Friendship and the Artist

Anyway, a shelter is a place you duck in to be safe. A friendship can be like that. Scripture says he who finds a welcome in a storm "finds a treasure."

Friendship's shelter for an artist is a place to retreat amidst the chaos of your creative process to find peace. Friendship's shelter offers the shade of acceptance when the artist is laboring under the burning heat of criticism or rejection. It is a place where there is the warm light of counsel and perspective when the artist's soul shivers in the cold darkness of doubt. Friendship is a wall of security against the tearing wind of instability that is the life of the creative person.

The spark of friendship is initially kindled when two people experience what St. Aelred of Rivaulx called the miracle of mutual attraction. In his wonderful twelfth-century work Spiritual Friendship, the Cistercian monk remembered as "the Bernard of the North" wrote that it is already amazing when we meet a person whose personality causes delight in us. When two people experience holy delight in each other—without any motivation of greed or ambition or other unholy need—it borders on the miraculous.

Holy delight means seeing the other person with Divine wisdom, to know her name the way God does. It's a gift that Adam had and then lost: to know the essential gift and place of each creature. In friendship, we recover it and we are able to see the miracle that is the core in another soul. It is the friend's gift to still delight when the other really needs a shelter, when her beauty is most obscured by tragedy, or sorrow, or suffering, or, in the artist's case, by the demands of creativity. A real friend feels tenderness at a condition in which a non-friend would probably feel revulsion. Aelred goes so far as to say that friendship is "the kiss of Christ," which He mediates through the physical presence of the human friend.

Note that the Scriptures do not say, "A faithful friend dispels or absorbs the storm." To look to another person to do that would place an impossible burden on one's friend. And for the artist, the friendship cannot be expected to make the acts of creativity any less painful. In every way, it is the storm of trying to make our work "haunted," as Emily Dickinson put it, that molds the artist and offers him or her the possibility of maturity. In making us painfully aware of our insufficiency, even alongside the awareness of our talent, it is the storm that really saves us.

So, even having a friend, the artist will still have to wrestle with boredom and frustration and rejection and insolvency. But friendship makes these things survivable. It means there will be a place to go before and in between and after, to be told no, you aren't crazy, and that yes, you can do this, and, oh by the way, your talent is amazing.

There is a great scene in the movie Beaches, which is really all about the burden of loving an artist. In the scene, the broke and struggling singer C.C. Bloom, played by a believably annoying Bette Midler, asks her friend, Whitney, "Do you really think I can sing?" Whitney at first is frustrated and exclaims in wonder, "How many times do you need to hear it?" But then, the grace of friendship exerts itself and so she exhales patiently and says with complete conviction, "Yes, I think you are the most incredible singer I have ever heard." And that's enough to keep C.C. plugging away. For that day anyway.

The first virtue of a shelter is availability. In the same way, the artist needs a friend who will be generous with time and presence. There are special graces for those who make themselves available to the artist soul; for a walk, to be a sounding board, to babysit or do an errand, and very often to nod with compassion and say with heartfelt sincerity, "You poor, poor thing." It's generally over-reach to try and do much more. No matter how much your artist friend may be writhing around agonizing over their project, if you try to suggest resolutions to them, you will probably be met with resentment. Nobody knows their project better than they do, and their instinct tells them that their battle to create is one that they alone can engage. But they do need to know that somebody out there gets how hard it is to produce something good that will do the good of making people see and feel and think.

Still, while a good friend cannot bear the artist's burdens, he or she can definitely share them, in a sharing that turns the sorrow of them to something like joy. It's lovely to have someone care for you. Often, it's enough to send you back out in the storm for a couple of months. In a reciprocal way, it's the summit of human experience to spend oneself for another person, and it just gets better when that person can turn around and produce stunningly beautiful works, in which you know you played an essential part. Emily Dickinson wrote to her best friend and primary muse, Susan, "To make a meadow, it takes a clover and a bee." Emily was the clover, the place of creation and growth. But Sue was definitely the bee, the one who pollinated the flower with encouragement and the creative power of her belief.

8/29/2011 4:00:00 AM