Art is war and war is hell, and yet we keep romanticizing the artist’s way
Two books, two things.
Things first. Two of ‘em.
Sarah Polley is wrong; and I am a liar.
There is no magic. Making art is a war and war is hell. I worry that my previous post about all the pretty things you can make at that lovely artist escape, the AGP on the Toronto Islands has done a disservice for them that read it, which is why I feel I need to write this by way of apology/explanation.
To start: Sarah Polley is wrong. Not the Sarah Polley who used to act and act so well she was offered (and turned down!) the part Kate Hudson took in Almost Famous. And certainly not Sarah Polley the director of the moving and fascinating documentary Stories We Tell. I’m speaking of the Sarah Polley who directed a drama about love called Take This Waltz. It had a great cast (Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams. Sarah Silverman), some very positive reviews, but the story, for me anyway, rang false - I think much of this had to do with a man finally seeing what the female gaze can do to a character (the idyllic arty farty handsome man (Luke Kirby) that Michelle Williams’ character falls for: an artist who operates a rickshaw as his day job.. his day job!).
I bring up Sarah Polley’s only misstep as a director, however, not to disparage a Canadian artist so formidable that barely out of her 30s she’s already a bloody icon in this country, but because I take issue with how she portrayed Toronto in Take This Waltz, where the film is set. And believe me, like all Torontonians who desperately wish to find ways to love their city, I was thrilled to have a director of this calibre, filming a cast of this quality, unabashedly eat, flirt, fuck and despair so prettily along College Street West (well the fucking happened indoors, but you know what I mean). Trouble was she put such a romantic magic hour glow over everything. Polley’s Toronto in this movie is all hipster downtown-west houses and streetcars riding toward a dusky sky. At first I thought, finally! Toronto viewed the way Woody Allen and all the rest have done for New York forever. So what’s my problem?
Well in time I decided I wasn’t so sure. Because pretty as it looked, it didn’t look like the Toronto I knew. And I’m not sure the romantic view suits a city not so conducive to romanticism, even if that was the theme of Polley’s film.
Still, isn’t that the job of the movies, those myth-making machines? If you’ve ever spent actual time in New York City, does the place up close really resemble Woody Allen’s version of Manhattan? Well, yes and no. Perhaps I just find it hard to see my own city all mythed up for the big screen. Seems as phony as Holden’s Pencey Prep classmates. As I rapidly approach middle-age and how many thousand movies watched behind me, I’ve grown far more interested in films and TV cast with people who look like actual people (The Sopranos and Killing Eve as opposed to the pretty people in shows like Friday Night Lights or that one about Archie and the gang), I feel that way too about directors who film their cities as they look to the people who live in them - ala Mike Leigh’s London in films like Another Year or Happy-Go-Lucky or the not glamorous Tokyo depicted in Kore-Eda’s masterworks Shoplifters and Nobody Knows.
But c’mon, Mendelsohn. Life is hard. Does art have to be? Romance looks pretty. Is it so wrong to want to encase your city, your life, your love, your deepest wishes as something other than what they really are?
All this because I think I may have mislead you in my previous post in much the same way Sarah Polley mislead about Toronto. I wrote an extremely romantic view of the making of art in a lovely place on the wondrous islands across Lake Ontario from Toronto’s Harbourfront. This comes in response to my dear friend Susan’s email. A fellow writer, she wrote to me about my last post, suggesting a group of us writers go together to the island art commune some time. I wrote back all excited. Images of a group of us doing our own arty creative thing by day, then meeting to make big family-like dinners before adjourning to The Fireplace Room by night to indulge and debauch as per the usual. Only after excitedly clicking send on that email did I pause, laughing at myself. I immediately wanted to write Susan another note. To say, wait. Hold on. Before we go. You do know it’s not all glamorous and romantic, minute-to-minute, hour by hour over there on Gibraltar Point. After all, you are trying to make art when you go.
Because after you’ve taken the ferry journey across those Great Lake waters, once Andrew picks you up in the white van, and you’ve done the tour, been told the rules. After you’ve settled in, made a cup of tea, rifled through what books they have in the library, maybe even taken a jaunt down to the beach you get to have all to yourself in these wintry months, eventually you are back at desk, back at the old blank page and best of luck with that.
For the last seven years, almost exactly since my daughter’s birth, I have on again, off again been a member of the Toronto Writer’s Centre (TWC). Like the AGP of my previous post, this too is a place where magic is made. But here, in the city where Sarah Polley and I live (she spent a day at the Centre once, I can confirm, her desk perpendicular to mine), at the Writers’ Centre on Bloor Street West above a Korean bank and beside a new-ish Chinese dumpling restaurant, is a place more part of my everyday life (there’s a KFC across the street and you don’t take a boat to get there). As such I tend to remain less romantic about it. Which may not be such a bad thing.
