start foundering about, scraping around for increasingly stupid and transparently false charges. He’ll run out of the steam that got him going in the first place, and his exhaustion in itself can seem like a gratifying victory. I will have listened to the most dreadful things he can think to say about me and still come out at the end with that “and?” that puts it all into perspective. What more can be said? It has all been brought out into the open and nothing has really touched me.

All this, by the way, can be done in a half hour’s meditation.

There’s another useful antidote to self-pity. It’s called generosity. I watched an interview last night with the architect Hugh Newell Jacobson. Not having known his work before, I was impressed by its often Quaker-like simplicity, its clean, honest lines and clear spaces, the serenity of both the private homes and the public buildings he creates. There’s a kind of generosity in this work, which reaches out and offers peaceful refuge to his fellow beings. And I was impressed by the words of advice he extended at the end of the interview: the artist, he said, should “cultivate a rich heart.”

I like that idea. The rich heart is a generous heart, an expansive one that is open to both the vicissitudes of life and the needs of fellow-travelers on life’s journey. It’s a heart that breathes in the love of life, and breathes it back out into the world. It will acknowledge the dark days and stand ready to absorb their message without attachment or self-pity.

The dark days visit us, I believe, for a reason. It’s no more helpful to fight against them than to wallow in them. They offer us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves. Pain, sadly, if heeded in the proper way, is the greatest of all teachers. Like it or not, it will come along; indeed, it is needed to contribute to the development of that rich heart. We will not get through life without it, and its measure is likely to increase as age approaches; but happily by then we will have been given many opportunities to meet it with patience and good grace.

It is my intention, then, that these particular dark days shall not pass in vain. It is not hard to find an act of generosity to perform, something of service not to myself but, in this case, to a friend. I will be leaving shortly to spend some time simply looking at the paintings in his current exhibition, so that I can talk to him about them when the time comes; and perhaps, in the coming days, post a few good words about them on my blog, in order to play my own small part in bringing them to the attention they deserve.

There. Feels better already.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


(Another chapter... Note: this includes/adapts some material that was included in a prior "Persist: The Blog" entry.)

No. I actually don’t do it for myself, and it saddens me when I hear an artist or a fellow writer offering this last-ditch defense.

Creativity is love-making, not masturbation. Okay, I’ll concede what most of us already know: masturbation is not without its solitary pleasures! But still, it’s no substitute for what really counts. Creation—whether of life or of art—is an act of pro-creation. Art-making involves (for all of us, and I include the female) penetration; followed (for all of us, and I include the male) by gestation and the sometimes agonizing process of giving birth. And the work does not stop there. It includes taking responsibility for the care and nurture of the resultant love-child.

That stretches the metaphor far enough, I think. I do understand where the “I do it for myself” defense comes from. We live in a society that produces artists of all kinds as plentifully as popsicles in our production-line schools, and turns them out into the world with a fine piece of parchment assuring them that they are now qualified to go forth and join the multitude of others struggling to survive.

But the reality these well-intentioned, well-trained people confront is far different from what they have been led to hope for, and the number who can expect to compete in the market place is relatively small. The rest must fend for themselves and find other motivations for pursuing their dreams, not to mention other than commercial outlets for their work. It’s not surprising that some resort to that last-ditch justification for what they do: “I do it for myself.”

Art, however, by its very nature, is an act of communication. I write in order to say something to another human being. That’s what words are for. I believe the same of paint, or musical notes, or movement, all of which are means to conveying something about ourselves or the world to another human being. I love the words that Dylan Thomas used as an introduction to his “Collected Poems,” way back in the 1950s. “These poems,” he wrote, “with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.” I don’t happen to believe in the God he mentions, but I do know what he means. I feel that way about my own work, and I hope that all artists feel the same about theirs.

What we do, then, requires the ear to listen and the eye to see, and these are not necessary easy to find. This, too, is work. It takes effort—the time and energy we’d much rather be expending at the computer or in the studio. But I believe this to be a part of our responsibility as creative people. Call it the spirit of generosity. It’s about caring deeply enough about what we do to feel compelled to share it. If we’re worth our salt, we make our work in passion and have a passionate need to have it speak to others.

There is reason for good cheer on this front in this day and age, in which the amazing advances in communications technology make it possible to put our work out into the world without depending on the monolithic, commercial system of galleries and publishers. Remember, not much more than twenty years ago, the days of cumbersome submission via the US Postal Service—standing in line at the Post Office to send out packages of “slides” or padded envelopes stuffed with “manuscripts”? Who could have envisioned then the marvel of the “website” where an artist can post an entire history of images for the world to see; where a writer can post poems or stories—or essays, like myself? Who would have predicted the existence of “social networks” where a few moments’ work at the keyboard can draw world-wide attention to your latest entry?

(I ran into an artist just the other day, who had the good fortune to have his new work chosen for a prominent Los Angeles exhibition space. Even so, he was worried about whether anyone would ever hear about his show—until it was reviewed at a popular arts site online—and attracted, in a single day, some 200,000 hits in 103 different countries!)

As a writer, I fell into the blogosphere a number of years ago, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, and found myself in a world of previously unimaginable possibility. I’m now the writer-publisher of three blogs, in which I manage to publish something every day of my life, attracting readers in literally every corner of the world. What more could a writer wish for? The blogosphere also offers me the opportunity to satisfy another need: the need for feedback, response, the validation of what I have to say by another human being, who has read and listened to my words—even if that person happens to disagree with me.

