Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Act of Art

Terra, our goldendoodle, and I went out for a walk in the snow this afternoon. We walked not just on the snow but in the snow because it was blowing and falling all around us. Plowed and shoveled snow edged the road in elongated piles that expanded and contracted in diameter. My face felt the moist ping of flakes scooped in by my long-cowled hood, and the curled fur on Terra’s back filtered snow from the wind. Despite the cold—19ºF that felt like 4ºF—since I had multilayers on and Terra was in her element, it would be a while before a deep cold seeped into the ends of my fingers and toes and the snowballs in Terra’s fur would begin to bother her.

We were walking in a built environment, and in a way when we dig out roads and sidewalks we reenact their construction, reasserting the taming of the environment. “Blow your hardest. Weigh us down with your snow. But see, with our machines we can blow it back, push it aside. Look on our works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The snow was light, however, and at that time a thin rime of snow covered even the plowed places. Despite my cold and the cold and the reluctance with which I began the walk, I warmed to being chilled, developed for a short time a mind of winter, and settled into walking.

Now it would have been more exciting if we were almost run down by a rogue snowplow or if the snow was up to our knees (as it had been last year), but as it was, the interest in the passage must depend on the effectiveness of the imagery, the value of its insight, and a touch of irony. If I were writing a fictional paragraph, I could have come upon a burning bush, or a hawk could have landed in our path, challenging us to a staring contest. Because what I write is creative nonfiction, my actual experience puts a limit on what I can say, in addition to the limits imposed by language itself.

In creative nonfiction the writer is expected to use the techniques of creative writing to draw the reader into the world of the writer’s experience. Too many dry facts, and the world is dead; too much creative enhancement and the world is a lie. This sort of writing appeals to me because (as you can tell from the first post in this blog) it reflects our situation in the world and requires balancing along an ambiguous border.

In writing creative nonfiction I am making visible that balancing act. However, too often the product is confused with the creative balancing act; the tombstone is mistaken for the life it commemorates. We use creativity to solve all sorts of problems, but when we make art, the theoretical purpose is to create, to be a creator; the object produced is merely evidence.

In slim book The Tree, John Fowles connects the dynamics of nature and art, showing how they share the act/object problem:

the danger, in both art and nature, is that all emphasis is placed on the created, not the creation. All artifacts, all bits of scientific knowledge, share one thing in common: that is, they come to us from the past . . . . Yet we cannot say that the ‘green’ or creating process does not happen or is not important just because it is largely private and beyond lucid description and rational analysis.

The exciting part about creating something is the experience of creating, what creating does to us, what we become when we create. Life’s excitement lies not in what we have done, but what we are doing. It feels good to create something that others can appreciate, but it is in the act of doing it that we create ourselves and make an art of living.  

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