An Artist Without Obsession Isn’t Worth a Damn!
According to author John Updike: “The ditch digger, the dentist, and the artist go about their work in much the same way Any activity becomes creativity when the doer cares about doing it right or better. The artistic impulse is a mix, in varying proportions, of childhood fantasizing brought on by not necessarily unhappy periods of solitude; a certain hard wish to perpetuate and propagate the self; a craftsmanly affection for the materials and process; a perhaps superstitious receptivity to moods of wonder; and a not-often-enough-mentioned ability, within the microcosm of the art, to organize, predict, and persevere.”
Also, a strong taste for the Infinite is an integral part of the creative experience, though not all artists are necessarily in touch with that aspect of their art or craft. But Michael Ventura, prolific Los Angeles columnist, and author of several books, including the recent novel, The Zoo Where You’re Fed To God (Simon & Schuster, 1994), is likely to wax metaphysical at any time, whether the topic is Ross Perot, An Inventory of Timelessness, The World Riots, or the mystical appearance of giraffes in the zoo.
This unrepentantly original author, whose ideas are so provocative his editors say he divides a room faster than any other writer, says “Don’t ask questions, Live them.” In this way, Ventura Lives, himself, as creativity, so is well qualified to discuss the nature of creativity.
Michael, what is your understanding of the nature of creativity?
Michael Ventura: Let me talk about this word “creativity” where it’s used as a noun, as in a person, place, or thing in our language. Creativity is neither a person nor a place. Is it a thing? Calling it creativity assumes it has a kind of substance that it may not have.
Creativity is the vulnerability to spiritual and physical sensation, and to experience, combined with and acting upon a certain level of skill, combined with the compulsion or longing or need or desire to give. It’s hard for one noun to contain all that because those qualities are always in flux. They are not a person, place, or thing. They are not something way down there that can just go and be tapped. If your vulnerability has become hardened, it’s very, very difficult to be creative.
So these things — the degree of vulnerability, the degree of skill, the degree of the longing to give — are influx all the time, And to lump all that under the word “creativity” assumes something much more static than it is. That’s why an artist may be marvelous in her 20s, and be creating automatic crap in her 40s. A writer may be trivial in his 20s, and be writing incredibly in his 50s, because those things are always in flux.
And then, when you go from creativity to art, you must add one more quality-obsession. An artist without obsession isn’t worth a damn! Now, the world of psychology and the world of normal life tends to look down on obsession. It’s not good for you, and certainly not good for your relationships. It’s not good for a lot of things, but it’s the only way to make a work of art.
As Rilke wrote, in response to the young poet who asked how to know if he was really a writer, “Ask yourself every morning, ‘Can I live without writing?’ If the answer is ‘Yes,’ don’t bother. It is too difficult.” And that’s absolutely true. This element of obsession is terribly important for an artist.
Do you think creativity is a constantly replenished aquifer?
Ventura: Creativity is an innate function in a human being, as we see in tribal peoples, who spent their considerable leisure time making religious artifacts and sacred art. That is what I would call a direct culture, in that everybody in it is directly in touch with all the elements, both of the culture and of the environment.
By contrast, we have a culture that is indirect in the extreme, where by the time you’re five years old, you’ve watched tons of television, and have been subjected to what I call “the age of interruption,” where everything is interrupted every minute. We have constant input from TV, computers, fax machines, telephones, etc. It’s very hard for a modern American to have two hours of uninterrupted time. I know how it is because I insist on several hours of uninterrupted time each day, and I know how ruthless I have to be to get it. I require and enforce as non-interrupted a state of living as you can get in America right now without going off to live by yourself in the mountains.
In this situation of constant interruption, that aquifer of creativity dries up. That well of receptiveness and vulnerability and perceptiveness and longing closes. I think in some people it just hardens over, and in some people it just disappears.
Are there other societal pressures that stifle creativity?
