“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.” P. G. Wodehouse
Joseph Campbell used the expression “follow your bliss” when speaking about Jung’s discovery that reconnecting with a favorite childhood activity in adulthood was a great help in overcoming obstacles to his well-being. Sadly, this expression was immediately misinterpreted out of context, and Campbell was accused of promoting hedonism and other self-serving isms.
But the gist of what Campbell spoke about was, I think, a profound discovery, and one I have used to good effect as a writing teacher and to help puzzle my way through various emotional labyrinths. Campbell states the question Jung asked himself thusly (and I paraphrase): What repeated activity of my childhood was so involving, I lost all track of time when under the spell of that activity?
For Jung that childhood activity was building little stone houses and villages. So as an adult, following his remembered bliss, he undertook the building of a large stone house. As the house took shape, he had many dreams; and his interpretations of those dreams allowed him to move through a difficult time in his own psychoanalysis and successfully complete the process.
When I worked with teenaged writers, I would ask them to write responses to Jung’s question, and this proved a grand catalyst for their writing. Older writers were also inspired by this question, but many of them claimed they could not remember their childhoods; so I would ask them to imagine what their bliss might have been, and writing about that proved as inspiring as their actual memories.
“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” MGM Executive reacting to Fred Astaire’s screen test in 1928
When I was a young writer in the days before online digital computerized anything, and before I learned that most publishing companies and magazines would only consider work sent to them by a literary agent, I mailed off rafts of stories and manuscripts to magazines and publishers, and got back rafts of rejection slips. In those days, relatively few people embarked on the writer’s path, and my housemates were curious about my career choice. One of those housemates, Maureen, was particularly fascinated by my persistence in the face of continuous and overwhelming rejection.
One day Maureen brought me my mail—a few letters from friends and a flotilla of rejections—and asked, “Why do you do this? Seems like you’re punishing yourself?”
I had never thought of sending out my stories for inevitable rejection as self-punishment, but the idea took root in my mind and I stopped sending my work to magazines and publishers. Almost immediately my desire to write began to wane, and I realized that submitting my writing was an important part of my process—a reason to rework and refine my stories. Without that intention, I was not inspired to write several drafts of each story, for I no longer had even an imaginary audience I wished to please, nor did I have the inspiration of the dream of being published and paid for my work.
Nowadays, I write my stories and books to share with a handful of interested readers and to satisfy my curiosity about the intriguing characters inhabiting my imagination, though my dreams tell me that I am also still motivated by the idea of my books and stories finding a larger audience.
“Art does not come and lie in the beds we make for it. It slips away as soon as its name is uttered: it likes to preserve its incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets its very name.” Jean Dubuffet
In Oaxaca in 1970, I was wandering on the fringes of a large open-air market and heard beautiful music emanating from the maze of vendors. I followed my ears and came upon a blind woman playing a mandolin and a blind man playing the guitar, both of them singing. Their playing was superb, their voices gorgeous, their harmonies fabulous, and their intoxicating songs unlike anything I had ever heard or would ever hear again.
I sought them out every day of that week I was in Oaxaca so I could steep for hours in their fabulous playing and singing. They were in rags, received little money for their performing, and were dependent on a sighted boy to lead them around. I gave them what money I could spare, which was not much, and I still remember them and their marvelous music forty-five years after I last heard them.
I was twenty and just learning to play the guitar when I heard those remarkable musicians in Oaxaca. Three years later, I formed a group with a mandolin player and we played in taverns and cafés in the Santa Cruz, from which I made enough for rent and food—the songs I wrote infused with the music of those two musicians I listened to so avidly in Oaxaca.
“We make things for somebody. This idea of art for art’s sake is a hoax.” Pablo Picasso
I agree with Picasso, for even an imagined somebody is somebody. I once read a translation of a Lakota holy man who suggested we are never alone, never unheard, never unseen, because the nature spirits are always aware of us and ready to interact with us.
When I lived in Berkeley, my friend Katje came to visit for a few days. Katje was an opera singer possessed of a superb voice, and she would wait for me to leave on my errands before practicing the arias she was working on, practice requiring a great deal of repetition. Despite my declaration that I enjoyed listening to her practice, she was concerned about imposing on me with her loud and repetitive singing.
One afternoon, I returned from my wandering in the outer world and found four of my neighbors standing on the sidewalk in front of my house, listening reverently to Katje sing.