Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Heidi: O Captain, My Captain

I have been thinking lately about metaphors of creativity, specifically of an artist being the captain of a craft she sails across a sea. I like the idea of setting out, alone, across the vastness of that expanse, of setting out from one shore and landing on a new one, possibly unplanned. And while you may have crew from time to time and friends in port, largely it is the artist struggling to control the uncontrollable, making meaning from chaos. I love the metaphor in part, I think, because all you have to do to be an artist is to get a ship and sail it. I can build it, borrow it, buy it—but once I'm out there on the ocean, it's mine. It changes with my journey—sometimes deliberately, refit to weather a storm or navigate a passage or sail in different waters.

It's not enough, of course, to just have a ship. I have to know what I'm doing. I've had to study a lot of techniques and honed skills. I've also made a study of the ocean of creativity itself, trying to understand it. I want to know the mysticism of the force I sail upon, to understand its soul. But even with as many years I've spent working with this ship, sometimes I do little more than sit across from it as it lies beached on its side, and I wonder why the hell I thought I could sail it, and I'm tempted to just go get drunk. I've worried about my choice of destinations and worried how long it will take me to get there, whether or not the time I'd projected was feasible, or if it was the right way. I have gone far out to sea only to turn back again and worried the whole time what that meant. I have spent a great deal of time wondering what every move I make means.

I have come to think that the most important part of being an artist is to shut off that worry, to spend as little time as possible staring at the bottom of my hull wondering about the worth of my decisions.

One of my favorite stories of the Napoleonic Wars is the build-up to the Battle of Trafalgar, the story of Lord Admiral Nelson and Admiral Villeneuve. Villeneuve had recently risen to the top of French command, and he knew Nelson's reputation well. He knew it so well, in fact, that despite several blunders on Nelson's part, Villeneuve was convinced that Nelson was too clever for him, that this was all part of some secret plan, and he didn't seize his advantage. His fears consumed him to the point that he threw away these tactical openings time and again, and ultimately Nelson and Great Britain won.

Nelson made a career out of bravery and gusto—he was clever and cunning, but largely he was brave. What an amazing inner compass he must have had to take the risks he did, so consistently sailing—often literally—into the face of danger and not just escaping, but winning. And as he won time and time and again, he built a mythical persona to work in harmony with the compass; even when his risks took him the wrong way or the weather worked against him, his reputation provided cover for error and allowed him time to regroup and ultimately win.

I love the story of the Battle of Trafalgar also because it ends with Nelson's death. While he wasn't wild about the idea of failure and worked like hell to turn the situation to victory, Nelson did accept the risks, and I suspect he always knew the price for full victory could be his own life, and he was fine with that. Though some days it feels like it, I don't think story will kill me. I do, however, know it can change me, and that sometimes is frightening enough. I may do more than just end up on the wrong continent with vegetation I'd never expected. I might be different when I arrive, never able to go back again. Even if that change is ultimately good, it can be frightening to realize story is so powerful it can change me, unearthing in us things I don't want to see, exposing vulnerabilities I hadn't wanted to acknowledge, let alone share.

I think the change is worth the risk. Though Nelson ultimately lost his life in battle, his actions achieved a glorious victory for his country, one many argue has never been surpassed. Villeneuve, though he lived awhile longer, eventually died as well, and he has gone down in history largely as the man who was too afraid to win. The whole point of creating, be it writing or any other art, is to create. To sail the ship and see what we can do with it. To make something. Nelson sailed to win a war, but while I know he loved Britain and believed in his cause, I think it was the art of the thing that held him captive. I think he was an artist at what he did, and he knew it. He didn't apologize for it or worry what other people thought. He just honed his skills and let them fly.

I want that courage, that confidence. I want to find my compass and use it, to be a Nelson in my own journey. I want to know myself so well that even when I fumble, I can turn a mistake into an advantage, and a loss into a victory. But I don’t want to fear. I want to look back at my journey and smile at my fumbles and silly mistakes, not realize all the places where I could have succeeded if I'd just let go and trusted my compass.

That struggle to overcome the fear, I think, is the real battle—and like Nelson, I intend to win.

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