In Zuni, if I have it right (and often I don’t), you go through several incarnations after this human one. The first are as food-giving game animals like deer or antelope. But the last—right before you go to heaven to dance for eternity—is as sho:mi:do’kya, the little black stinkbug that raises its tail on our desert’s red earth.
I once had a stinkbugcrawl into my old Intellifax 1270 and die there. This caused a paper jam and permanent scratches on the drum, but I felt kind of touched that somebody went to heaven from my fax machine.
Even when I don’t want to write, if I begin, the flow begins: very steady, like blood, or a river.
Year after year I hiked down Frijoles Canyon to the Rio Grande. The river is always there. In different seasons it is different colors—tan in March, emerald in October—and has different water levels, and the sky above changes color and temperature.
My family was anxious about labels. (“What’s your major?”)
To my ancestors—who according to the Zunis are dancing for eternity, though it’s hard to envision those inveterate Presbyterians dancing at all—I say: What I am is me. I am the one who writes, paints, works, sings…and dances.
How to do it all—time allocation—is another question. Honest, guys, I don’t know how. I dither and fiddle and get cranky. I put in a good work day, but sometimes that means lying in the grass staring at clouds, or walking around an Asian store trying to guess what the hell some dried object is.
I try to distinguish my family’s slightly hysterical work-ethic voice from the deep, driving voice of what actually wants to get done. Sometimes one is louder, sometimes the other. But as I accept my own mortality I have less patience for the hysterical voice. More and more I cleave to the voice of time, nature, peace: the voice of earth, where we are one of the gang: very unimportant, very much a part of the world.
Who am I? A writer or an illustrator? Which? Both?
For years I drove myself insane with that question. Sometimes quite theatrically. “Is there a name for somebody who isn’t just an artist and isn’t just a writer but is something that doesn’t really have a name? How do I tell people what I ‘do’? What am I?”
Many a 2 a.m. distress session there. Until a friend clarified things.
He said, “Your nouns are fighting each other: artist vs. writer. If you used verbs instead—I’m painting or I’m writing—then it’s just a question of time allocation.”
We writer-artists—those in the arts in general—have interesting stuff happening in our brains. Which is why we can do the cool stuff we do…and why we can’t speak coherently when, in the middle of a paragraph or a painting, we have to pick up the phone.
And why we’re so often late bloomers. Most people have to learn only one system—the culture they were born into—but an artist must learn two: the culture they were born into, and their own idiosyncratic brain/psyche. They must then, on their own, invent a third: a system which, like a bilingual ambassador or a car’s transmission (choose your metaphor), mediates between the first two.
No wonder it takes a while to sort it out. If you’re in a creative calling, or working your way into one, be patient with yourself. You’re inventing a new world.