By Nicole Roché, CutBank Online Managing Editor/Fiction Editor
I discovered Art & Fear four years ago at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. I was skeptical at first. The cover was dated. The title screamed self-help, and reminded me of the scene in Donnie Darko where the high-strung teacher tries to get students to place their assigned “character dilemma” on the spectrum between “Love” and “Fear.”
But long before that time I had come to trust the Raven and its staff. For the uninitiated, the Raven is the Platonic ideal of the downtown independent bookstore, complete with resident cats and David-and-Goliath survival story. (In 1997, a Borders megastore opened its doors one block away, only to close them in 2011.) The Raven is one of those places where the employees post notes about their favorite books, right there on the shelves, so if you are too shy to chat up the sales clerk you always have a recommendation at the ready. The note accompanying Art & Fear assured me this was a work that had stuck with the staff member for many years, and was one they continued to return to for inspiration and guidance.
Now, years later, I find myself coming back to this slim text every few months. I, too, feel compelled to write my own little note here, in the digital ether, urging every writer or artist I know to pick it up.
Art & Fear is self-help, it’s true. But it offers up that help in straightforward, no-nonsense, often elegant terms. At every turn, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland work to de-mystify the process of art-making. Here are just a few of the many truths that resonated with me (though I will stress reading them in the context of the book as a whole makes them all the more powerful):
· “Your job is to develop an imagination of the possible.”
· (On talent, or perceived lack thereof) “By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work.”
· “The depth of your need to make things establishes the risk in not making them.”
· “Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.”
The book’s multi-disciplinary approach is one of its greatest assets. There is comfort in knowing writing is neither unique in its challenges nor its rewards. Bayles and Orland are themselves photographers (Orland worked as Ansel Adams’ assistant in the 1970s), and though they do draw from big-name writers such as Melville, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Henry James, and Joan Didion, they also reference Frank Lloyd Wright, Chopin, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Stravinsky, Picasso, and many others. The effect is a sense of real solidarity among artists of every kind.
Consider this bit on the interplay of imagination and control/technique, which Bayles and Orland compare to Didion’s lamentation that writing the first few lines of a story quickly eliminates all further possibilities for the story: “The first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting—they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities.”
Then there’s my favorite, the analogy of the ceramics class, which Lit Hub references when arguing why writers should shoot for one hundred rejections a year. In this analogy, a ceramics teacher divides the class into two groups: those who will graded by the quantity of their work, and those who will be graded by its quality. The students in the quantity group must produce fifty pounds of pots to earn an A (forty for a B, etc.), whereas the students in the quality group must produce only one pot to earn top marks—but it must be perfect. At the end of the semester, the teacher makes a telling discovery: all of the best pots were made by the students who were being graded for quantity. As Bayles and Orland explain, “It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busy churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” The lesson here is clear, and a welcome reminder: above all, we improve our work by working.
Of course, sometimes we need a little goading to take up that pen (or paintbrush). It helps to be reminded that while “flow” and “vision” and “inspiration” may be real and admirable things, so are sheer determination and flat-out hard work. A kind of magic may run through our best work, but it is not required. Art-making of any kind is hard—writing this post, in its own small ways, was hard—but we must find ways to get the work done. For me, at least, this book helps.
About the Author: Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction. She hails from Lawrence, Kansas, where she earned degrees in journalism and creative writing/literature. She is currently obsessed with orange cats, Alice Munro, and huckleberry anything.