So there’s no excuse these days. The Internet has opened up endless possibilities for any artist willing to take advantage of them—whether to offer their work for sale or simply to broadcast their images to the world. Almost every artist I know has a website. They include not only images of their work, but also videos, resumes, statements, contact information and links to other sites. There are numerous sites where inventive, entrepreneurial spirits bundle user-friendly meeting places for artists and art buyers. And of course there are numerous online art magazines offering venues for reviews, advertisement, ongoing discussion, and the exchange of information.

I happen to believe that artists provide an act of service to their fellow humans with the work they do. Art, as I said earlier, is about communication, and yet too many of us unnecessarily choose the path of isolation. That’s where it starts, but not where it should end. The wonderful Buddhist practice of metta begins with the meditator sending wishes of goodwill and compassion in the first instance to him- or herself—and then out, in ever-widening circles, to family, friends, acquaintances, and eventually all living beings. When I find myself questioning the value of my own small contribution to the well-being of the world, I call to mind that the only thing I can really change is myself. If I want to change the world, that’s where I have to start. Art—for me, writing—is about observing, activating and realizing the change within, and putting it out into the world. It may be no more than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, but it can create that proverbial tempest on the other side of the globe.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


(The draft of a new chapter...)

Food is an indispensible, even obvious requirement for proper nurturing, yet too often we neglect to provide ourselves with the nourishment we need to foster our creativity. We isolate ourselves in our studio or at our writing desk, working away with abandon—and forgetting that input is no less important to our work than output. Indeed, our output is likely to be meager gruel indeed if we fail to substantiate it with a healthy and varied dietary plan.

In my work as an art writer and observer of the art scene, I see too many artists who cling to a single idea—no matter how good—and get stuck repeating it endlessly because they have not taken the time to open their minds to other possibilities. There are those who manage to convince themselves that they need no outside interference with their work. Some even believe that they will pollute the purity of their vision by making room for the influence of others. But it's not good enough to be willfully ignorant: the richer the base of knowledge and experience from which I operate, the more fully textured my results will be. The more I see, and hear—and touch and taste!—the more of life’s experience I bring to my work, the better chance I’ll have to reach my fellow human beings somewhere in the complex of their own experiences, and the more they will recognize themselves in the work I do. We will find common ground, a common language, common interests, common passions—the basis for some really profound communication.

Some thoughts, then, about food for thought. First, I have learned from my Buddhist practice that it is important how we eat—and again, the model serves us well. I’ll readily confess, up front, that I’m not good at observing guidelines which I know to be both wise and practically useful, but I believe I’d be much healthier if I did. We’re talking, here, about ideals which only the most disciplined of us may manage to put into practice—but that fact in no way invalidates the ideals. We would all be better off if we did; and then, too, even if we don’t follow the letter, just knowing the principles can be helpful in itself.

So here are the how-to’s, as I have learned them. The first piece to get used to is the “one bowl” principle, which I have experienced at a couple of retreats. If you were a monk, you would be dependent on the generosity of others to serve you—no grabbing for yourself! But I’m guessing you’re not a monk, and nor am I, so let’s feel free to fill our one bowl with choices of our own. The point, as I understand it, is to make conscious choices about what we put into our bodies, and to accept certain limits as to quantity. We should do the same with what we put into our heads: conscious choices, sensible limitations.

Next, I have learned, we do not start by attacking our bowl as hungrily as does my dog, George, as soon as we sit down. We bow our heads for a moment’s meditative gratitude. For a Christian, this is “grace,” a prayer ritual in which God is thanked for the food He has provided. Throughout my childhood years, I never started a meal in my father’s house without a pause for grace: “Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service, for Christ’s sake, Amen.”

While I no longer believe in the God in which my father believed, those words still have resonance for me. I know what they mean. The values of reverence and gratitude are not restricted to one, or indeed to any religion. If we manage to bring those values to our creative work we shall, again, be better off. (This part of the ritual is related, clearly, to the process of “sitting down” I described in an earlier chapter: it’s a way of preparing the mind space for what we are about to do. A propos of which, I suddenly recall another grace from my youth: “For what we are about to eat, may the Lord make us truly thankful…”)

That ritual completed, we are now permitted to address our food—but again, must do it consciously. We pick up our utensils, take a bite from our bowl, and then replace the utensils while we chew. We masticate each bite with thoughtfulness, up to twenty or thirty times, making sure to fully appreciate the texture of the food, and the subtleties of its taste and the aftertaste. We do not pick up our utensils again until this process is finished and we have paused for another thankful breath… And so to the end of the meal, the very last bite, after which we take our bowl and wash it with fresh, clean water, drying it carefully with our napkin before putting it away, ready for the next time we have need of it.

So much, then, for the how. It’s all about consciousness, thoroughness, care and reverence. It’s about appreciation and discrimination. Again, if we manage to bring these qualities to our creative work, imagine how much better our results will be.

And it’s the same with the what. If we respect the health of our bodies, we know enough these days to take care what we put into them. By the same token, we should exercise the same vigilant choices when it comes to what we let into our heads.

