I could learn a lot of secrets watching an artist work. I’m captivated by their peculiarities, their methods and obsessions, seeing which specific wounds of childhood still bleed onto their pages.
The documentary 20,000 Days on Earth (2014) chronicles the making of musician Nick Cave. We see the claustrophobic flat of his youth, a saggy bed hemmed by walls plastered with cutouts and found ponytails, the place where he sat carving out his first lyrics. We also see the ghosts who he debates while he’s wheeling through drear of drizzly Brighton. Cave appears as a guy who thinks himself as more obsessed than genius, yet you can’t deny his range and wonderful specificity.
Yet one offhand observation followed me out of the theatre, or in this case, the meeting room of a small Chilean municipality. “To act on a bad idea,” says Cave, “is better than to not act at all.” His thinking is that ideas are neither good or bad. Don’t judge them. Give them time to ripen.
Two weeks ago, I rushed the thorny blackberry patch in my backyard, eager to harvest something before I left for the winter. With brittle, waist-high grasses, the land is less garden and more farm gone to seed.
With utter concentration, I scanned for the rare, ripe purple berry in each green bunch of hardened nubs. Most resisted my tugging. Thorns tore my finger pads, rogue branches wrapped around my ankles like sea monsters. On one hand, harvesting offered relief from writing. But for anyone who has ever done it on an industrial scale, fruit picking offers no romance. It is labor that leaves its marks.
Hot days slid by collecting popcorn clouds on the horizon. Then a steady rain, the first in months. Yesterday I returned though squeaky grass for a last attempt. The berries collected into my wooden bowl at a touch. The work was fast, rewarded by a taste of every mess that crushed between my fingertips. Piola the dog worked alongside me, always choosing the ripest fruit, no need of hands ever.
Time—both time passing and that ‘aha’ moment--is that elusive factor in artistry that requires more of our respect. How many times have I discarded an idea because I couldn’t imagine its trajectory in future time? It’s an error. A work cannot be willed into shape, but accumulates in droplets and merging currents, like a stormhead.
I look forward to my next bad idea.