Ventura: We have to be realistic about the brutal demands a money culture puts on the psyche, and there is a great cost to this in terms of creativity. Look at the state of people at 65. How many of them become creative after having to survive in the money culture? People are judged continuously everywhere on the most intimate level by the prices on their head. Most of them accept the judgment. It’s very hard to have self-respect, or to maintain a state of creativity under these conditions.
One of the characteristics of your writings is your free and full embrace of shadow aspects, as well as light. That takes a certain degree of courage. What role do you think courage plays in the successful expression of creativity?
Ventura: Courage can’t make you an artist, but without that courage, you won’t remain one for long. First is the courage to be alone in the room where you create, and the courage to face that indefinitely, with no one to say if you are any good or not.
Then, there is the courage to follow your work wherever it’s going to take you. And the courage to fight for your work. When I was being hired for the L.A. Weekly, I said, “I take suggestions. I don’t take assignments.”
What about the courage to look within?
Ventura: I think that’s a given, although I’m actually surprised at how many times writers don’t have it. There are writers I know and respect who are very good about what’s outside, and not too hot about what’s inside. A couple of years ago, somebody said to me, “The things that other people shy away from, you don’t. And that’s courage.”
I replied that I always thought Cyrano De Bergerac was a coward. He could fight a hundred swordsmen, but he was afraid of his nose, and he was afraid of Roxanne. Jam as cowardly as anybody about facing my fears. So, you spend your you years as an artist fighting those hundred people that you happen not to fear. Then you wake up one morning and realize all this time you’re afraid of your nose. That’s what you’re going to have to face for the rest of your life. And you don’t feel very courageous. But, if you don’t face it, you dry up as an artist.
The fear never goes away. You just learn to live with it better.
Besides keeping your writing space sacred, are there any other kinds of things you do to get your creativity flowing?
Ventura: I never get my creativity flowing. I’m a pro, this is how I earn my living. If it don’t flow, I don’t eat. There’s a certain hard-nosed bottom line to that — you define a professional by a certain cruising speed beneath which that professional rarely dips — its just got to be there on some level every day.
Also, you develop a writer’s mind. It’s always going. It doesn’t stop You don’t turn it off or on. It’s always looking at everything as a writer. So, I don’t think of it as flowing. I think of it as the medium in which I live. An artist doesn’t depend upon inspiration or have to have it. An artist doesn’t depend on mood, certainly not if you’re earning your living with it. One of the definitions of a professional is you can do some writing if you have to, even in the most extreme situations.
What is your sense of how your Muse, your creativity, is connected to your spirit life?
Ventura: Very deeply. There isn’t any difference, with me anyway. My spirit life, to use that phrase, is also the medium in which I live. It’s not something that comes and goes. Without one the other wouldn’t exist. My spirit life very much depends on my work. My work very much depends on my spirit life. And I pray every day, as part of my own ritual, to a god I believe in, not a god somebody else believes in.
I try to write into the heart of experience. Then, through the experience of the writing, that heart reveals itself to me. To write it down for others, as a door to go through it they choose, is the price of the experience, the price of the ticket. This is the demand that Cod, if you like, puts on you for being an artist.
The demand goes like this — If you go down this certain path, I will show you this certain thing, and what l ask of you in return is that you show it to others, as well as you are able, and that you do not stint, or spare yourself, or spare them. If you do that this time, then maybe there will he a next time. If you shy away from it, then go hack to where you came from.”
Michael Ventura’s challenging, in-your-face, lyrically evocative work is rich fodder for the growing, exploring mind-the mind that cherishes glimpses of the Infinite in the mundane, the profane, the silliness of world politics, and in all life’s confusing and gorgeously spectacular variety. If you are truly fortunate, you will have in your possession many of his articles from the L.A. Weekly. Many of these finely worked brain-bending gems are reprinted in other periodicals, and there are several hooks which offer a banquet of vintage Ventura.
Some Books by Michael Ventura:
- Shadow Dancing In The USA, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1985
- We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of PsychoTherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, (co-authored with James Hillman), Harper Collins, 1992
- Letters At 3 AM., Spring Publications, 1993
- The Zoo Where You’re Fed To God, Simon & Schuster, 1994