Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

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In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”  

3 thoughts on “Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

  1. Pingback: Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives – asia lenae

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