[From a lecture delivered to alumni of Vermont College of Fine Arts on June 18, 2016]
Flannery O’Connor in her book “Mystery and “Manners” uses the term “the habit of art” to refer to a certain way of seeing that the artist must cultivate. The term does not refer to an activity as much as the writer’s attitude, an internal disposition of the writer from which the writing emanates. Writing out of the “habit of art” becomes, in her own words, “something in which the whole personality takes part – the conscious as well as the unconscious mind.” Like other habits, the habit of art becomes rooted in our very being.
The best way that I can describe the habit of art in my life is to say that it consists of the development of intuition through mindfulness. Intuition is that gift-like quality that gives our characters and our stories their uniqueness – the spark that makes our work part of our deepest self yet something new. Intuition is that which brings into being what only we can create. Because there are so many concepts that are sometimes covered by the word intuition, I would like to define it as a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words. It is, to use, T. S. Eliot’s words, a “sudden illumination”. Except that sometimes, an intuition can come to us little by little, slowly over time.
Here is an example of an intuition. The philosopher William James wrote in his Will to Believe: “If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricality from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a fight.”
This feeling that James had, that life is a fight in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success is an intuition that I share. Deep down I feel that this life is a fight that can be won or lost. It feels as if what I choose to do, what I choose to believe, whom I choose to be, matters. This “feeling” is a certainty. There is no doubt in me about this. Moreover, this certainty is not just a feeling, it is a way of seeing and being. Because I have this intuition, I am thinking of you, my reader, differently right this very second then if I didn’t have it.
What I have found most helpful in learning to listen to my intuitions (part of the habit of art) is the mindful investigation of my beliefs so as to uncover the intuitions that lie behind them. And the place where mindfulness is most fruitful is in the patient and kind, the non-judgmental, honest awareness of who I am. By who I am I mean not only the person I truly am and am meant to be, but also the person I hide from myself and the person I would like others to see. A mindful, but compassionate awareness of who I am does not flinch from from what Mona, one of my favorite characters in The Memory of Light, calls “the uglies.”
For intuitions are the lotus flower of the mind. Their roots are in the muck, the smelly dirty bottom of our being. They grow in the rich soil of shame and secret desires, in the emptiness of regret for the wasted opportunities to be brave or to love. The more we penetrate with mindfulness into the hiddenness of our “uglies”, the more beautifully unique that our intuitions and the characters and stories they inspire will be.
We cannot force an intuition to come to us. I realize that what you most want and need for our work is ultimately not up to us to bring into existence. But even though we cannot force an intuition to come out, we can knock on the door, we can even open the door and in a gentle, tender way let the child in there know that we are there, that we are present and that we would like to play. This presence, our constant, loving presence to all of existence, including the voices and visions inside of us, is what the habit of art is all about.
Ultimately, the habit of art is part of a habit of being. Our unique characters and the stories that are meaningful to us and others will come from intuitions that arise from a habit of art that is embedded in a habit of being. And if you were to ask me what quality in that habit of being is more conducive to a habit of art from which intuitions will arise to enliven our work, I would have to say that it is humility. Because we have no control over them, intuitions are all about humility. The humility in our habit of being will percolate all the way up to characters that are us but also separate and unique beings. And what is this humility? It is neither an inflated or a deflated appreciation of the role of our creative work in our life. We have a gift but so does the carpenter who builds a simple, useful chair. I like the way Vincent Van Gogh, the guy who sold maybe one painting during his life, described this habit of being. Writing to his brother after a severe breakdown:
“So I remain calm and confident through all this, and that influences my work, which attracts me more than ever, just because I feel I shall succeed. Not that I shall become anything extraordinary, but “ordinary”, and then I mean by ordinary, that my work will be sound and reasonable, and will have a right to exist and will serve to some useful end.”