Sunday, August 18, 2013

ruth and ruthlessness

“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

A few photos from our drive out to Banff, closer to home. The whole way I kept seeing things I'd love to photograph, but no time to stop, or too dangerous to stop. We did stop, though, to drop our dog off at a kennel in the country, and took these down that road.

“Do something wonderful, people may imitate it.”

- Albert Schweitzer

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”

- Albert Schweitzer

What I've been thinking about lately, and maybe ongoing: kindness. What it is to be kind. And also ruth, which is the opposite of ruthless.

Three books I've lately read:

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Master: Janna Malamud Smith

Fortuitous, I think, that I read all these three books in such close proximity to each other.

In An Absorbing Errand, Smith talks about 'ruth' - defined as, "compassion for the misery of another" and "sorrow for one's own faults: remorse." Whereas to be ruthless - one is merciless, cruel, lacking ruth.

As artists, writers, we know that we must develop a certain amount of ruthlessness. Malamud Smith breaks this down into "two major domains of meaning when it comes to art-making." She says, "the mercilessness of the artist is different depending on which one we consider. The first concerns the artist's life; the second, his or her art. I'm not certain there's a clean separation between the two, but they are not interchangeable either."

As she says, "In truth, the most ruthless gesture many of us might need to learn is the simple but uncomfortable one of saying, "No," both to others and to the parts of ourselves that feel too guilty or embarrassed if we do not always put family, friends, and other obligations first before our work."

She gives the example of saying "no" to coffee with a friend so that you can continue with your work instead. This sounds like such a small thing - but after saying no to coffee about a thousand times, I can tell you, it's actually quite difficult. (By now I'm rarely asked out for coffee....but when I am, still that guilty feeling - putting my work, my writing, before friendships).

When the Messud book came out, it seemed everyone was reading it, commenting on the unlikeability of the characters. And they are. The book is really difficult to read because of this. But it's also stuck with me more than any novel has for years. Two women are each engaged in an art making process. Though the book is about many things, what was at the core of it for me, was ruth and ruthlessness. And about recognizing the level of another's ruthlessness, coming to terms with your own.

There is also the distinction in the novel, though it's unspoken, between being ruthless in your life and being ruthless in your art. And what happens when you are ruthless in both of these areas? Or neither?

The last book I read, though they overlapped, as I'd pick up one then the other, was The Faraway Nearby by Solnit. (I've placed all these books on the recommended shelf above).

She says,

"Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can't imagine saying them to the people to whom I'm closest."

This, too, is a type of artistic ruthlessness.

The characters in Messud's book either lack ruth, or ruthlessness. The author has said things about her characters, through her characters, that we artists have difficulty in talking about ourselves, I think. It's an uncomfortable read, but an excellent one.

There are books that seem to arise entirely out of ruth, out of compassion and with the sorrow for one's own faults. And reading The Woman Upstairs, I found myself thinking once again of the writing of Marilynne Robinson, for example. Gilead, Housekeeping.

And thus ends my small meditation on ruth and ruthlessness for this morning. It's something that you'll examine many times as you embark on the creative path. What will you give up, how will you interact with fellow artists, how often will you neglect your family, what will you reveal in your writing, what will you steal from other artists? Questions, yes?

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