A shorter version of this essay was published in North Shore Art Throb several years ago. Since doubt seems to be creeping up again, I thought I would put it here, in the blog.
The Role of Doubt in an Artist's Life
I have always been a doubter and a believer at the same time. Belief is a very subtle, quiet nutrient, whereas doubt is loud, banging, shaking its fist. The mind is so well versed in argument, logic, if this than that. This is how we get around in the world. The soul part of us doesn’t fly this way. This is the soul: it is night, quiet, save the hiss and chirp of the radiator at my bedside, my husband next to me asleep and I say this to the dark, “I know you. You are there. And you know I love you.” I am of course speaking to my own creative heart.
But I’m not going to write about the creative heart here. I am going to focus on doubt and the role it can play in an artist’s life. If you are an artist, I think it’s natural to have doubt blaring in your head most of the time. Anne Lamott called this the radio station KFKD or for us East Coasters WFKD. I think you can understand what the letters imply. She writes:
If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight and on and on and on.
Nathanial Hawthorne was no stranger to doubt and cynicism. I recently read The Scarlet Letter for the first time and was awestruck by the language, the insight into the human spirit, the passion it exhibited. I was also quite taken by the precursory story The Custom House in which Hawthorne talks about his disenchantment with writing and what ultimately led him back to the pen. He writes of the ghosts of his ancestors haunting him, embodying the doubt and discouragement he had felt:
“What is he?…A writer of storybooks! What kind of a business in life- what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation-may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!”
Hawthorne knew himself, the difficult self that he was, dark, skeptical, mystical, solitary; however, he was a grounded man and his doubt was instrumental in this. If he had not doubted the efficacy of Brook Farm ‘utopia’ or had stayed within the comfortable womb of the transcendentalists, The Scarlett Letter would not have been the novel it was. He writes:
After my fellowship of toil and impracticable schemes with the dreamy brethren of Brook Farm; after living for three years within the subtile influence of an intellect like Emerson’s; after those wild, free days on the Assabeth, indulging fantastic speculations beside our fire of fallen boughs with Ellery Channing; after talking with Thoreau about pine trees and Indian relics in his hermitage at Walden; after growing fastidious by sympathy with the classic refinement of Hillard’s culture; after becoming imbued with poetic sentiment at Longfellow’s hearthstone-it was time, at length, that I should exercise other faculties of my nature, and nourish myself with food for which I had hitherto had little appetite.
Hawthorne returns to the world and nourishes himself with its food—a paycheck, a little bit of status with his post of Surveyor at the Custom House, and no one knows of his name and no one really cares. Here, there is no big literary ego to compare himself to, there are no more philosophical discussions; he can allow himself to refrain from being a literary man and exist in this realm of retired sea captains who tilt their chairs against the wall and talk about the days of yore. He works at his job, but cannot do so wholeheartedly, cannot do so without acknowledging the reason he is there in the first place; he is discouraged and he regrets his lot as a literary man was wrought with failure:
At one end of the room, in a recess, were a number of barrels, piled one upon the another, containing bundles of official documents. Large quantities of similar rubbish lay lumbering the floor. It was sorrowful the think how many days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil had been wasted on these musty papers, which were now only an encumbrance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes. But, then, what reams of other manuscripts, filled not with the dullness of official formalities but with the thought of inventive brains and the rich effusion of deep hearts- had gone equally to oblivion; and that, moreover, without serving a purpose in their day, as these heaped-up papers had, and-saddest of all- without purchasing for their writers the comfortable livelihood which the clerks of the Custom House had gained by these worthless scratchings of the pen!
Indeed this sounds a little like the self pity drivel WFKD can spin in one’s inner ear.
Jaded as he was, he was fully aware that such a move was transitory for he could not deny the creative heart, making itself known:
It might be true, indeed, that this was a life which could not, with impunity, be lived too long, else it might make me permanently other than what I had been, without transforming me into any shape which it would be worth my while to take. But I never considered it as other than a transitory life. There was always a prophetic instinct a low whisper in my ear, that within no long period, and whenever a new change of custom should be essential to my good, a change would come.
In the above passage Hawthorne gives us a ray of light, a mark of faith in himself as a writer, a telltale sign that he recognizes the whisperings of the creative heart and how it will ultimately draw him back.
We cannot deny doubt its role in the process of creativity. It brings us back down to earth, it allows us to abandon flights of fancy and perhaps even pays the bills, but it must be kept in check. We must see doubt as something that accompanies us when we move between spheres but we must allow our curiosity and interest to pervade at all costs. This is what separates the creative from those who mistrust their talents; those who let curiosity die out. Hawthorne, as the character of the surveyor in the Custom House holds fast to his cynicism until he finds for himself the object of his inspiration, the scarlet letter:
But the object that most drew my attention in the mysterious package was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded…It was the capital letter “A.” …It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in bypast times, were signified by it, was a riddle which … I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter and would not be turned aside.
This is of course entirely fictional; Hawthorne did not find an embroidered letter, what he found was a brilliant idea for a story and he found it only after doubt had trumped him and he excused himself from his literary life. Yet, what is found in the world cannot be written in the world; Hawthorne soon discovered that he was in need of a room of his own:
So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom House to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of The Scarlet Letter would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance.
The story Hawthorne sought to write would not be written due to the author’s lack of inspiration and solitude in his surroundings. He was again, dramatically dejected and professes this famous statement: “In view of my previous weariness of office and vague thoughts of resignation, my fortune somewhat resembled that of a person who should entertain an idea of committing suicide, and altogether beyond his hopes, meet with the good hap of being murdered.”
Just when doubt nearly extinguishes our light, Providence, or God, or whoever you believe to be working behind the scenes steps in. Life reworks itself in favor of creation, in favor of the masterwork that must be read, that must touch and teach and bring enlightenment to the human condition. Hawthorne as Custom House Surveyor was ultimately fired from his post, became again, “a literary man” and The Scarlet Letter was writ.