Sunday, August 07, 2016

Minding the Muse

Seattle poet, writer, and master teacher Priscilla Long, whose book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, offers a collection of insights into the process of making art, has found the inspiration to collect more wisdom on the artistic process in her newest release, Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Dreamers.

It contains a lifetime of her observations on how artists and writers go about their lives and work.

“Over the years,” writes Long in the introduction, “I’ve studied the lives of artists and writers from Picasso to Patti Smith, from Raymond Chandler to the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. I’ve wanted to see what I could learn about how they went about their lives and work. I’ve used my own discoveries and those of creativity researchers to inform and improve upon my own strategies as a writer and poet. I find that no matter how experienced I get, there’s something more to learn. Here you have what I’ve gleaned so far.”

And what she has gleaned so far is simply remarkable.

In fourteen brief chapters, organized roughly according to the stages of the process, she provides insights into the various steps that an artist must take to bring an idea from the abstract realm of thought to the page and into a reader’s hands.

Beginning with a chapter on productivity and learning to work, she includes helpful tips on gathering, hoarding, conceptualizing, finding and inventing forms, acquiring skills, mastering domains, taking time, making space, marketing, becoming a public figure, and developing a high self-regard, and along the way offers helpful guidance on how to deal with feelings that might stand in the artist’s way.

Some of the helpful tips that Long shares:
“Learning to work is about learning to sink into the work. Learning to be patient with the work. Learning to work every day, even if only for a short time. Learning to eschew distractions.” (from Chapter 1. Productivity: Learning to Work)
“It’s not about working fast. It’s about returning to the work day after day, inquiring of it what it needs and giving it what it asks for. It’s a conversation, a dialogue, at times an argument. It’s a relationship. As long as we keep steady, keep the faith, keep on returning to the work, the work will keep on giving us back what we need to complete it.” (from Chapter 1. Productivity: Learning to Work)
“Any particular planned work benefits from a gathering stage. Objects, lists of words and phrases, photos, pictures and words cut from magazines, maps, fast drawings, discovery-writing sessions, studies of the sort done by visual artists—all are forms of gathering.” (from Chapter 2. Gathering, Hoarding, Conceptualizing)
“In the beginning you open the creative problem, in terms of both its form and content. Do not rush. Do not think of the rewards it will bring or of how good or bad it will turn out. Keep the problem open for a good long time.” (from Chapter 3. Opening the Problem, Closing the Door)
“I’ve learned that when I’m in the middle of working on a piece, my feelings are best ignored... It’s okay to feel the feelings. It’s okay to vent them in your journal. But to let them guide your actions—not okay. As Robert Fritz puts it in Creating, ‘Your feelings are irrelevant to the creative process.’” (from Chapter 5. Feelings Are Unimportant)
“Is there an artist in existence who does not, at one time or another, fall into the deep well of discouragement? Do not permit this. Just keep working. Miriam Schapiro, feminist art pioneer and leader of the Pattern and Decoration movement, wrote, ‘When I look back on the years of excessive self-doubt, I wonder how I was able to make my paintings. In part, I managed to paint because I had a desire, as strong as the desire for food and sex, to push through, to make an image that signified.’ In the end, what mattered was not how she felt but what she did. And so it is with us.” (from Chapter 5. Feelings Are Unimportant)
This is a relatively small book, fewer than 75 pages, but contains many memorable passages like the ones quoted above that can’t help but inspire artists as they tackle their work. (And since when is size an accurate measure of a book’s success? Just look at E.B. White’s slim book of writing advice, The Elements of Style),

In addition to such invaluable tips, Long includes helpful questions at the end of each chapter intended to serve as guides for artists to use as they explore their own artistic methods and goals to help you forge new work.

On days when the isolation of working in solitude can feel overwhelming, it helps to have the wise and supportive voice of Priscilla Long whispering in your ear that making art is a possibility, and that you, like the many artists quoted in this book, have something to say.

Her book will help you say it.

For more information about Long and her work, visit her website:


Dianne Ochiltree said...

Always looking for a good resource on developing good writing habits. Thanks for featuring this wonderful poet and her book today.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a note, Dianne. Always great hearing from you.