I regularly see or hear things that give me shivers. It was about 20 years ago now that I first became aware of this quirk in myself. Perhaps you have experienced it too. I’ve heard people explain a feeling akin to which I refer, as something that makes your ‘hairs stand on end’; though mine is a shiver down the spine. Many years ago, I asked a trusted friend who was a massage and colour therapist what she thought of this phenomena and she said ‘it is your way of recognising something to pay attention to.’ I had surmised as much but confirmation is often helpful as we blunder through life, having left our roadmap at home.
Recently, I read a blog post and within minutes found myself purchasing the book to which it referred with great anticipation and still experiencing shivers. It’s unlikely it would be the same experience for most of you, because we all respond viscerally to different things. If you have been sharing much of my creative journey, you know without even reading to the end of this post, it will change my perspective. Everything visceral does this, whether or not we recognise it.
The blog to which I refer, and have included links a number of times previously, is Brainpickings by Maria Popova. The book with which I connected on this occasion is ‘Daybook – The Diary of an Artist’ by Anne Truitt. Brainpickings’ posts are based on books, sharing the views and comparative analysis of other books, essays and life observations. I hope Maria gets a commission from Amazon or Dymocks because she has often moved me to purchase books about which she has written. Maria’s blog post, and the now deceased, Anne Truitt’s thoughtful journal, reinforce the power of the written word to change ideas–even lives.
Last year I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book ‘Big Magic’. I relished this book so much I did not want it to end. It wrestled with the age old question of ‘what is the difference between being an artist and leading a creative life?’ Truitt, herself an artist, with background education and experience as a psychologist, left that profession to follow the creative life. Her psychoanalytical mind and her artistic soul, have given her a unique voice. She takes this question a step farther, asking whether or not one who practices art can, or should, call themselves an artist.
Devouring this book in near record time, has taken me a step closer to understanding who is an artist?
In the grand scheme of things this is an unnecessary question to answer. Of course. That we exist is all we really need to acknowledge. But my human ego wrestles with it. Truthfully, no one except us probably cares what we call ourselves, though others often want to put us into one crab basket or the other by asking ‘what do you do?’, thus labelling us according to their understanding of whatever you answer. Truitt points out there is baggage that goes with calling oneself an artist, indeed, with any label, but, specifically, there is often (not always) an arrogance and competitiveness in the echelon of calling oneself an artist, with which she and I don’t care at all to be associated.
Perhaps the most compelling reason in the affirmative to label oneself, is so that we are not allowing others to define us. Early in the book, Truitt writes “I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out.” And isn’t that the dilemma of any label we put on ourself or others? The need to live out the expectation can be heavy baggage. I know personally, I stick to one suitcase with rollers when I travel and attempt the same when accumulating baggage in life!
I see now that one must separate the expectations of the artist, and the process of being an artist; leading the creative life, as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it. To set oneself aside as something special, either because one calls oneself an artist, or chooses not to, is an egotistical rationale that may or may not correlate respective skill, message or intent.
Later, after a period of residence in a community of artists, Truitt is reflective of her former attitude and admits:
So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry. In a clear wind of the company of artists this summer, I am gently disarmed. We are artists because we are ourselves.
This was the nugget of truth that lay in my shivers. My deeper self had recognised this immediately, and felt much more at peace. The process of being oneself doesn’t require a label, it just requires unfolding.