My wife, who for many years has been engaged in counseling studio artists about their work, refers to this important process as “filling the basket”—a nicely physical description. The options that are open to us are of course inexhaustible. We find them all around us, and even those that might, before, have been out of reach are readily available to us these days in the Wonderland of the Internet. Some (I hope many!) will choose books, whether novels or non-fiction, poetry or prose. From The Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, from Sappho to Wordworth and T.S. Eliot or John Ashberry, from Daniel Defoe to Leo Tolstoy, to D.H. Lawrence and Salman Rushdie, this immense resource will cater to every taste. There are centuries’ worth of possibilities, each with its own wealth of image and narrative, with its own depth of thought and complexity of human character. Reading grows the mind, immeasurably. And it’s my belief that whatever you read will in some way show up in your work.

It’s the same with images, of course. From cave paintings to the works of Abstract Expressionists and everything in between, and since, the creative mind will gladly feed on the kind visual information that can be found particularly—though not exclusively—in art galleries and museums. And it’s all pretty much free. We can stroll around with our virtual shopping carts and fill them to the brim with anything that might catch our fancy. We need not succumb to the influence of everything we see, but we ignore such opportunities at the risk of starving our own imaginative minds and limiting their possibilities.

It’s important, then, to exercise the mind and keep its muscles in shape, no matter how we choose to do it. We may just as well go to the theater or attend a concert. Or we may rely on other than aesthetic choices—the mountain hike, let’s say, or even a simple trip to the supermarket, if done with conscious attention to the work of the mind as it pays attention to the visual detail, the social circumstance, the characters or the narrative. In this way we fill our baskets as we go, and bring them home with us, supplied with new inspiration, new images, new avenues of approach, new materials to work with. No matter what you choose to feed your head, you can have faith that it will manifest in some way in your work.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


I have been thinking about the value of routine for the creative process. You'll find some preliminary thoughts in today's entry in The Buddha Diaries.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


(The draft of a chapter from the book I'm currently working on.)

For one who is a great believer in the necessity of sacred space, I find it curious—indeed, a little disturbing—to confess that I have never made a serious effort to create one for myself.

By “sacred space,” I mean a place that is exclusively dedicated to a particular, sometimes—but not necessarily—spiritual practice. It can also be simply a work space, a den, or a retreat. It can be as great as a mountain or as small as a private shrine. It can be as ancient as Stonehenge or a recent as that little prefab studio in your back yard. It’s the kind of place that, when you get there, you feel you have arrived back home.

I have on several occasions been advised to create a sacred space for my own meditation practice, just a small corner of the house which I could adorn with a small statue of the Buddha, say, a decorative textile, a photograph or two—perhaps of family—a candle, a bowl of flowers… Just a tiny space that is dedicated to that one, singular purpose, a place to go and sit.

It’s a lovely idea, and I understand not only its appeal but also its benefits for a meditation practice. It would serve as an aid to regularity, dedication. And yet… I have never done it.

And it’s the same with a work space, which is something I freely recommend to others when asked for my advice, but which I have never truly established for myself. Again, for a writer it’s not complicated. I need no more than support for my computer, a printer, a few shelves, some books, some reference works… I harbor a secret envy for those who manage to carve out an elaborate cave, in a hard-to-reach attic or a basement—the work, for some, of years, where they are surrounded by stacks of books and papers, a frantic mess of files and never-to-be-finished projects. It’s the kind of place where anyone but yourself would be at a loss to find anything, but where you can lay your hands on exactly what you need without a moment’s hesitation.

It need not even be in your house. It could be a rented space in a high-rise office building or a mini-mall…

I have had studies. I have a study. Two of them, in fact, in different houses. They double as guest rooms. And while we do not frequently have guests, they do not feel, to me, as though they are completely mine.

And so I wander when I work. I take my laptop to the dining room table or the corner of a couch in the living room. I bring it to bed with me in the morning or the afternoon, at nap time. And while I continue to nurse this wish for a place of my own, for some reason I do not manage to create it.

Now that I think about it, I realize that this uncomfortable truth may be significantly related to that deluded conviction I mentioned in an earlier chapter: “I have no right to be here.” It’s as though I carried around with me some wrong-headed message that kicks in whenever I have a mind to change things. At a still deeper level, I recognize with a certain sadness that even “home” is not an easily definable concept for me. Sent off to school at an early age, I would return home to different places in the holidays; following what he felt to be his pastoral call, my father moved from parish to parish as I was growing up. When people ask me where I’m from, in England, I hear myself respond that “I’m a little from all over.” I was born in the north, and am inordinately proud of being a “Geordie”—one born on the banks of the River Tyne—even though I spent only the first year and a half of my life there. Other than that, I went to school in the south, and “lived” at various locations in the Midlands.

Since leaving England nearly fifty years ago, I moved around a good deal before settling in Southern California in the late 1960s. Having lived in Los Angeles for more than four decades, I have to confess that I still don’t feel “at home” here. I suspect I share this rootlessness with many others in this day and age; we are long past the days when we human beings did not move far beyond our place of birth and family hearth, but I’m inclined to believe that we preserve the gene that longs for that simple sense of belonging, of being where one is supposed to be in the world.

I bring this up because I see a connection between that sense of belonging and the kind of sacred space I’m talking about. How can you feel that you have “arrived back home” when you have no real sense of home to return to—even if that place is a psychic and spiritual space rather than an actual location. To the mind, as I see it, the two are one.

