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Love note to: Daybook

February 12, 2023

c/o Anne Truitt

Dear Daybook,

First, an apology. During our time together, I didn’t say much. You shared generously about your life as an artist, daughter, mother, sensitive person. I didn’t share much about my experience at all. I probably seemed reticent to you, or unfeeling.

In truth, I was stunned. Your understanding of your own story cut right through the murk of mine. Your words were like a clear blue mirror—turns out it’s not mud swallowing my ankles, but wet sand to dig my toes in. And it’s not a path rarely walked, but entirely, consolingly common.

Remember that time we were talking about chairs? Your thinking mirrors my own question on how the quality of our attention effects the quality of what we make:

“When I painted a chair recently, I noticed that I put the paint on indifferently, smoothly but without particular attention. The results were satisfactory but not in any sense beautiful. Does the attention in itself with which paint is applied in art actually change the effect of the paint? Does the kind of consciousness with which we act determine the quality of our actions? It would follow, if this were true, that the higher the degree of consciousness, the higher the quality of the art. I think it likely. Training in art is, then, a demand that students increase the consciousness with which they employ techniques that are, in themselves, ordinary.”

I think you might be right. In so many things.

Another example: your thoughts on whether you should take a job to help pay some bills made me reflect on my own commitments and the opportunity cost to the art I want to make.

“I begin seriously to contemplate taking a routine job of some sort but am loath to do so. Not out of laziness but because I fear the kind of sickening failure implicit in betrayal of self, the spending of my energy drop by drop instead of into the waves that lift my work into existence.”

Even though I’ve chosen to make art and keep my day job separate, sometimes it’s hard. I’ve invested a lot of time experimenting with ways to manage my creative and emotional energy, but it remains an enigma. My sensitivity is an asset to my art (and art is a balm for my sensitivity), but it means I feel everything with the volume turned up. It’s exhausting, and you get it.

“The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”

“In a deeply unsettling realization, I began to see that I had used the process of art not only to contain my intensities but also to exorcize those beyond my endurance, and must have done so with haste akin to panic, for it was a kind of panic I felt when once again inexorably confronted by my own work. Confronted, actually, by the reactivation of feelings I had thought to get rid of forever, now so objectified that I felt myself brutalized by them, defenseless because I had depended on objectification for defense.”

This sensitivity can feel like a barrier to being a “good woman” or a “responsible adult.” Somehow you found your own way, during a time that was even less forgiving than now.

“What worries me is that I try so hard to be sensitive to the variations in my energy level, and fail so often. It frightens me that my children’s security is dependent on my unsturdy, unstable body.”

“Sprung from my deliberately wrought tombs, my most secret feelings arose alive, bleeding and dazzling, to overwhelm me once more. I simply could not believe what was happening. And all the while I was in the full midstream of events, decisions to be made, children to be cared for, meals to be cooked, the house to be cleaned, friends to be cherished. Paradoxically, it was this very pressure that saved me. My past meshed into my present. It had to be taken in, considered, woven. I found, to my surprise, that the experience of my twenties, thirties, and forties had room in my fifties. The warp and woof of my self was looser and stronger than I had known. Thinking I would not survive, I found myself enriched by myself.”

We even share a common picture of what our ideal day would be like. (Swoon.)

“I have settled into the most comfortable routine I have ever known in my working life. I wake very early and, after a quiet period, have my breakfast in my room: cereal, fruit, nuts, the remainder of my luncheon thermos of milk, and coffee. Then I write in my notebook in bed. By this time, the sun is well up and the pine trees waft delicious smells into my room. My whole body sings with the knowledge that nothing is expected of me except what I expect of myself. I dress, do my few room chores, walk to the mansion to pick up my lunch box (a sandwich, double fruit, double salad—often a whole head of new lettuce) and thermos of milk, and walk down the winding road to my Stone South studio. At noon, I stop working, walk up through the meadow to West House, have a reading lunch at my desk, and nap. By 2:30 or so I am back in the studio. Late in the afternoon, I return to my room, have a hot bath and dress for dinner. It is heavenly to work until I am tired, knowing that the evening will be effortless. Dinner is a peaceful pleasure. Afterward I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it. I read, or write letters, have another hot bath in the semidarkness of my room, and sink quietly to sleep.”

That mansion, by the way (lest anyone reading this should think you are the kind of person who lives in mansions), was provided by a very generous artist’s residency-type situation. Not that it matters, you know. But your job quandary I referenced earlier was based on real need, not a fantasy romanticizing the working class.

Anyway. Apart from the hope of securing an artist residency of my own, I tread on, trying to create a semblance of artistic freedom in my daily life, among all the swill. (Sorry, did I say swill? I meant swell! Being an adult responsible for a mind-numbing list of tasks that repeat themselves over and over is swell!)

You’ll never know how encouraging it was to know that figuring out my own artistic rhythms might not always be so hard:

“One element is clear, however, and that is that the capacity to work feeds on itself and has its own course of development. This is what artists have going for them. From 1948 to 1961, I worked out of obsession, but obsession served by guilt: I felt uncomfortable if I failed to work every possible working day. In 1961, to my total astonishment, the guilt dropped away, replaced by an effortless, unstrained, well-motivated competence that I very soon was able simply to take for granted.”

“The hallmark of a decision in line with one’s inner development is a feeling of having laid down a burden and picked up a more natural responsibility.”

You also encouraged me that my decision to separate my art from what I do to make a living may have been a wise one (at least for the quality of the art, maybe less for the volume, and even less for its getting seen by anyone).

“Sometimes artists use their work for ends that have nothing to do with art, placing it rather in the service of their ambitions for themselves in the world. This forces their higher parts to serve their lower parts in a sad inversion of values. And is, in art perhaps more than in any other profession, self-defeating. Purity of aspiration seems virtually prerequisite to genuine inspiration.”

In addition to all of that, you taught me a great deal about sculpture and form and self-compassion and how to deal with criticism. You fascinated me with all the things you are fascinated by—I wouldn’t have taken you for someone who enjoys learning about military tactics, for instance! But you are, and it’s delightful.

In short (what am I saying, this has already been long!), I want you to know that during our time together, I was not indifferent, but enraptured. I wish everyone early on in their artistic path would have the chance to spend time with you. You are unmatched as a mentor and a person, and I am grateful.

Thank you,

Sarah Avenir

P.S. For readers who haven’t yet met Daybook by Anne Truitt, consider this your personal introduction. Especially if you are an artist, or on the path to accepting your artist-self, this book will be an excellent companion.

In the spirit of POSSE, this was also published at: