Art, “personal necessity,” and radical particularity–some thoughts on response

I’ve been thinking these days a lot about how to make something that matters. I’ve been working on a novel for six (!) years now, trying to apprentice myself to that genre, that craft–and increasingly I think the work is figuring out how to get the work to happen along the grain of my actual thinking, rather than simply trying to learn how to produce something that resembles what other people I admire have done successfully. It seems simple when I say it like that, but it really isn’t, at least not for me. This is easier said than done, this work.

I recently finished reading Irma Voth, by Miriam Toews. I loved it. She writes: “Where is the art made out of intense personal necessity?” She also has a character mull on “The act of writing down words that contradict the things that you’ve been taught.” I’m thinking about both of these things quite a bit these days–how to do this, how to find one’s way into the heart of the thing and stay there, doing the work of responding to this crazy world. Art is my answer, increasingly. We need rituals, ways to respond–and art offers a way of responding that can acknowledge the radical particularity of us, our interiority. I’m trying hard these days to find my way toward the true particularity of the work. I’m thinking, increasingly, of the root of responsibility–that verb, to respond. I think the key to figuring out how to make my work matter to me, how to make it good on my own terms, will be incorporating (even colonizing) my urge to social and cultural responsibility, pulling that impulse and anxiety into the work itself. To risk turning the work of art itself into the work of responsibility in the world: making it a response, however faulty, however partial. Yet honest.

Thoughts on this? How do you understand your work, the impulse toward it, the urgency of it?


One of the hard things about a long project (and one I’m not yet especially good at) is that in the six years I’ve been at work on this novel, I’ve rarely finished anything (strange and disorienting for a poet!). But one thing I did finish was an essay, “A Container of Light,” which (as I’ve mentioned here before) recently took the Silver Medal in Personal Journalism at the National Magazine Awards. In the spirit of celebrating what I have managed to finish, and steadying myself for the long haul this novel still requires of me, I’m posting a link to a pdf of the full text of “A Container of Light” (originally published in TNQ issue 120). I would love to hear your thoughts, your responses.

A Container of Light PDF (National Magazine Awards submission archive)




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