Friday, December 31, 2010


Where does inspiration come from? Life? Luck? The Idea Channel? (That's what Art Boy used to say whenever anyone asked him where he got his ideas—until he realized people were rushing home to check their cable listings.) Or is there an element of divine intervention? A deity, an angel, a lyre-strumming muse?

Those of us who toil away in the arts invent all kinds of strategies and/or rituals to keep those creative juices flowing. Especially at this season of the year, devoted to reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future (January, after all, is named for the two-faced god Janus, who looks backwards and forwards), marking the end of the old and the rebirth of the new. What better time to honor the source of creative inspiration—whatever it may be?

On New Year's Eve, just before midnight, Art Boy always burns a painting. No, not in the Farenheit 451, anti-information book-burning sense. It's his annual sacrifice to the art gods, both in gratitude for a productive year and optimism for the future. Sometimes, it’s a more recent painting that he just doesn't thinks worked out, for whatever reason. Sometimes he pulls a vintage piece out of the archive.

Selection is important. He doesn't want to burn a "bad" piece; the whole idea of sacrifice is to give up something of value. He looks for a piece with its own intrinsic soul, maybe a great idea that fell short in the execution, or some quirky, but charmingly rendered piece that just doesn't quite soar. A piece that served its purpose on the evolutionary road toward craft, skill, and style, and now deserves to be celebrated one last time for the lessons it taught along the way. Art Boy dusts it off, we toast it with a glass of champagne, and he puts it on the grate in the fireplace to send it on its new journey. (Fortunately, Art Boy's pieces are small-ish and painted on wood.) At first I thought burning a painting in the fire would be horrible. But in fact, there's something profound and moving and weirdly beautiful about watching a painting turn into ash and smoke and race up the chimney, free at last. It's like actually seeing its spirit heading straight for the art gods.

Of course, I've tried to work this same juju for my writing, over the years, but I've never quite gotten the hang of it. No matter how many juicy manuscript pages I burn, me and the writing gods all know a complete version is still safely tucked away in a Word doc somewhere. Ditto burning an entire bound book; there are plenty more where that came from (just ask my publisher). Burning any kind of tool seems to be out, not to mention a severe eco-hazard, since most writers' tools these days are electronic.

But, come to think of it, maybe I'll try burning a pencil tonight, the tool with which—I kid you not—I wrote the entire original 900-page draft of my first novel. It won't be the exact same pencil, of course, that was worn away to sawdust decades ago. But I always keep a supply on hand, and use them constantly for scribbling in margins and making notes on scrap paper, even while I'm working on the keyboard. Maybe sacrificing this most totemic and beloved tool will create some sympathetic magic, connecting me somehow to that wellspring of creativity I tapped into, once upon a time, when I hammered out 900 pages of fiction in pencil because I just couldn't stop myself.

Because isn't that all any artist can wish for in the New Year? Unbridled creativity and the nerve to use it.

(Top: The Dream of the Poet, or The Kiss of the Muse, by Paul Cezanne, 1859.)

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