And still we need a place to work. For the artist who works with physical media, the requirements are harder to fulfill than for the writer. There are the materials to find a place for—everything from pens and pencils to tubes of paint and brushes, to much bulkier materials for the artist who works in three dimensions. There is the question of appropriate light in which to work, and physical space to accommodate the action. The ultimate, of course, is the spacious, white-walled studio, with the traditional north-facing skylights and ample room for racks. Nice space, if you can get it. Most have to settle for something less: a converted garage, perhaps, or a spare room in the house. At the very least, an attic, or a private corner somewhere.

But there’s more to this than physical space. Just as important and more problematic, for many—and here I include myself—is the ability to protect its borders, to maintain its integrity as a truly sacred space. The invaders are many and persistent, and it takes but a small loss of vigilance to surrender your treasured work space to them. More of this, then, in another chapter…

Sunday, May 15, 2011


(The text of a speech I gave last night, as keynote speaker at the annual fundraising dinner for the 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica. It's a capsule version of my thinking on this topic.)

I wonder if you have noticed, like myself, that it’s not easy being an artist these days? Of course, I’m not an artist, as I suspect a good number of you are. But I am a writer, and being a writer, I promise you, is no easier than being an artist. And when I use the word “artist,” I would wish to include all those who draw on the creative faculty in their life and work. As one of your earlier keynote speakers, Sir Ken Robinson, likes to point out, we have become too restrictive in our understanding of the creative mind. Mathematicians, engineers, teachers, business people, lawyers, doctors—all bring this same resource to bear on the work they do.

No matter what the difficulties of the current moment, though, the gift with which we have been endowed—let’s call it generically the creative spirit—does not allow us to simply withdraw or surrender when we’re faced with what is difficult or challenging. It brings with it a responsibility. I see the artist’s work as an act of generosity, an act of service. Dare I suggest that it’s our job to change the world, one art work at a time?

That’s a big task, I know. But let’s agree that there’s a lot we would want to change about the world we have collectively created, and it’s my belief that—despite all evidence to the contrary—it can be changed, and for the better. I believe, in fact, that it is changing. It must change. Because—if it does not succeed in destroying us—the course we human beings have set will compel us to change the way we treat each other on this planet, and the way we treat the planet itself. I’m not alone in believing that the results of our human greed, arrogance and delusion are edging us inexorably toward a massive shift in consciousness.

And, as I see it, a special responsibility for this change lies on the shoulders of creative people. We have to take responsibility to give generously of the gift we have been given. We must, seriously, get to work.

If we want to find reasons and excuses to duck our responsibility and sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, we can find plenty of them.

There is, first of all, that sense of impotence: what can I do, who have so little power and influence? That’s a fine excuse.

Then, as artists, we can rail at the federal government for its deplorable habit of slashing funds for the arts on every possible occasion. Closer to home, we watch the bills mounting on the kitchen counter and wonder how we’re supposed to get them paid. There’s even that damn cell phone distracting us with its persistent demand on our attention—not to mention, heaven help us, Facebook and Twitter. Woe betide us if we have husbands, wives, children, family to take care of, or if a medical emergency strikes…

Add to that, we work our rear ends off and no one wants to pay us for the work we do; the galleries—and publishers!—are interested only in what they think will boost their bottom line; good jobs are almost impossible to find, especially jobs which allow us time to do our art, or write. And so on.

You know the list as well as I do. I’m sure you have your own.

So there have been many moments in my life—as I suspect in yours—when I ask myself what sane person would choose the creative path. I count myself a reasonably successful writer—and a very fortunate and grateful one—but I still have those moments. I just recently took a booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and found myself milling around with about five thousand other writers, some wildly successful—but huge numbers of others merely hopeful, and maybe a little envious of that success. How many books were represented there? I have no idea. Enough that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to add yet another one to the pile.

And yet… I’m a writer, just as you are artists. It’s who I am. Since the age of twelve, I never aspired to be anything else. It’s not an option for me. If I’m not writing, I risk becoming a disappointed, angry, even bitter person—impossible to live with, even for myself. I do it because, in a favorite phrase of mine, it’s what I’m given to do. It’s that simple—and that hard. I was put here on this earth for no other discernable reason. I have done other things, to keep body and soul together. But I am a writer.

So that’s the starting point. Next question, what do I need? I have to take care of the basic material necessities of life, that goes without saying: if you happen to be a Buddhist monk, these necessities get reduced to food, shelter, medicine and clothing—but most of us, let’s face it, are not Buddhist monks. We aspire to certain comforts as well as the bare necessities.

But this is not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking about what we need to persist as artists: what are the basic necessities required to avoid walking around feeling, well… wrong about our lives? I’m talking about the artist’s internal survival kit, in a culture where such a kit has become essential.

Here’s the first and indispensible thing I need: a practice. I was fortunate to have been introduced to the Buddhist meditation practice some fifteen years ago. I’m not here to preach Buddhism, but the meditation practice is a wonderful model for how a creative practice can work. First, you show up. You show up without hesitation or question. It’s not easy. There is an ample supply of excuses. But you have made a compact with yourself. Rain or shine. Good mood or bad. Time allowing or not. You show up.

You sit down. In meditation, obviously, this means literally putting your rear end on the cushion or the chair and straightening out the back. But in creative practice, I use this as a metaphor for the ritual needed to get ready to go to work. For me, it involves switching on the computer, finding my place, taking a breath, and turning inward for a moment to create the mind-space in which to pick up the threads of the work. For you, it will involve a different process, a different ritual.

