In this extract from The Mind’s Eye,the late JUDITH MASON’s book about art and the creative process, the acclaimed artist explores artist’s block, suggesting various ways of dealing with this frustrating phenomenon.
This is a real affliction and will plunge you into despair at some time in your life. It is peculiar to the creative arts. Carjackers, arms dealers and nursery school teachers don’t wake up wondering how they are going to spend their day and dentists don’t whirr their drills in hopeless reverie. Your muse has returned to his/her boyfriend in the Czech Republic and left you bereft. You could take evasive action. Get drunk, as Hemingway and almost everybody else did. (Pleasant but counterproductive.) You could brood in cafés. (So last century.) Overeat? (Plump ruins your Look.)
But let us be serious about this dark night of the soul. Have you been overworking? Maybe you are running on empty because you need a break, a change of scene, even if it is just walking around a different part of your neighbourhood. Most probably you have forgotten how to play with your creativity and are anxious because nothing substantial or sellable is being produced. Take time out. Don’t touch pencil or brush for a week. Leaving your easel may persuade you that the opening in the arms industry really is your bag.
If blockage has not destroyed your vocation, try playing games with your surroundings in order to ignite new ideas. Russian roulette with a dictionary is a great idea. Open at five random pages and select the most promising subject. I have just this minute found GYRE, IN VIVO, SHEWEL, HARPY, and DEFLAGRATE. Harpies I drew long ago so now I read up on SHEWEL and find a clue to something. It means ‘a scarecrow or mark to scare deer’ so I start scrawling versions and options and soon I am thinking about being a deer, and being frightened, and what shape or form would scare me, and … and … away I go. Move over, Landseer, and your mawkish Stag at Bay!
Another game is to clean your kitchen cupboards. Yup. Take everything out and while you are dusting mouse droppings from corners and eating stale crackers, look at your stored items. Tuna tins? Imagine their containing canned mermaid. Draw the label. Tins of ham? Imagine their dropping over a cliff edge like the Gadarene Swine. (You’re looking for a sort of Andy Warhol/Eugene Delacroix vibe here.) Check the salad drawer in your fridge and paint the rotting leeks in plastic wrap, the sliced cabbage like an MRI scan, the wilted lettuce. Call it ‘Signifiers of the Arbitrary’ and away you go! Now notice that your cat is sitting in sullen fury before the food you have offered it. Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of shrimp in aspic. You can make something of that. Then go outside and listen. Try to draw birdsong, the sound of a jackhammer, laughter, a siren. Of course, it is not as easy as I suggest. But use your sense of humour and the absurd. They are tools with which to release lateral thinking at a time when you really dread that you have lost something precious.
As with most forms of depression, artist’s block eventually vanishes, and it helps to accept that it comes and goes. Sometimes artist’s block is a cover for the unravelling of complex ideas from our subconscious. Curiously, the older we get, the less blocked we become. Ideas flow freely and we have a different problem to deal with – the sense that we are clutching at the edge of time by our fingernails. We won’t complete all we want to do, but going out brush in hand makes for a pleasing obituary.
The Mind’s Eye is published by Books & Books Press and is available from Amazon as an ebook. Read Gregory Kerr’s review of the book as well as our interview with Mason about her reading habits and favourite books here.
In Rapid Fire, veteran broadcaster JOHN MAYTHAM has collected questions submitted by 567 CapeTalk listeners to test his remarkable general knowledge in the ever popular insert of the same name on his afternoon drive-time show. Here are a few of some the oddest, arcane and most surprising questions – and answers.
Are there animals that can live without water?
The North American kangaroo rat is most often cited in internet discussions of this topic. These rats do need water to survive, but they have evolved such that it is possible for them to go through their entire life cycle, between three and five years, without ever drinking water. They collect seeds during moist conditions, and live off the nutrition and moisture stored in those seeds.
Then there is an extraordinary water-wise amphibian, the Australian water-holding frog. It stores water in pockets of skin all over its body, but holds most of it in the bladder. It is able to store double its body weight in water, and can live for up to five years without needing to take a drink. Local Aboriginals, if they’re thirsty while out in the bush, will try to catch one of these frogs and squeeze the water directly from the frog’s bladder into their mouths.
Why are weddings rings traditionally worn on the fourth finger of the left hand in many Western cultures?
