Why are our little acts of creation - drawing, writing, even good conversation - so irresistible? Why does life seem barren without them? With so much good art and literature in the world, why do we feel compelled to add our contribution?
Sitting in the studio, easel propped on his knee, Oleg Vassilievich scrapes away at my student drawing, exposing clear lines, clearing the muck, bringing his sharp, practical focus to the picture. After a long silence, he says almost to himself, “Don’t you understand that simply sitting here, creating something - bringing it onto the page where nothing existed before - brings such pleasure, it’s almost unbearable. In the whole world, only God and the artist creates.” And he looks up at me with a warm smile.
Oleg Vassilievich grew up in Soviet Ukraine, and became an artist and teacher only in his late thirties, after serving in the Soviet Army and working on construction sites. He has experienced many things which I have not - he’s been married, raised a child, worked as a professional artist. He is square faced and middle-aged, detail-oriented and precise. His latest enthusiasm is creating intricate etchings by using acid to hand-engrave designs into metal plates - something which I can’t even imagine having the patience to do. Given our different backgrounds and interests, he ought to be completely alien to me. For some reason, though, we seem to be kindred spirits. We understand each other perfectly, and I feel a sense of relief, coming into his studio, to know that for a few hours I won’t have to explain myself or defend the choices I’ve made.
Then there’s Elizabeth Gilbert, whose book, “Eat, Pray, Love” has become the major pleasure in my life over the last few weeks. Under the glossy sweet shell of this caramel-apple of a book is a serious spiritual journey. I’m so grateful to her for sharing it with all these readers who she will never meet, and probably only vaguely envisioned as she scribbled in her diary. Her year-long trip through Italy, India and Indonesia (eating great food, praying in an Ashram, finding love in Bali) may have seemed like a wild and improbable idea when she first pitched it, but thanks to her clear-as-water honesty and humor, it now seems as inevitable and obvious as the route of Dante’s journey through Hell and into Heaven.
And what about Ruth Reichl, whose perfectly ordinary and wonderful life shines through the pages of her memoirs, “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort me with Apples?” What compelled her to put such intimacy on the page, how was she able to do it?
Then there’s my friend Valery Slotin. One morning back in February, I was sitting in a practice room at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Valery was warming up for an audition for which he had spent months preparing, his first chance to play for an audience in the United States. It was early, we’d been up for hours drinking coffee, and I felt calm, rational, a little worried, and quite unsentimental.
Then Valery took up his violin and started playing a Jewish funeral prayer. I can't quite describe what happened: it was beyond words. I can only say that he played so sweetly and passionately, with such force and courage, that in about ten seconds I actually started crying. The beauty of the music was too much for me. Powerful, hot, happy tears forced themselves out my eyes and down my throat. I sat there, incredulous, wiping them away, trying to be quiet so as not to disturb him. I had almost got control of myself when he began the great Brahms Violin Concerto in D - a hymn to passion and desire, which demands that the artist give and give, like a spring bursting through the ground. He poured himself into the instrument, transforming everything around him - the little dusty room, the drab carpet, the cork walls - into a paradise.
How, when I had heard the music a thousand times? What is this secret ingredient of joy which can overwhelm irony, familiarity, expectation, until we break down?
If I even start on Colette, M.F.K. Fisher, or James Baldwin we’ll be here all day. The riches that we human beings experience, and share with each other through art and music, should be reason enough for us to believe in a higher order to the universe, and set us free to go dancing down the streets with joy.
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
- William Carlos Williams