Next step, you focus and concentrate. Focus is about bringing the attention to a specific object—the flame of a candle, perhaps, a mantra… in my case, the breath. Concentration, as I understand it, is the temporal extension of focus, prolonging it through time. In creative work, anyone who has made art knows how this works. It’s about the flow. You get so deeply absorbed in the work that you look up three hours later and wonder where the time has gone.

And finally, you “persist.” (This is where my book gets its title.) I don’t know about your mind, but mine is the proverbial puppy dog. It likes nothing better than to play with its toys, chew up the furniture, chase shadows, piss on the carpet, and in general make a nuisance of itself. In meditation, it’s a matter of training the puppy dog to the leash, bringing it back time and again, patiently but insistently, every time it wanders off.

In a word, the creative practice, like the meditation practice—or like yoga, like the martial arts—is a discipline. Which is not something that is taught very much in the schools, still less something that most of us very much like. It sounds too much like a requirement, imposed on us from outside—and our natural instinct is to rebel against requirements. They sound like a restriction on the freedom we demand, to pursue our vision as we please. We are taught, at an early age, to associate creativity with “self-expression”—a kind of fecal elimination that comes much easier in early childhood than when you get on in years! No, there’s a good reason for calling what we do “work.”

The next necessity is food. Again, I use this as a metaphor. We need to take in, in proportion to what we put out. This is something I too easily neglect myself. I get so caught up in my own work that I forget the need to nourish the mind with outside information and inspiration. Food, for me, as a writer, is everything I read, from the New York Times to, say, one of my personal favorites, Michel de Montaigne. It’s the films I watch and the art I look at.

For the artist, I imagine, food would look like everything from cave paintings to the latest sensation—which, like it or not—and often we don’t!—invariably extends the opportunity to learn. It would also, I imagine, involve the mountain hike and the visit to the supermarket, eyes wide open and mind ready to look at everything with particular discrimination.

And, as for the writer, surely, food is whatever your mind lights on to read. The digestive process is the consciousness with which we observe and reflect upon our observations. Too often, I catch myself drifting unawares through the experience of my life. Too often, it’s about what happens to me, rather than what I choose. So, eat what you will. Any- and every-thing is food for the creative mind, so long as it’s absorbed and processed in consciousness.

The next necessity—another one that too easily gets forgotten in a culture that does not make it easy—is the ear to listen or the eye to see. Art, I firmly believe, is love-making, not masturbation. “I do it for myself”—for me at least—is not an option. No. I don’t do my writing for myself, I do it to be heard. I do it in part to find out who I am, but also to share the discovery of my humanity with other human beings. As one who writes frequently about art, I expect no less of artists. I want you to tell me who you are, so that I can discover—in your work—so much more about myself, and expand my way of looking at the world.

Again, it’s not easy finding the ear to listen or the eye to see. This, too, is work. It takes effort—the effort we’d much rather be expending in the studio. But I believe this to be a part of our responsibility, as creative people—and another of our needs: it’s the spirit of generosity. It’s about caring enough about what we do to need to share it. If we’re worth our salt, we make our work in passion and have a passionate need to have it speak to others.

There is reason for good cheer on this front in this day and age, in which the amazing advances in communications technology have made it possible to put our work out into the world without depending on the monolithic, commercial system of galleries and publishers. Who could have envisioned, twenty years ago, in the days of cumbersome transparencies and the US Postal Service—remember, sending out packages of “slides”?—the marvel of the “website”—where an artist can post an entire history of images for the world to see? Who would have predicted the existence of “social networks” where a few moments’ work on the keyboard can draw world-wide attention to your latest entry? (I ran into the artist John Frame just the other day, who has a new exhibition installed at the Huntington Library. He was wondering whether anyone would ever hear about his show—until it was reviewed online at Boing Boing—and attracted, in a single day, some 200,000 hits in 103 different countries.)

As a writer, I fell into the blogosphere a number of years ago, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, into a world of previously unimaginable possibility. I now have three blogs, “The Buddha Diaries,” “Persist: The Blog,” and most recently a political addition, “Vote Obama 2012,” in which I can actively publish something every day of my life, and attract readers from literally throughout the world. What more could a writer wish for?

The blogosphere also offers me the opportunity to satisfy another of those necessities I have been speaking about: feedback, response, the validation of what I have to say by another human being, who has read and listened to my words—even if that person happens to disagree with me.

There are many of us in the creative world who have to deal daily with the frustration of isolation. We sit around at our end of the telephone just waiting for someone to pick up at the other end, but all we hear is the annoying, unanswered ring. We need companionship, support and, yes, frankly, love—the kind of love that only our fellow humans can provide.

So here’s another essential piece that is a part of our work: it’s called building community. And—what could be more perfect?—here we are, gathered at the 18th Street Art Center, honoring the service of an artist who has given much of his time and energies for the benefit of his fellow artists, and still managed to make art. The stated mission of the organization is to “provoke public dialogue”—that is, to communicate—and whose vision is to build a “community which values art-making as an essential component of a vibrant, just and healthy society.”

I may be idealistic—actually, I hope so! I believe that the creative spirit is essentially a benevolent spirit, a power for good. I love the words that Dylan Thomas wrote as an introduction to his collected poems, way back in the 1950s. “These poems,” he wrote, “with all their crudities, doubts and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.” I don’t happen to believe in the God he mentions, but I do know what he means. I feel that way about my own work—and hope you feel the same about yours.

