Art and fear

rothkoDear Nancy:

We’ve been off the blogging grid for awhile now, and I have missed you, missed these letters, especially at this tail end of winter.  It was subzero when I visited Ohio for a reading during the last part of February.  On the way from the airport we drove past fields and ponds long deeply covered in snow.  A lake was thick with ice and marked with the tracks of sleds.   Right after that, back in Maryland, we had another snow.  They were lace-edged and heavy with ice and I couldn’t get down my slippery front steps to go outside to photograph the lilac bush and its ice coating.

Now it’s spring, at long last.  Brilliant purple crocuses in my front yard.  Cool weather, just enough for a little quilt on my bed.  Smoke still rising from the chimney next door, as it has for all the months since November set in.  Ravens are taking off from the trees in the distance outside my study windows.  I’ve reached the final pages of revision on my novel, and next week I head to North Carolina for a conference in Johnson City.  Things are good in Writing World.

And yet, as we talked about in a recent note, I am someone who is subject to anxiety.   If I take an accounting of this morning’s anxiousness, it could a veritable notebook full of restless internal questioning.  Will the all the little fragments I have about fire find their way soon enough into a shape, a memoir even?  Will the new ending for my novel work, or should I stick with hands that make magic?  How many liked my Facebook status?  Will the head I broke off of my Virgin Mary statue really stay on with that new glue?  Will Earl, the orange cat’s, renal failure mean he’ll leave us?  Should I have two cups of coffee or just one?

Like many other inheritances—everything from body image to depression—I come by my anxiety as the burden of inheritance.  We were a family that perfected the art of anxiety.   We even use that word, anxious, in the place of eager, excited, anticipatory.  I’m anxious, we’d say, to see you.  I’m anxious for that new movie to start up down at the drive-in.

My mother, as she descended into Alzheimer’s, worried about little girls inside her pillow or imaginary boys breaking into her bedroom window.  Before that, she worried about everything from her weight to the perfect condition of her front teeth.  Now, with final stage Alzheimer’s, let’s call it worry that she experiences when she is furious about the water the nurses threw on her in the shower that morning, or the water she constantly swishes through her teeth in her very real worry that they are rotting right out of her mouth. And my father’s mother, my closest family member.  She worried too.  If my car broke down while I was driving her to the store, it was her fault.  And all those pie pans and milk cartons and scraps of cloth and soap and everything else she saved and saved—surely they were shoring up against some sort of disaster or other.  And lest we say that worry is gender-relatedthere’s my father.  He worries about aging, about the ticking time bomb of his heart, about money, about what he could have done, but did not.

And even without an inheritance of nervousness, there’s always the evolving Big Picture, these days.  The perpetual tick and hum of our news feed.  Our likes and dislikes of postings.  Our call to Linked In, Twitter, Meetup, Goodreads, Ello, Instagram, Pinterest.  Let’s get serious.  Post 9/11, we inhabit the brave new world of the bottom line.  Planes vanish from the sky.  This is the age of ingestible explosives.  Fires and lootings on the streets of Ferguson.   Just last week, Isis militants ransacked Mosul library, burning over a hundred thousand rare manuscripts and documents spanning centuries of human learning.

Anxiety?  I could go to bed right now and pull the covers up over my head and let the dog lick my face until I go to sleep.

Other days, I make art.

I try to tell myself, regardless of the sometimes dubious looks from my colleagues here and there, that writing is a spiritual act.  It is an act of healing.  It is about summoning soul, even if soul has flown right out the window and landed somewhere, a cliché.  Writing is about light.  It is about remembering.  It is about forgetting.  It is about ice on the leaves in the rhododendron beside my house.  It is about this word followed by that word followed by the next.   It is about loving.  It is about not.  It is about (         ).

I could wax poetic, but I’ll quit, because making art actually doesn’t make my anxiety any better.

Art is anxiety, in and of itself, isn’t it?

I mean, there’s that breathtaking moment when I walk into a room at the National Gallery and sit down in the presence, yes, presence, of a Rothko blue painting and feel the world shiver and rise and settle down, for a little while, in my heart.  There’s that moment when I’m swimming lap number forty at the local YMCA and think, yes, there’s the word I need for that page I’m working on.  Right there.  And then I drive home and stop at the store for milk and pick up the mail and the recycling crates and then head in the door and feed the dog and try to remember and can’t, not quite, that particular word for the color blue I knew back at the pool. As one of my favorite little books, Art and Fear: On the Perils and Rewards on Artmaking, says:  “Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.”

I guess, in this age of the bottom line, the phrase I need to embroider on a sampler for my study wall is this:  living with doubt and contradiction.

It’s even true, this doubt, this contradiction, with the kind of writing I find myself most at home with.  Consider what the editors of one of The Fourth Genre: Writers of and On Creative Nonfiction say about us folk:  “Writers who seem most at home with this genre are those who like to delve and to inquire, to question, to explore, probe, meditate, analyze, turn things over, brood, worry—all of which creative nonfiction allows, even encourages.”

Fun stuff, this anxiety, artistry and otherwise.  Then there’s living with it all, day to day, the nature of my world.


Just this morning, before anyone was up anywhere, I put on my boots and took the dog down to the stretch of grass across the street.  Took the dog really doesn’t describe it.  She took me.  She bounced and dove in the new green shoots coming up.  She yelped for purest joy.  As I turned and headed for the house, I watched the lights come on in the windows of houses, and I remembered a song I love, one about some old dog found on a back road, and he just might be god.  How anxious I am, eager even, for the blank screen already on in my study.


Much love,





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4 Responses to Art and fear

  1. deborahlott says:

    I thought this posting was beautiful and I could 100% relate to every word. I’d love to see more of your work. Where should I look for it? Are you my FACEBOOK friend? Please. Anxiety informs every aspect of my life — my worries are different than yours but equally pervasive and often seem ridiculous in retrospect. It is a habit of mind and it does seem tied to the making of art. Art is preferable to worry; it’s just worry is so much easier. Thank you so much for this.

    • Karen says:

      Thank you, Deborah. Making the work, putting it out into the world, discussing it–all is about vulnerability. The worry is something I work to transform, translate even, in the process of making art….


  2. Thank you for this, Karen. My mother—a worry princess with a 99 year reign, and counting—has always said “anxious” for both worry and excitement. It has only been in the last several years that I realized one of those is inappropriate. Before the word comes out of my own mouth, I have to stop and think of the emotion I mean to convey and make the right word come out. Like translating to a foreign language. I had no idea this was a thing, and not just my mother’s!

    I have so enjoyed reading your conversations with Nancy. I have three private blogs with others based on your great idea to exchange letters.


    • Karen says:

      I know, Gretchen…always the way excitement was conveyed in my growing up. I know there is an impact on my psyche. Must be. Perhaps both a difficult and a powerful impact??

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