The TWC is like so many places people now rent space to work. The big difference, other than a cheaper price, and perhaps slightly less polished sheen (though the Centre’s new owner has impressively upgraded the space), is that the Writer’s Centre has a back room that is a dedicated quiet space. There is the common area with kitchen, eating table, and a kind of living room space where one can socialize, read, sing whilst making coffee if the muse inspires. But back in the expansive quiet room, where most come to work at desks divided by carrels, there is no talking, no singing. You can’t even eat. It’s a kind of sanctuary in the back room. There are no loud-talking business types doing deals on their phones at the table behind you. They aren’t allowed in. For this in 2019 we pay money.
Folks come and go, as with any monthly rental work space, but there are regulars. And back when I started there were four I kept close watch of: four who hammered away at it day in, day out. These were the four that worked like clockwork. The four who came in at the same set hour and left at the same time each day. The four that if you happened to pass their desk, they were never on social media or playing solitaire. In other words, they weren’t fucking around. They were there to work. It wasn’t pretty and even if they did work through the magic hour you would hardly have seen it in the back room, with hardly a window to naturally illuminate the place.
Of those four, Kevin, when I first met him, was teaching science (physics) in high school, teaching just one semester per year, living so lean so he could write full-time the rest of the year. He’s since gone on to such astonishing success with his series of middle grade adventure stories he no longer has to teach. That might sound like small potatoes. But believe me. It’s big potatoes. If you’re familiar with Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key Series (or rather, if your kids are) …
Two of the others are probably the two most successful published writers (in the more literary sense) I get to call friends. The one, Nicholas Billon is a playwright when he isn’t writing operas, or writing works for the Stratford Festival, or writing for television. The other has been at it for some time. Giles Blunt made his mark writing for TV in the States (a little show called Law & Order you may have heard of) before returning to Canada and writing the John Cardinal crime series of novels (the two I’ve read were excellent) so successful they’ve now been turned into the popular TV series, Cardinal.
Finally there is Victoria. The only non-fiction writer of the bunch (she writes in the finance world), I’m not sure she’d appreciate having her full name here. But she’s probably the hardest working of the bunch, and one of the humblest people I know. She’s never shared her work with me (likely because i wouldn’t be able to understand it), but I get the strong sense she’s damnded good at what she does.
The point of these four is that they began, though they may not have known it, to serve as guiding lights for slouches like me.
A year or two ago, Giles, who is also a published poet and, who I just learned looking him up was twice(!) nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award, one day came by my carrel where I was working in the back corner of the back room and wordlessly handed me a book. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Only much later did I learn that this is how this now classic work of inspiration seems to get passed around. Person to person. Writer to writer. Pressfield, a fiction author himself of such megahits as The Legend of Bagger Vance, wrote The War of Art (the title alone) to present a very simple but profound idea: that what stops us making art, is whatever is stopping us from getting to sit down at the desk. The war of art is something he calls resistance. It’s every procrastinating, desk cleaning, I need to call my mothering reason we find not to do that thing we keep telling people is the thing we most want to do.
Each year I get about two months in the summer to write full-time, usually down at the TWC. I spend the whole year pining for those months of freedom, until they arrive. Then of course when they do it’s always several orders of magnitude more difficult than I imagine it to be. To spend one’s whole day, in front of desk, at a blank page.
In the documentary Comedian, Jerry Seinfeld tells the story of the moment he became a professional comedian. He was eating lunch at a place in midtown Manhattan, I think it was. A bunch of construction guys eating across from him. They finish their lunch, get up to go and cross the road, back to work. Seinfeld watches them working away, thinking, how come they have to get up and go back to work but I don’t. To that point he had simply been jotting jokes and ideas when the inspiration hit. After his construction worker epiphany, he would treat writing jokes the way a construction worker lays brick. Painfully and consistently five days a week, presumably. With breaks for lunch.
Fred Astaire famously said he works so hard to make it look effortless. I’ve come to see that the more serious you are about making art, the more you come to understand that the artist’s way (also the title for the other masterpiece of inspiration for any budding, emerging or full-fledged artist — I’ll save my spiel about Morning Pages for another post) isn’t so very romantic at all. We just colour it that way.
Working at the Writing Centre watching people publish and not publish. Watching people’s books become great and even bestsellers and others lose their publishers completely, one thing became abundantly clear: come Monday morning we’re all back at our desks, back at the blank page. For like winter in Canada, the war of art is a great equalizer.
Final anecdote in what has to be the longest post I’ve put up. Steven Pressfield was on Brian Koppelman’s podcast recently (that episode being the other inspiration for this post — and I should add that Koppleman is not only the host of a podcast I love, but is the show runner and creator of the hit TV show Billions, and who I’ve recently learned is a serious champion of two of the most inspiring works for artists (the two books listed above). The War of Art author was saying that we’re all soldiers in the trenches.
But doesn’t it affect you in some way, Koppelman had just asked, after your great book explodes, and people start seeing you as a kind of guru? Pressfield laughed and scoffed simultaneously, saying none of that mattered and he didn’t think about it. Because like all writers he still has to get up at his same time, do his same routine, and be back, ass-to-chair.
We’re all soldiers in the trenches. And if you’re struggling I have a couple books that might help. Also, a podcast. Even a place in this city to write …