As I said earlier, I believe that artists provide an act of service to their fellow humans with the work they do. The wonderful Buddhist practice of metta—sending out goodwill and compassion into the world—begins with the meditator sending those wishes in the first instance to him- or herself. When I find myself questioning the value of my own small contribution to the well-being of the world, I call to mind that the only thing I can really change is myself. If I want to change the world, that’s where I have to start. Art—for me, writing—is about observing, activating and realizing the change within, and putting it out into the world. It may be no more than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, but it can create that proverbial tempest on the other side of the globe.

So it may not be easy being an artist, but it is a privilege. Just think of the collective power assembled in this room—and what that power could do if unleashed upon the world. Let’s all get to it, then. Let’s change the world, one art work at a time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

So there we are, myself...

... and my friend, the artist Mark Strickland, all set up to represent our respective books at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Mark has come out with a handsome new survey of his work, The Art of Mark Strickland--a beautifully illustrated book which includes an introduction I wrote especially for the publication and numerous quotations from my past writings about the work. Mark is one of those (rare) artists who dares to use his considerable skills to address such profound humanitarian issues as the Holocaust and war and peace in the Middle East. You'll remember that painting was declared dead just a few decades ago; and figurative painting, particularly, was beyond the pale. It took some courage to swim against those mainstream fads and prejudices, but thankfully Mark himself is a "survivor."

As for Persist... Well, I'm always more optimistic, when it comes to sales, than I have any right to be--and this weekend was no exception. Sales were, to put it politely, sluggish. But we did manage to sell a few copies and, perhaps more importantly, to distribute significant numbers of business cards, bookmarks and flyers which might result in some further orders and, I hope, a bump in readership on The Buddha Diaries, which remains my primary writing practice. Also, aside from sitting around at the booth...

... I did spend a good deal of time wandering around the USC campus, where the Festival was held, meeting many other exhibitors and talking about their work... and mine. I came home with a stack of cards and catalogues which will need follow-up contact in the coming days. Also, early morning, before the fair opened, I made the pilgrimage to the fourth floor of what used to be "Founder's Hall" to revisit my office space from more than forty years ago, when I was teaching Comparative Literature at this university. I found it much changed from 1968, with access blocked off by an imposing--and locked!--security door. Comp. Lit. had moved, too, to a suite of ground floor offices, where I found a graduate student busy with a book. Only one faculty member has survived since my day.

The Festival itself aroused my usual mix of inspiration and revulsion. It's wonderful to see so many writers and so many books, and to feel so much aspiration and devotion to the written word in all its forms of expression. And yet... with so many of us competing for the attention of (these days relatively few) readers, I'm left with the dreadful, empty feeling that all my efforts are somehow quaint, not to say quixotic in a world in which the cacophony of the mass media is so loud and insistent. If I were to listen only to that feeling, however, I guess I would have quit the writing game years ago; and yet here I am, still hammering away at the keys. At least it's not so much a matter of "hammering" as it was in the days of the portable typewriter, but rather a matter of tapping gently at the keyboard! It is, after all, that I am given to do, and I'd feel like a useless old chump without it. Better to feel like a useless old chump with it.

And what's truly wonderful, for this writer at least, has been the discovery of the blogosphere. With this blog, and The Buddha Diaries and, more recently, the budding Vote Obama 2012, I manage to reach readers world-wide every day. I ask myself, could I have envisioned this, even ten years ago? I could not. And, when it comes right down to it, what more could a writer wish for?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Festival of Books

A heads-up, if you're in the Los Angeles area and plan on attending the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: I'll be sharing a booth there with my friend, the artist Mark Strickland, who has a big new book out, The Art of Mark Strickland, documenting his work.

I'll be representing my publisher Parami Press and, of course, Persist. Our booth is in the Arts section, not far from Tommy Trojan. (I'll try to remember to post the actual booth number in the next couple of days, but we should be easy enough to find.) I also have a book-signing session lined up for 2PM on Saturday, in a location designated for that purpose. I'm sure there will be plenty of information available on site.

If you're a reader of The Buddha Diaries or Persist: The Blog, be sure to let me know!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Please check out my entry on "Impatience" at The Buddha Diaries today. I think it's relevant to the creative process, and will likely feature as a chapter in the book I'm working on, Nurturing the Artist Within.

Monday, April 11, 2011


(A chapter from the book I'm working on.)

Most any attentively practiced discipline will serve as a vehicle to train the mind. But the one that has provided the most reliable model for my writing practice is meditation. Understand that it’s not my intention here to proselytize on behalf of Buddhism. It does happen to be the only religion that makes sense to me, but that’s beside my point. The meditation that is a part of Buddhist practice is, to my mind (excuse the pun!) the ideal model for a creative practice. It requires four simple steps: you learn to show up, sit down, focus and concentrate, and persist.

Simple does not mean easy! Anyone who has tried to build a creative practice knows how hard that first part is: to show up. Waking up in the morning after a hard day yesterday and, perhaps, not too great a night’s sleep, the temptation to take another half hour in bed is almost irresistible. If you wait until a little later, the mind is already in fast forward gear, making plans, taking care of the immediate needs, thinking through problems. The telephone rings. The bills are sitting on your desk, waiting for your attention. That light bulb needs changing… It’s endless.