This is based on a traditional (but incorrect) belief that there is a vein that runs directly from that finger to the heart. It was called the vena amoris, the “vein of love”.
What is the link between the musical works of Handel and Bach, and the one-rand coin?
The words Soli Deo Gloria (To God alone the glory) appear on the one-rand coin. Those same words are also part of the dedication of many works by the likes of Bach and Handel.
Can a vegan eat a fig?
Hmmm, lots of nuance in the answer! It depends – on the fig and on the vegan. Some figs, like the Smyrna, are pollinated in such a way that the female wasp dies inside the fig. The body will be dissolved by acid activity, but strictly speaking,
there will be animal matter inside the fig. Some very strict vegans might see that as reason to avoid the fruit. Forgive me for being technical, but some fig species are parthenocarpic, which means they develop fruit-like structures that don’t require pollination. (Don’t worry, I don’t understand it either.) All vegans can eat these varieties with a clear conscience.
Bananas, on the other hand, are a different story. If they come from a field that has been sprayed with a pesticide like chitosan, then very strict vegans will look the other way because shrimp and crab shells are on chitosan’s list of ingredients. Did someone mention slippery slopes?
The first British astronomer at the Cape, Fearon Fallows, is buried in the grounds of the South African Astronomical Observatory in a suburb of Cape Town. His grave has one very unusual feature. What is it?
The grave is twelve feet deep. Fallows knew he was dying and, fearing that his burial site would be disturbed by grave robbers, he asked to be buried twelve feet down. As the observatory is on rocky ground, the digging must have been very hard work!
What was bought in the first-ever bitcoin purchase?
Don’t ask me to explain bitcoin – it’s dark matter as far as I’m concerned. All I can do is report the fact that on 22 May 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz made the first real-world bitcoin transaction by buying two pizzas in Jacksonville, Florida, for 10 000 BTC. And the fact that, had he made himself a sandwich instead and held onto those bitcoin (bitcoins?), then at the time of writing this book those 10 000 BTC were worth $11 million. (I hope those pizzas were really good.) [Ed’s note: today those pizzas are now worth more than $105 million.]
Advertisements for watches usually feature a watch face set at a particular time. What is that time and why has it been chosen?
The time is ten past ten, because this position of the watch hands is seen as the best possible framing of the manufacturer’s logo and also creates the happy impression of a smiling face.
Why did George Dawson rise to fame in the US?
He learnt to read at the age of 98. Still described as ‘America’s poster child for literacy’, Dawson had a rough life, being the grandchild of slaves and first put to work at the age of four. He died at the age of 103, but enjoyed national attention in the five years between learning to read and passing away. Two universities conferred honorary degrees on him; television programmes were made about him; he appeared on Oprah, where he said, “It’s never too late to learn, I’m still learning now”; he had a school named after him; and he co-authored a biographical work, Life Is So Good, when he was 102.
In this extract from his collected writings, BILL NASSON recalls acting as a historical consultant for Hollywood movie The Deal.
The Moonlighting base in the tumbling and dog-eared Cape Town locality of lower Salt River had an aptly latter-Victorian location inside The Armoury. Now trendy, this colonial version of the Woolwich Arsenal had once serviced the port’s British garrison. There, I met Steven Schachter, American director of The Deal and a partner in the enterprise, Irene Livinsky, who appeared to combine superbly the roles of producer, accountant, nudging confidante and labour agent. Schachter, a low-to-middlebrow sort of Californian film-maker in his sixties, shuffled about in furry bedroom slippers, chewing gum and blowing bubbles during conversation.
From him I learned about the creation of The Deal, an independent production put together with the accomplished actor, William H. Macy, with whom he had previously collaborated. Meg Ryan was Macy’s co-star in the production which would also be featuring the veteran actor, Elliott Gould, the rap performer – turned actor, LL Cool J, and Jason Ritter and Aidan Lithgow, the younger sons of the Hollywood B-movie actors, John Ritter and John Lithgow. Being filmed entirely in Southern Africa, the cast also included several leading local thespians, such as Jeremy Crutchley and John Carson. Location and studio shooting was to take place in a blue and sunny Cape Town California, and in the brown desert of a Namibian Arizona.
