THE STORMING BOHEMIAN PUNKS THE MUSE: the dark night of the artist’s vocation

What does it mean to have an artistic vocation?


As I began writing this column, I googled the phrase and found an astonishing 5,330,000 results. Obviously, the idea of art as vocation has some resonance.

I’ve been thinking about this because, lately, I spend much of my time freelancing and, although this involves a great deal of writing, it doesn’t feel much like a meaningful vocation. One of my recent jobs was to write catalog descriptions for deep fat fryers and industrial grade restaurant refrigerators. Aside from the alliteration, there’s not much poetry in deep fat fryers. And the pay is embarrassing. The job requiring that I identify and write about the best places to purchase eyelash extensions in the North Bay was a thrill by comparison.

Odious freelance assignments are not the only reason I’ve been thinking about this. My personal life has been stormy as well. Neediness and neurosis and depression have put a dent in relationships, and I wonder is this the price I pay for being me? The me that wants to be a creative artist and winds up trolling for pennies, trying to write gracefully about the wonders of eyelash extensions?

I wouldn’t mention such personal stuff, except I suspect that many creative types find their artistic identities sometimes tied up with their neuroses and other frustrations and damn it’s hard to get it all sorted out, isn’t it?

2228_caconA few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a reading at San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center featuring the great CA Conrad. Conrad (a blazing talent imho) remarked, “I’m tired of being such a sad faggot, but ces’t la vie… I need to write a poem to calm down.”

Boy, did I identify!

So what’s the point of this column? Well, I guess I’m saying that the “artistic vocation” is not about being creative one hundred percent of the time. Alright, maybe, if you’re a genius like Picasso or Mozart (who once remarked, “I write music the way cows piss”). But for most of us, creating is an on-and-off proposition, interspersed with periods of despair or indifference, just living life as it comes.

What meaning, what artistic sustenance, can we rely on when the well is dry and we find ourselves in a creative desert? In this column, I usually speak of “punking the muse,” finding prompts and techniques to just get something out, to keep creating no matter what.

But, here’s a tough truth: it doesn’t always work.

And here, perhaps, is where the idea of art-as-vocation may prove helpful. Vocation usually refers to the religious life, and even if one is not a believer, there is a vast tradition of religious experience that may still be of value. In particular, I’m thinking of the writings of the great mystics who speak of the “dark night of the soul.” In the religious vocation, loss of faith, doubt, emptiness, desertion and despair are recognized as inevitable companions on the journey toward enlightenment. It’s not all the ringy dingy springtime, my friends.

Joyce Carol Oates

When the inner landscape is destitute, and creativity has become a burden rather than a blessing, we need not conclude our vocation has abandoned us. Perhaps these dark moments are inevitable and can be welcomed, even embraced as angelic visitations.

Say yes to the great no, and see what happens. Wait it out. Read a book for pleasure, or visit a few art museums. Stop trying and just be. An artist is an artist is an artist. It’s who we are, not just what we do, and nothing can take that away.

For myself, I bought a blank notebook and set upon the task of filling every page. I decided my work would be to decorate the pages with my chicken scratches, and if I managed to fill the book, that would be enough. Content be damned.

And you know what? It took a while, but after a few weeks, amidst all those muddy dumps, a few lines of poetry began to sparkle.

Charles Kruger
The Storming Bohemian