Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Lady of Shalott

In one of my literature classes in college, we read Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott," which I had loved from years before when I imagined I was the incarnation of Anne Shirley. The poem has since become a theme of my life. I have a copy of Waterhouse's painting of her hanging over my fireplace, central, unmissable.

The most important thing I recall about that particular literature lesson was the professor's discussion on the poem's deeper meaning. Yes, it's a tragically romantic tale of a girl in a tower who follows Sir Lancelot to Camelot and dies. But what woman really gives up the ghost because she follows a man from her sanctuary? Plenty of us. So the professor revealed to us enrapt, blissfully ignorant students that Lord Tennyson meant one particular character in the poem to symbolize the artist. "Now which character?" she asked. I was not one to shout answers in class, so I did the usual thing and let others have the glory. "Lancelot?" one student asked in return. I groaned inwardly and for the first time opened my mouth. "The Lady," I said. The professor went on to explain that the poem describes the artist's choice between her art and the world outside it. And should she ever choose the world, her art will die.

I kept waiting for this to happen, and sadly, I'm afraid it finally has. The forward momentum on my novel has come to a stuttering halt. I used to be able to immerse myself into the story and characters, seeing them so clearly, knowing them so well, that I became them (which made for some very strange mood changes, I must say, and led my husband to joke that I had multiple personalities). I used to write so hard that I would work up an actual sweat. That's when I knew things were flowing best of all. It's been a long, long time since I've worked up a sweat just sitting there writing.

Yesterday, I realized how bad things have gotten when I pulled out the novels I wrote several years ago. I can't write like that anymore. Yes, I've written a few stories that have found their way into magazines, but we're talking 550,000 words, all tallied, over the space of three epic novels. How in the hell was I once able to create that many characters that leap off the page, emotions so real that I have myself near tears, in laughter, tensely biting a nail? (And I even know what happens!!!) How in hell was I able to capture that attitude of voice and maintain it throughout the whole bloody thing? I thought I would read that old thing and start gagging and groaning because what I thought was good then was really terrible. Not the case. Not the case at all.

It's caused me to wonder what in the world has happened to my art. Then I recall The Lady. I have not only looked out the window, I have left the tower. The tapestries languish somewhere up there unfinished, while practical duties call me ever farther down the river. Wrangling pets, housework, family, husband, Bible study, a writing community that I love, obligations, obligations, obligations. Among my family, I am surrounded by competent functioning women, and I suppose I've felt the pressure to join them in being as competent in the work of reality as I can. I longed to stop forgetting appointments and outings scheduled. I longed to stop feeling horrible because I'd missed someone's birthday in April because I thought it was October. That's how immersed I was in my art. I suppose I needed to surface just a bit, but now I can barely even see the tower for all the trees. It's taken a decade. That's one hell of a long river. I just hope I wake up again. I hope this is just a needed rest and not the death of the artist.

I'm afraid I shall have to tell everyone I'm going back. The eccentric hermit that's learned to live in the world is going back to her hermitage and the door will be locked. I thought coming out would be research, fuel for inspiration -- and please everyone. Now I don't know what to do.

I suppose I shall sit in front of my novel and try to make a miracle.


Anonymous said...

I can relate to what you're saying very much, though in a slightly different way. I have few other responsabilities...a job, my relationship with my partner, a little family stuff here and there. For the most part I am free to focus on my art. However, sometimes friends, family, coworkers etc do become a little annoyed at my tendency to "space out" or forget things and the like...usually because a story is unfolding in my head. I'm naturally absentminded, but getting serious about my writing only made it worse. And although no one has ever come out and said it to me, I think a few people who know me are or have been of a mind that I'm a little too disconnected from "reality."

I believe strongly in helping others, being there for people and being responsible. However, one should not sacrifice all of ones self and ones desires to please others. So, I just wanted to say I totally agree with and support what you've said. In my opinion, your family and your art should be your first priorities. Other things, well, they may just have to wait sometimes.

Its interesting you use the term Hermit, as what you speak of echoes strongly the common meanings of the Hermit card of the Tarot. Perhaps this time WILL be fuel for inspiration...but you must withdraw from the world, somewhat, and look inward to make the best use of it.
Probably not a bad idea to throw a bit of the Hanged Man's perspective and clarity in there too.

Court Ellyn said...

By the way, I'm getting really ticked that for some reason my responses are not being posted. I'm having to retype them at least twice! Very annoying and strange, blogspot!

So what I said to Justin was something like: Thanks for the words of encouragement and commiseration! So sorry that any writer understands this frustration, but I guess it's unavoidable at times. While I'm not familiar with Tarot or believe in it, I am relying strongly on my faith to help me on this rough journey. I think it's a transition of some kind, a fork in the road, and I'm just having to step out and try one way or the other.

Thanks again, Justin.

Anonymous said...

On a side note, whether you believe the Tarot has any supernatural whatever or not, its pretty nifty just looked at as a set of externalized archtypes (especially the Major Arcana.) Jung used it a good deal for pyschological purposes. Also, somewhat ironically, the best known deck, the Rider-Waite and also the many many decks that draw from its tradition use a great deal of Christian imagery and were constructed from an at least partly Christian point of view.
Just another of my patented estoerica trivia lessons :-)

Court Ellyn said...

:D I do like the cards for the art aspect. I'm much more into dream symbolism myself. That takes me to some interesting places for sure.