“A real artist has no choice and should be prepared to go down with the ship!”
Yesterday, the August 9th issue of Newsweek showed up in my mailbox with Mark Twain’s picture on the cover. In the issue, Malcolm Jones writes about Twain’s last essay in his article, “Our Mysterious Stranger.” The essay was written four months before the beloved writer died. Jones says, “Twain meant to impress no one with that essay. Still, it is worth noting that, faced with an event that would have paralyzed most people, his first reaction was to reach for his pen and attempt what he had always done so successfully in the past–to write his way out of trouble.”
Also yesterday, someone asked me why I write. For a moment I was speechless. I felt like an idiot. I couldn’t think of why because it didn’t seem like a real question. I was suspended in the thought of there not being a “why” because there was only me. It’s quite different than asking a physician why she practices medicine or a teacher why he teaches. It’s more like asking someone why they have to visit the restroom several times a day, why they have skin, or why their heart must beat all day and night.
I finally pulled myself together and said that I write because it helps me understand myself. While that is true, I’m not sure it’s the full answer. Could I possibly decide that perhaps I don’t need to understand myself? I guess that could happen … although it won’t. I also said that I’ve always had an overactive imagination–ringing as clear and visible as a bell. Could I possibly keep that all to myself? Maybe I could try but I’d fail. I’ve tried before and if not on the page, it comes out in various self-destructive ways.
My guest today, Ed McCormack, suggests that the core need to be any type of true, down and dirty, nitty gritty artist has nothing to do with choosing a profession. It’s a calling that can’t be ignored.
By Jove, I think this wild-haired loner who hangs out endlessly with his wife and writes about art gets me. I know I get him. Professor Higgins would be thrilled. I’ve always wanted to be Eliza Doolittle. To be recognized and honed and polished into something beautiful that was all me to begin with. As a little girl, I danced and sang, “All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air,” while my mother screamed her back-up vocals.
After reading Ed’s answers, I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath. I realized (once again) that I will never stop what it is I do. Of course, my desire is to ultimately be recognized in some way for my efforts, to share my work with the world, to sail across that sea of ordinary and emerge on the side of spectacular. But if my ship goes down during the trip, I’ll stay until the end. I may never be a Twain but like him, I will keep on keeping on with it.
Tonight I feel good about that, martini in hand. My confidence is blooming and despite the growth I still need, I know I’ve got something. Where did it come from and why is it taking so long to mature? I don’t give a shit anymore. All I care about it that hot core in my heart that will never stop burning. It burns for all the love I couldn’t find in childhood, for all the breaks in my teenage heart, for all the wounds and joy and suffering and adventure I once had and still crave. It burns words and colors through my aging body and spits out its beauty through my hands. I don’t know who else will see it or find it appealing but it’s lovely for me. It’s all mine like nothing else in my life and I plan to cultivate it endlessly.
Ed McCormack is a man who seems to live on his own terms. One who understands the ship and the burning, and could care less for the manufactured themes of the day created by masses of average people with big ideas. He’s hung with Andy Warhol and his factory crazies, and has written for Rolling Stone. He’s a writer and an artist, art critic, editor, hoodlum. He’s currently writing his memoir, Hoodlum Heart: Confessions of a Test Dummy for the Crash and Burn Generation. So, yes, he’s burned, too. He’s crashed only to come back swinging.
Ed’s wife, Jeannie, told me that Ed grew up in the Lower East Side of New York and goes there often. Since that’s where my art is at the moment, she said they’ll drop by and take a look. Great! But what if this guy who gets me takes one look and looks away, ushering me into that overwhelming sea of average?
So be it.
I can take it because I know that I’m not finished yet. I’m a little filly–an Eliza Doolittle–prancing around my pen, enjoying my legs. I’m looking beyond the fence knowing that one day I’ll run and run and run. I’ll prance until my ship goes down or until I reach the spectacular shore where all fences disappear and the running begins. I’m 44 years old and I plan to live until 100. That gives me 490,560 hours. I’ll not waste a single one.
