The Myth of the Artist

I am, like most people who write or struggle to write, one of life’s great procrastinators. Like all of life’s great procrastinators, certain conditions and circumstances need to be met just for me to get things done. Suffice to say that these conditions and circumstances are not the sort of things that procrastinators are good at imposing.

Deadlines are one of life’s great motivators, but the blogs I write are pet projects and are not subject to deadlines. You might have noticed that there is little on this blog that is topical (there is, truth be told, little on this blog); the truth is that I am not only a highly efficient procrastinator but hold down a full-time job. Such conditions are not conducive to proficient writing. As just one example, consider that the 2,500 words that comprise this Walking Dead blog came about roughly two years and as many notebooks after the idea was first conceived. Even then it was subsequently benched and re-appeared about another year after that. Let’s not even talk about this blog’s drafts folder.

(However, this might answer any questions you have about the timing or relevance of certain essays on this blog.)

Like everyone who struggles to write I am convinced that the writing would fall into place if I could only harness the right conditions and circumstances. Words would come tumbling out in fully formed sentences, ideas perfectly expressed, etc., etc. And so, like all wannabe writers I am obsessed with the way that more successful, more prolific writers write. Like all wannabe writers this leads to the sort of obsessive behaviour that sees typewriters, notebooks and pens of varying type bought and unreasonable restrictions imposed — which is of course just one more form of procrastination. What’s perhaps more interesting about these obsessions is what they imply. They imply that we wannabes are in no doubt about our writerly credentials but only about their physical, literal form. Ask anybody who is in the midst of a soon-to-be finished first novel and they will tell you that the problem is either finding the time to write or finding it hard to sit down and concentrate long enough to get the idea out. This is key: the ideas are in there, we just lack the ability to transfer them from head to paper.

(Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this: ideas don’t have to take any form except that which they take inside our own heads. And since our own heads are more immediately real and vital and important than other people’s heads, we shouldn’t be surprised if we believe in the inherent power of our own ideas.)

Our obsession with successful writers stems from misconception; we wannabes make erroneous assumptions. For one we assume that the finished works we see published are symptomatic of minds that can pour out perfectly coherent thoughts with ease. It all looks so easy to us wannabes, reading. But we don’t see the tortuous, inchoate drafts; the scribbled, crossed out notes and false starts; the weeks, months, years of research; the back and forth between writer and editor. Why does this not register with us wannabes? Probably it’s because we’re guilty of a more fundamental assumption: we believe in the myth of the artist. Put simply, we buy into the idea that writers, like musicians and artists and other lauded creatives, do not develop and learn but are born touched with genius.

And but the myth is seductive. Look at what it means for us wannabes: the writer does not create but merely harnesses things that already exist. The writer is, in effect, a medium through which words and thoughts pass. (It’s probably best at this point not to tell the wannabe that this is just one more erroneous assumption: language is a human concept and not something which exists independently, floating somewhere up in the ether where it can be grabbed or plucked.) It’s no wonder that we wannabes are obsessed with how other writers write. If the writer is a harnessing force then we need only to find the mystical combination of circumstances that will allow us also to harness the words we know are just out there, floating around and waiting for us to grab.

I keep on my laptop desktop an image from one of Beethoven’s handwritten manuscripts. I keep it as a reminder that the myth of the artist is just that: a myth. The artist as some innate harnessing genius does not, it turns out, exist.

Why Beethoven? Sixty years after meeting him, violinist and composer Louis Schlösser related this anecdote

I carry my thoughts about me for a long time, often a very long time, before I write them down. … I change many things, discard and try again until I am satisfied. … [I]n so much as I know exactly what I want, the fundamental idea never deserts me — it arises before me, grows — I see and hear the picture in all its extent and dimensions stand before my mind like a cast and there remains for me nothing but the labor of writing it down, which is quickly accomplished.

What should be clear if you’ve been paying attention is that this is the same thing we wannabes believe about writers. It’s not hard to see why: the vision of Beethoven plucking music out of the air, of Beethoven symphonies in some way writing themselves, is of course romantic and appealing and feels very much like the way we imagine writers plucking words and thoughts out of the air. It’s also untrue. Quoting Maynard Solomon in his very good Music: A Very Short Introduction, Nicholas Cook tells us that Schlösser’s anecdote is not only sixty years after the fact but remarkably, suspiciously similar to a letter attributed to Mozart but which was ‘almost certainly an invention of Friedrich Rothlitz, the journalist and critic who edited the magazine in which it appeared’ (1998, p. 73).

As those people who have reconstructed Beethoven’s paper scraps and notebooks will attest, the reality of Beethoven’s creative process is vastly different to Schlösser’s account (which Cook and Solomon both attest was almost certainly copied from Rothlitz’s letter). Look at the image at the top of this article of Beethoven at his desk and look at the image I keep on my desktop to see how tortured it must have been for Beethoven to write music:

Beethoven Opus 111 Handwritten

Part of the problem for we wannabes is that successful creative types themselves don’t seem in any hurry to dispel the myth — perhaps they too believe it. And it’s even less help when critics and journalists and commentators perpetuate the myth — they most definitely believe it.

And it’s not just creative types: sports stars talk about the first time they kicked a football or picked up a tennis racquet and somehow knew — they just knew — that they were destined to be footballers or tennis players. But they, like the writers and artists and actors, fail to understand that that initial electrical discharge they felt the first time they kicked/hit a ball is only a catalyst to go and devote untold hours to learning how to kick or hit a ball properly. Meanwhile the writer is devoting unsociable hours to reading and learning how to put sentences together; similarly the artist is learning shapes and lines. The actor is gurning into mirrors to learn how his face moves. They, like we, mistake that initial love for inherent talent. And so the most important thing — the footballer endlessly kicking a ball just to feel how it moves, the tennis player learning by rote the feel of a racquet — becomes merely an addendum. And we, listening to sports stars and writers and artists and actors, feel jealous at the power of their calling, of their sense of destiny.

Not to come across as some sort of preacher (because who really cares what I think?) but this really is the wider point: if you want to write you have no choice but to sit and write. If you want to paint you have no choice but to sit and paint. If you want to go kick a ball around for a living you have no choice but to go kick a ball around. A lot. The method does not matter; the right circumstances are not those which will impose on you some sort of meditative, trance-like state in which to harness things, but something you yourself will have to impose. And so I keep the image of Beethoven’s manuscript for those moments in which my eye starts to wander, or my attention span goes (I’m writing this on the Internet, for God’s sake), or I think about how far the end is, and it helps me sit and force the writing into some form of existence. This, really, is the only way it can be done.


Nicholas Cook’s Music: A Very Short Introduction is published by Oxford University Press.


3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Artist

  1. Someone (possibly Hemingway, but I might be wrong) said something about how the art of writing is in making it look simple to everyone else. And someone else about writing only being difficult for writers.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think the quotation I was thinking of was “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way” which is attributed to Hemingway.
        The other quotation was Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people.”

        Liked by 1 person

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