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.

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