I often wonder how much the stuff of everyday life and relationships influences our ability to create meaningful writing, art, music, etc. However, many creative people spend a significant time alone. You’ve spent time with and have written about many other creative individuals. In your opinion, how critical is it for creative folks to interact/engage with the world and with each other?
In the normal course of events one will be around people whether one wants to be or not. I enjoy eavesdropping on them rather than meeting or knowing them. That goes double for so-called creative people. I may like their works, because if they’re any good at all, that’s the best part of them. But I try to avoid hanging out with them because that only leads to a lot of empty talk about matters artsy fartsy.
Then again, I prefer not to hang out with anybody besides my wife Jeannie because we sort of grew up together and can communicate almost telepathically, I should also add, if I haven’t already given that impression, that one of the reasons I ended up doing what I do is that I’m kind of misanthropic anyway.
For you, is writing and art more about creation or expression? It can be both but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer or an artist?
“Creation” sounds pretentious and “expression” sounds therapeutic, so neither term really appeals to me. But if I were to accept those terms as having anything to do with what I do, I suppose I’d have to consider them interchangeable.
What most inspires you to write?
For the most part I write to find out what I think. Also I suppose, to give form to all the surrounding chaos and to maybe construct a more perfect self, because I meant what I said earlier about whatever art we make being the best part of ourselves. The rest, to borrow a felicitous phrase from that nasty old bastard Ezra Pound, is dross.
I also prefer writing to being a social beast because frankly my social personality bores me. The very things that other people seem to be impressed, or at least entertained, by now bore the piss out of me. But when I’m alone I find my own company quite charming, Odd, isn’t it? But there you go.
With regard to your current creative focus, was there an “ah-ha” moment you can tell us about?
When I realized that there are no rules in art; anything goes. Another revelation was when I gave up alcohol and drugs about 20 or so years ago and discovered that they had been hindering, rather than helping, all along. And I suppose finally giving up my old Luddite’s loyalty to the manual typewriter and seeing how much easier it was to write on a computer.
Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?
You can do more than one thing, but not equally well. I can both write and draw but not with the same concentration. You have to cultivate your primary obsession.
Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?
Yeah, there is a very big difference. Setting a table can be creative. But to make art, real art, you need talent.
Gallery and Studio reviews the work of many top artists. What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?
That’s easy. What makes an artist stand out today is to draw energy from life rather than from other art. There’s too much of the latter today and it enervates rather than energizing, resulting in art that’s incestuous, inbred and not very interesting.
Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Do you have any advice for those struggling to make their creative mark? Is there ever an appropriate time to face reality and find a new focus?
Whose “reality”? What does “success” mean in relation to art? I never thought of art as a practical pursuit to begin with. It should be a way of life—a calling, if you will––rather than a career choice. I’m afraid I don’t have much patience with art yuppism. If it gets to the point where someone has to find a “new focus” he or she shouldn’t have gotten involved with art in the first place. A real artist has no choice and should be prepared to go down with the ship!
Harlan Ellison said, “No writer ever hits a slump. As Algis Budrys (who is a helluva writer, and who taught me about half of what I know) once said to me: You don’t slump, you just reach a plateau. Then you have to get your wind, and readjust your thinking and your synapses, and get set to write better, with more maturity, with greater passion and purpose. He was right.” Do you agree? What are your thoughts on the issue of blocked creativity?
Jimmy Breslin once answered someone who asked why he thinks the Irish literary tradition had declined and he answered, “Like most writers today they’re blocked because they have a loaf of bread stuck in their brain.” I think he had a good point there.
W hat is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
I’ve never gone in for mottos or mantras, but my wife, Jeannie, says that art has always been the motivating factor of my life and my mother used to claim that I was born with a pencil in my hand. My own thought about it is that I am otherwise unemployable.