As for content and, to simplify, the subject matter of The Deal was a deal. Based on a Peter Lefcourt novel about Hollywood, it was (or is) about a range of film industry characters involved in the hair-raising studio world of producing, financing, casting, crafting, and clinching a big business project, depicting the pleasures and pains and delights and miseries that accompany it. As a dramatic rendition, its technique was to show The Deal as turning on the production of a film within a film within a film, placing viewers in, or behind, shifting cameras so that they would be unable to take everything that they could see for the nature of a real film reality. As an artistic collage of surprise cutting and fading, rolling and popping, the idea behind this film project evoked memories of earlier exercises in making a film about a film, notably Francois Truffaut’s 1973, la nuit Americain (Day for Night). But this was set to be a somewhat more coarse version of such cinema, with a director shaped by a culture of California surf, rather than of French New Wave.
One of the key moments in The Deal was its historical dramatisation, on which I had been drawn in. As its subject was the making of a film about a robust moment in Victorian politics, at the end of a turbulent House of Commons exchange, the cameras would roll back, revealing another set of film-makers staging the episode in Liberal-Conservative confrontation. This was the inner film about which there was the deal to be made, and which now required historical scrutiny of that portion of a screenplay that had been co-written by Steven Shachter and William H. Macy. For a DogPond/Sydnyk Works & Muse Entertainment Production, the full script was fairly bewildering to a novice reader.
What ensued opened up a question that may scarcely be novel to those working in cultural studies, or what one might call the technological media. Certainly, at first glance, film-writing seems to bear some resemblance, however superficial or slight, to writing historical narratives and, even more, novels. Both forms involve sitting down with a word-processor and recreating or inventing an imaginative universe with some degree or other of relation to real life in the present, or else to a credible human past. What emerges is a narrative intended to be shared. But there, however, the resemblance surely ends, and for a basic reason underlined nicely by the author and academic critic, Malcolm Bradbury. ‘Novels’, as he puts it, ‘are written’, while film screenplays are endlessly ‘rewritten, all the time, and generally by someone else’.
The Deal experience turned out to be more or less like that, although the pieces of rewriting requested were undertaken by someone with less than the haziest notion of how films were scripted. Inspired by the personalities of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the screenwriters had hit on ‘Bill and Ben’ as a snappy title. I pointed out that for a British cinema audience of a certain generation, Bill and Ben might well prove to be unintendedly comical. ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’ had been a much–loved feature on ‘Watch with Mother’, a popular BBC children’s programme of the 1950s and 1960s.
Although Bill and Ben survived, other minor alterations were effected, mostly to improve implausible English terminology and ahistorical language construction. For instance, there was the unlikely spectacle of the Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, sneering across the despatch box at his Liberal opponent that he ought to ‘get real, man’, in an 1876 debate on trade and protectionism. Even as glib a twenty-first century British parliamentarian as Tony Blair would never have been guilty of such Americanisms in a British House of Commons Debate. There were also the unmistakeable echoes of a John Wayne Western to lines in which Queen Victoria’s foreign enemies were being ‘quick on the draw’, or in which her country’s French adversaries had ‘the drop’ on Whitehall planning. A crop of other small anachronisms included a Gladstonian ‘no way’, and an autumnal Disraeli promise of action ‘right now, in this Fall’.
In the nature of these things, as I now learned, the screenplay did the rounds for a brief time, with Schachter and Macy nodding through suggested revisions aimed at greater historical verisimilitude. Although the job then seemed done, the director was not yet done with me. Inevitably, even recognising another’s pat appetite for flattery does not necessarily prevent one from succumbing. Was the topic chosen for the film’s Commons Debate sufficiently exciting, Schachter wanted to know. Would it convey in dialogue and in combative atmosphere, the drama of high imperial British politics which Bill and Ben was intended to portray?
As a sparring subject for Disraeli and Gladstone, the 1876 Tariff Laws did not, I ventured, really fit that bill. If not that, then what would? Asked to suggest something less dull, what came to mind was heady imperialism. What about the incandescent parliamentary fuss in the mid-1870s over the prime minister’s purchase of the Suez Canal as a gift to Queen Victoria? It had been a coup of sorts, staged by a buccaneering Britain which was greedy for Egypt. It had been a heated domestic issue. It had had its share of party political hostilities, boorishness and absurdities. It would show the intense mutual animosity between the Tory Disraeli, described by The Times in 1868 as ‘an Oriental charlatan devoid of any moral principle’, and the Liberal Gladstone, which the paper derided three years later, as ‘a sanctimonious humbug claiming the authority of the Almighty’.