So it becomes a significant challenge, just to show up. If you’re serious about your meditation practice, you learn to do it without question. It’s the only way. If you ask your mind or body for permission, you’ll never get there. No matter how good your intentions, if you “try to” meditate, it doesn’t get done. You don’t “try to” feed the dog. If you keep trying for long enough, the dog will starve to death before it gets its dinner. No, you feed the dog. By the same token, you show up to meditate. You choose a time, set the alarm clock if you need to, and get yourself to the appointed place. It’s that simple. It’s that hard.

Now apply the same practice to your creative work. If you don't show up in the studio or at your writing desk, the work does not get done. It may sound harsh, but you can’t call yourself a writer or an artist if you don’t show up. It is the most basic necessity. And if it sounds obvious, check in with yourself and ask yourself how many wonderful excuses you have. My own list is a long one!

Okay, so you manage to show up. Congratulations! I mean it: take a moment to congratulate yourself. You deserve it, and this may be the hardest part. And now sit down.

Sitting down, for the meditator, is quite literal. You have a meditation cushion or a favorite chair, you may have a small shrine in some corner of the house; sitting down, when you have done it for a while, becomes a delightfully familiar and comfortable feeling. It’s like coming home after being out in the world all day. It’s like heaving a big sigh and letting go of all the weight you have been carrying around with you. If you make a practice of it, sitting down to work can bring up the same feeling.

You do need to have created the space in which to do it, and that space will depend on what is available to you. For the artist, if she’s lucky, that will be a studio. For the luckiest of the lucky, it will be a wonderful, open, light-filled space where the only thing that everything happens is art. For others, it may have to be an annexed spare bedroom or garage, or even a cramped corner in the family room. Writers have it a bit easier. A laptop can function anywhere, from a home office to the local library or Starbucks.

Harder for some to find than the physical space is the mind space. “Sitting down” is more than the physical activity involved in turning to the next blank page or setting up the easel of the drafting table. Sitting down involves clearing the mind of all its other commitments to make space for the art to happen. Once again, meditation provides a useful model. The hardest thing for me in my meditation practice is to clear the mind of all the debris of the past and intentions for the future and ready it for real concentration on the present moment.

And than, once it begins to sense that clarity, my own mind does a joyful leap into its favorite activity… writing. Silence! Serenity! A clear space! It’s almost irresistible. I start to write. Words start flooding in, they sound so perfect. I can't risk losing them. But I’m meditating, I can’t write them down, so my mind begins to memorize them. In other words, I’m soon not meditating at all any more. I’m not training my mind, I’m giving it license to take over.

This is where focus and concentration come into play. (The difference between focus and concentration, as I see it, is that focus describes the attention on a single, precisely defined object, and concentration is the protraction of that focus through time.) Meditation, as I understand and practice it, is not about blissing out and journeying across the endless spaces of the universe. It’s work. It’s about being awake, aware, alert. Different forms of meditation suggest different focal points. Some use a mantra—a word or phrase to be repeated constantly. With eyes open, you might use the flickering flame of a candle or a blossom, a picture on the wall, or even the surface of the wall itself.

For many, myself included, the breath is the focal point. I watch the breath as it enters the body, and as it leaves. Once the focus is established, I move into concentration. As an aid to concentration, I use the body scan, directing the breath on a path that leads from the lower torso to the chest, from the chest to the head and down the back to the legs, and finally from the shoulders down through the arms to the finger tips; all the time watching the full length of the breath, from the beginning of the intake to the very last moment of exhalation.

This intense attention to detail, again, is a fine model for the kind of attention the artist needs in the creative process. It’s the source of another familiar and delightful feeling, as the self disappears and the process itself takes over, so fully engaging that, by the time you’re done, hours may have passed without your noticing—not because you have been inattentive but precisely because your awareness has been so sharply attuned to the work in hand. You have persisted in your focus and concentration.

Which, of course, brings us back to the last of the four steps: persistence. In meditation, that’s the effort it takes to keep bringing the mind back to its object of attention every time it strays. Mine strays a lot. Where does it go? Back into the past and off into the future. If I’m to do right by my meditation, I must watch it carefully and, every time it wanders, bring it gently back to the breath. Back to the present moment, where the work gets done.

And that's the practice.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"The View From the Studio Door"

I am a late-comer to Ted Orland's The View From the Studio Door:How Artists Find The Way in an Uncertain World. It was published in 2006, and I'm only just now getting around to it. More's the pity... or maybe it arrived at just the right moment, since I am writing and speaking around that same topic these days, and am finding not only much common ground between us, but also many new thoughts and insights that are truly valuable. It's one of those books in which I pause at every page with the wish that I'd been able to say it quite so well.

Ted Orland is an artist who works with photographic media and the co-author, with David Bayles, of Art and Fear (1993), a book which continues to be widely read by artists familiar with the fear that inevitably arises in their lives--and who are wise enough to learn how to use it rather than allow it to stand in their way. Orland's new book--well, not actually new--is addressed to the working artist; hence the reference to the studio in the title. This is a book about the creative process, not merely "creativity." The latter, as Orland is at pains to point out, is an abstraction. Work in the studio is about the experience of doing it.

