693: Portrait of the Artist

693: Portrait of the Artist

693: Portrait of the Artist


I am Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

There’s a myth of the artist in the lonely tower, only coming out for provisions now and again, grumpily interacting with strangers and preferring the company of bees on blades of grass to the crassness of humanity. I’ve always thought it was a foolish myth. Most art is made in community with others, in connection with both the wider world of nature and the wider world of humans. The idea that art is made only in isolation makes it seem like there’s an inhuman part to the artist. I’ve always pushed back against this.

However, however, however. The truth is…sometimes every part of me wants to be alone, wants to hide, wants to turn off all the devices, close all the windows, lock all the doors, and let myself be locked up with my own thoughts. Why is that? Why is it that if I want to write about the world, sometimes I have to shut the world out? Is it just our need for silence? Does poetry need, as Wordsworth said, to be “recollected in tranquility”?

I think that’s part of it. We do need silence and a little peace in order to write. As much as I dismiss ideas about the singular genius, the danger of precious individualism, there is something to be said for a whole day alone, a free day, a blank page, the idea of a quiet where finally you can hear yourself think.

Working writers know that promoting a book, reading from a book, and giving the book a real life, is an important part of honoring the work, but it’s not writing, it’s not the act of making, that’s where the real elation comes from. Of course, there’s some debate on how long any artist can stay in the creating zone. As a poet, I can’t write all the time, I can write for hours but then I need to go back into the world, grab a sandwich, walk the dog.

One of my favorite quotes is from Charles Baxter’s book on craft, Burning Down the House. It says, “Of all human occupations, the writing of poetry leaves the most time for concentrated leisure activities. Poets have considerable quantities of time and a low boredom threshold, which makes them fun and scary to be around.”

He goes on to imply that poets only work a half an hour a day. Of course that’s not entirely true, we work hard, but we also need our breaks. Our martinis. Our herbal tea. Our friends. Our naps.

Today’s poem, by one of the world’s quintessential wits, Dorothy Parker, speaks to that dichotomy between the two desires of writers, to have silence in order to write, and to be released from that silence and invited back into the world when we are done.

Portrait of the Artist
by Dorothy Parker

Oh, lead me to a quiet cell 
             Where never footfall rankles, 
          And bar the window passing well, 
             And gyve my wrists and ankles. 

          Oh, wrap my eyes with linen fair, 
             With hempen cord go bind me, 
          And, of your mercy, leave me there, 
             Nor tell them where to find me. 

          Oh, lock the portal as you go, 
             And see its bolts be double....
          Come back in half an hour or so, 
             And I will be in trouble.