I once read an article about a plant biologist who had an obsession with corn. Not only was he fascinated and knowledgeable about maize from a scientific perspective, but his house was filled with corn motifs of every kind. He had clothing and hats made out of corn husks and corn imagery filled his house like some Mesoamerican shrine to the Aztec corn god Centeotl. It is admirable to be that obsessed about something. You are almost definitely guaranteed to have a career wrapped around that obsession. When an obsession is sustained you are most apt to put in far more time beyond that magic 10,000 hours mark, in order to master that knowledge or skill.
I once read in the magazine American Songwriter a bio on a singer-songwriter who wrote songs while she was studying sculpting in college. One of her instructors told her at some point she would have to focus on one art form if she was going to truly achieve some mastery of that form. She realized songwriting was her real love and dove head first into making music. The magazine was publishing a lengthy article about her, so she had acquired enough mastery to gain recognition. And yet I would have a tough time taking that instructor’s advice. I have a kind of intellectual ADD. I can get enthused about a particular subject and inch my way through 4 or 5 books on that subject. I’m even willing to read some fairly dry stuff to get a deeper understanding. But invariably I tire of the subject and must pick up something else. It’s true that I have a circle of interests, and will often fold back on a subject I was enthused about in the past. But I can’t stay for too long on any one subject. And I can’t just read and read, and then write for too long. I need to go on my little Orpheus trips with my songs and my guitar. I often fight the urge to take up ink wash painting and Chinese calligraphy or learn some endangered indigenous language to keep it alive. I am guilty of dabbling. Of stretching myself far too thin to ever achieve a degree of perfection with anything. To be superficial and amateurish.
Those two words, superficial and amateurish, are both used to define the word dilettante in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Google’s definition comes up as: A person who claims an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. That’s a rather condescending definition of the word. I would claim that most people are dilettantes. We are so bombarded with information and entertainment that distraction becomes a way of life. When a certain subject or topic begins to require more digging and harder work for a deeper understanding, we easily loose interest. There’s a whole host of other interesting diversions at the click of a mouse. So why struggle with the finer details that any skill set or knowledge base requires for a truly deeper understanding. And that deeper understanding requires time that really can’t be measured. Does anybody clock 10,000 hours and then say, “There! Now I have mastered it”? Humans are so used to quantifying and measuring in order to value time spent. The time spent truly mastering something eludes that kind of valuation. It is so easy to dabble instead.
In a talk to science students the astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson talked about his early years in graduate school. He was a champion wrestler, rower and won awards dancing. Jazz, ballet, Latin ballroom; a handful of styles. But his superiors preferred he focus on astrophysics and frowned on too many distractions. Once he got more serious he felt he had to drop a Master program at the University of Texas, and start fresh at Columbia. He felt his professors at the U of T no longer trusted his potential to be a successful astrophysicist. So Tyson understands. He struggled with a carnival of interests, like the rest of us do.
But is it so bad to butter up both sides of the bread. That is, to spread it thin. Have a wide variety of interests. Be an indiscriminate explorer of the phenomenological world. This word dilettante has some other definitions from that same dictionary. The second definition was:
– A lover of the fine arts; a connoisseur…[Italian, lover of the arts, from present participle of dilettare, to delight, from Latin dēlectāre.
Now that’s nice. Who doesn’t like to delight? If I’m a bit too dilettantish for my own good, big deal. I’ll have to make something out of it. I could even say it is, well…a delightful way to live. Probably it is the best thing for a writer. Authors are always giving advice to new writers that they should read anything and everything. Let your nose follow you to what you want to know more about. But don’t limit it. And don’t limit your expression to anyone medium.
I was talking to the Arts Librarian of our local university library and she was telling me the cataloging of art exhibition catalogs runs into confusion when it comes to the issue of artists like Picasso or Michelangelo. Librarians aren’t certain they should be under paintings, sculpture, architecture or whatever other medium the artist chooses to dabble in. Or whether the artist should be given their own individual cataloging status. These renaissance men dove into different mediums with little concern they might be spreading themselves too thin. And in doing so made a lasting contribution in many expressive forms.
I once went to a talk with Steve Earle. On top of great songwriting and performing, that busy man has published a collection of short stories and a novel. He was telling us he was writing plays now, as his wife and him were living in an apartment in New York City. The talk was rather impromptu; Earle wanted to meet a few students on the campus while he was in town playing a show. There were maybe 10 of us in a little campus theater, probably more staff and faculty then students. We all got to ask him a question or two. I remember him answering to a question on whether he thought he might be juggling too many mediums. It might have even been me that asked it. Earle said he had recently been talking to an artist that inspired him, and the artist had asked Earle if he engaged in any visual forms. And if not, why not? Earle confessed to us he had now started painting.
The list of contemporary artists that delve or have delved into other art forms can go on. There’s Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Kinky Freidman, Shel Silverstein, Tom Waits, Patti Smith. Too numerous to count them all here. Paul Bowles, the writer known for his novels and short stories, was also a prolific music composer in his early years. You can hear his music as a soundtrack to this short film about his switch from a music career to living and writing in Morocco.
There has to be a way of assembling an artistic story out of a mosaic of different interests or ideas. Bowles explains his attempt to do so in a couple of sentences in his preface to his collection of stories A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.
“In 1960, I began to experiment with the idea of constructing stories whose subject matter would consist of disparate elements and unrelated characters taken directly from life and filled together as in a mosaic. The problem was to create a story line which would make each arbitrarily chosen episode compatible with the others, to make each one lead to the next with a semblance of naturalness.”
That idea intrigues me. Where to connect the dots of my swirl of interests and compose works of art from it? Sculpt it into a presentation. So excuse me if my blog tends to diverge at times. I’m just trying to create a mosaic out of the wide range of interests I inhabit. Now I think I will start learning Mayan and pick up some ink wash brushes at the art store.
And by the way. Happy 4th of July.