As I suggested, Orland covers a good deal of the same material as myself: why bother to make art in a world already saturated with the work of others? What is it that drives the artist, despite the obstacles put in her way by a society that worships money and celebrity and heaps more success on the already successful few, even while ignoring the (sometimes greater) talent of the many? How do the rest of us, to use the word from my own title, "persist"? Orland also writes with sardonic humor about a system of education that does everything it can to squelch the creative spirit, and offers his own thoughtful perceptions on how to teach art--and how to learn. He has a light touch with some weighty material.

I also share Orland's conviction that art at its best is not a solitary act of self-expression nor one of technical accomplishment. It's rather a vital and passionate means of communication. For me--and as I read his book, I believe for Orland, too--it's about what makes us human. It's about believing with such passion in my own vision that I am compelled to find ways, through art, to understand and enrich it more completely, and through that process to be able to share it with my fellow travelers on this planet.

Orland also writes persuasively about the need for community. Too many artists, once they leave the privileged and sheltered life of art school, find themselves thrust out into a society that generally ignores them. But art hungers for, and thrives on feedback. Lacking this, the creative spirit can speedily wither and die. Optimally, if we lack this community, the thing to do is go out into the world and create one. Readers of "Persist: the Blog" will be aware of the virtual community to which they already belong. That's another way, for some, though it can encourage even greater isolation. It misses the warmth of actual, living, breathing, face to face, hand to hand human contact that can feed us. It's my impression that Orland's books have created a kind of community of readership. For those who have not yet encountered his work, I'd suggest a visit to his website, where you'll find links to "The View..." as well as to "Art and Fear." Both are valuable handbooks for the working artist (I mean that to include writers, too, and musicians, actors, dancers, and the rest). No matter who you are, or how successful, if the creative process is an important part of your life, they will restore some of the juices to your practice.

Did I mention that they're also a pleasure to read?

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Follow-Up...

... on my "Waiting for Hockney" exchange with Cynda Valle. She wrote:

Dear Peter, thanks for all. As Glenn said when he read your reply: "There's alot of wisdom here". I have to agree that the art itself was pretty anti-climatic once we finally got to see it. But despite that (or because of it!), I think the man himself could represent all artists. Billy believes that what he thinks and feels is worthy of the world's attention. He than spends years developing the technical virtuosity to express it. Despite the result, this seems to me the art-making formula that all artists have in common; the "I" plus practice over time equals art. Of course nobody works in a vacuum; the surrounding culture and history provide the visual language that the artist uses. The way the art is received doesn't really fundamentally dampen our conviction that we have something to say. In fact if it is not well received we are part of a long tradition and can always comfort ourselves with the Van Gogh defense ("People will want my work after I die.") Or my personal favorite by Rollo May (should have it tattoed backwards on my forehead so I see it whenever I look in a mirror!): "Creative Courage is continuing despite your doubts, not quitting because of them." So even failure in the eyes of the world doesn't have to shake our conviction that we are worthy.

Billy also has in common with all artists a personal yardstick with which to measure success. For Billy it was Hockney (yeah, i agree a STRANGE personal yardstick), but all artists have one; be it gallery representation, big sales or a teaching gig. And finally Billy (like all the artists I know) has to get a day job. I was tickled that it was the same job that kept me afloat when I was his age (waiting tables!!!). So despite what you, me or Hockney's assistant thinks of his work, he, for me, represents "every-artist". To open up another can of worms I wanted to ask you what you thought of Hockney's comment to his assistant: "There's still that damn photograph". I thought it ironic that he validates the use of photography in Secret Knowledge, yet sees the photographic root of the drawing problematic???? And on a personal note: you have always been a compassionate advocate/ champion of artists and have NEVER been scornful or elitist ! I'm enjoying the dialogue ! Love, Cynda

(Whooops! I just reread your reply and I think you already answered my photography question; To assume the photograph is the ultimate arbiter of accuracy is a BIG mistake!)

To which I wrote back as follows:

Here's the thing, Cynda: suppose that what Billy thinks and feels--no matter his conviction or intention--is really NOT "worthy of the world's attention"? (Not everything is!) Suppose that his thinking/feeling never gets past the initial, trite cliche? Suppose he has never taken the trouble to deeply question what he thinks and feels, or to ask himself what lies beyond the surface of his assumptions? Suppose he has never really given a thought to the paths open to an artist in the current cultural reality, how an artist functions, what the task of the artist might be--other than to make a magnificent, photographically correct drawing?

For me, being an artist requires all this, and more. Making art is not an accomplishment, it's an investigation. It seems to me--sadly--that Billy discovers nothing in the course of his eight-year odyssey. This is why I question your notion that he "could represent all artists." I don't lack compassion for him as a human being. I just don't think he has yet discovered what it means to be an artist, and therefore can not "represent" them. A good and difficult discussion, though. Thanks for provoking it. Love, P

And Cynda, again:

I do see what you're saying: From my own kids I know a toddler is as excited about his first creation (poop in the potty) as he is of anything else... And just because HE's excited and passionate doesn't make it art. Yeah, I guess alot of art is "shit"!!!!!!!! I hope you have by now gotten the email i wrote you this morning (subject: writer's remorse). Just to reiterate ; What i will remember is not Billy's story, but your validation of my own working process..THANK YOU, it means alot to me. I will share our dialogue with my advanced painting students and tell them of your books; the topic being near and dear to the heart of every artist, and the next time i'm feeling discouraged i will take our your blog and reabsorb it, thanks again. Love Cynda