Friday, March 18, 2011

Ruthlessness

I've been on a memoir tear lately, having torn through biographies or autobiographies of Muriel Spark, Keith Richards, Anne Sexton, Linda Gray Sexton, and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I think with the exception of Keith Richards (what a stand-up person; I like him enormously), all these people come across as extremely ruthless. Perhaps Linda Gray Sexton is less ruthless than the rest of them, but I think anyone who tries to commit suicide has a certain obsession with the "ME." And, yes, I realize that enormous amounts of pain--physical or otherwise--can overwhelm to the point where the "ME" is the only thing that matters. I've been depressed and I've experienced horrific amounts of physical pain to the extent I wanted to hang myself, so, yes, there are times when it really is only about you. However, despite all my mental or physical anguish, I have never and can ever conceive of wanting to commit suicide because I do think that's when the ME becomes, well, ruthless.

With the exception of Keith Richards, I find that I do not like these people because of this very ruthlessness. I even find myself feeling irritated by them; these people are compelling and yet also repelling. A. Sexton is enormously selfish; Plath I find something of a fool (I could see her eventual crisis coming from a mile away); Hughes is nothing more a brute with a brain; and Spark is odious. And yet their art is amazing. I'm not one for Hughes' poetry because the whole shaman/life force/superstition/occult metaphor does not work for me, but I can't deny that he was a phenomenal poet. And Sexton's poetry is similar to Plath's in that here they are in the late 50s, early 60s and realizing what a bum deal it is to be a woman, especially a woman competing in a man's world. It's hard to read about Plath's determination to be the happy homemaker/poet/uber wife, seeing herself as second best to her husband; not only seeing herself as second best but relishing that role. Equally painful is reading how Sexton learned how to mine her craziness for her art, not realizing of course that there's only so much crazy people can take before they are worn out. Hughes and Spark are cut from similar cloth; focused and determined and steely (there's no other word for it) they demanded respect and never let anyone push them around. It's a toss-up who I dislike more, Hughes or Spark. Perhaps Spark because there is no dismissing that Hughes was a brute but he did love deeply (if extremely unwisely). Spark hoarded all her love for God and didn't seem to have much for anyone else.

Anyway, I think the point of all this rambling is that I don't see myself as an artist, although I do see myself as a writer. Clearly I'm not ruthless enough. If I were more like any of the above, I would tell my husband, "Yes, I know that we have children with college tuitions looming and we get our medical benefits from me and we have a mortgage and our parents our aging, but I want to sell this house and move to Ireland and write a big book. I know this means we will have little retirement and our kids will suffer from my selfishness but this is what I need to do. I must do it."

That's what these people did. Their art came first. I push my "art" into the corners of my life that are vacant. An hour here, four hours there. I have been selfish in my life, but not ruthless. Although I won't deny feeling envy for people who are.

1 comment:

kimboosan said...

Really insightful post. I remember coming to a similar conclusion during one of my first RL jobs outside of college; it seemed all the *successful* small business owners were incredibly ruthless both professionally and personally. (And, often, jackasses in the bargain.) It was the first of many lessons life threw my way to show me how unsuited for the corporate/business world I am.

I had never applied that insight to the arts as you have done here, but I think you are right: to achieve that kind of greatness, the art MUST come first. Even if you are nice and polite about it, that doesn't change the fact that everything and everyone else comes second. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I can't think of any.

But that's not me, either. I don't think? Maybe it is; but I certainly don't consider myself an "artist." I'm just not that talented to begin with. I want to tell stories, so that's why I say I'm a storyteller, instead of a writer. /random musings