Known for being pitted against each other like dogs, no Victorian high society hostess would have had them share the same dinner table. A snarling Commons clash over Suez would surely make for a deliciously overstrained history scene.
Moreover, I suggested, given the present day crises of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the 19th century Canal saga might even have resonance for some viewers of The Deal.
Not only did the screenwriters take to this. They wanted it to be written as a substitute dramatic scene. Dismissing my qualms at knowing nothing of screen craft, Schachter made light of the exercise. Just take the screenplay, look at its structure of character movement and dialogue, delete the tariff debate material, and insert a Suez Canal scene, simulating the Commons exchange. And write it all ‘to camera’, was the director’s instruction, by which was meant providing physical action prompts to John Carson as Gladstone and Jeremy Crutchley as Disraeli.
He was yanked from his exhaustion just as it felt his eyes had closed.
In the silvery dawn light Sipho saw a Panzer tank silhouetted on the hill, pointing its long gun straight at them and within moments Panzers were streaming down the hills all around them, like hundreds of ants. Great billows of smoke swirled up from the town and the harbour. And there from the east, on the hill behind the tanks, came thousands of German soldiers.
“They’re everywhere,” he murmured.
“What a mess!” Job was saying. “Rommel sneaked back in the night. He’s bombed the concrete barriers on the south east and brought the Panzers straight in. They’ve come past the Indian and Scottish regiments, down to the harbour and now up here. We have no guns, and there are landmines behind us. We can’t retreat. We’re trapped!”
Columns of German soldiers moved briskly down the hill with more Panzer tanks crawling behind them. Italian soldiers trailed behind the tanks. The Germans opened fire. As bullets flew past them, Sipho and Job hunched, frozen for a few seconds, and then scrambled for cover. Allied soldiers returned fire but could not stop the mass of German soldiers as the tanks rolled closer.
A lieutenant ran by, shouting to a captain, “Phones have been bombed! General Klopper can’t give instructions. What should we do?”
“Lance Corporal Maseko!” the captain called to Job. “Get a message to the General. Most of the South African 2nd Division are trapped here!” He held out a note and Job darted off.
Just minutes later two British officers drove by holding a small white flag and shouting through a loud hailer, “Every man for himself! Escape if you can! We are surrendering! General Klopper’s instructions: Every man for himself!”
A wind blew off the desert. Thick dust eddied around the armoured car.
Few German soldiers saw that little white flag and the shooting did not stop.
Shell fire screeched and thumped, machine guns rattled. Sipho could not see Andrew. Job was gone. Should he try to escape through the landmines? What would Job do? Two doctors and three hospital orderlies ran from the bombed hospital towards the anti-tank ditch.
“There are landmines out there!” Sipho called to them.
As they scrambled across the ditch and started running over the mine field, Sipho heard two explosions. Five men, two explosions: those were the odds.
A shell thumped close by, and he dropped at on the sand. He needed to get somewhere safe, and started running the other way, dodging low between wrecked vehicles and through bombed buildings, towards the army headquarters.
An officer called calmly through the chaos, “Where’s Lance Corporal Maseko? I need someone who can get things done! Or Private Mahudi! Where’s Andrew Mahudi? Or Private Smith! Johnson? Is there no one reliable here?”
Sipho stepped forward. “I’m here, sir! Ndebele.”
The officer looked at Sipho: just a kid, but a lance corporal, he noticed. And the German troops were closing in. “Ndebele! The Germans haven’t seen that idiotic little flag! We need a big white flag.” He pointed to the half-bombed army headquarters. “Tie it to the roof! We’re surrendering!” He jumped into an armoured car and sped off through the gun fire.
Sipho stared after him and then looked at the headquarters’ building. He’d be visible for miles around. A target.
He didn’t move until another rattle of gun fire shocked him into action.
Where would he find a big white flag?
Nearby were the ruins of the hospital. There were sheets in the hospital. Sipho bent low and ran between the ruins. He shoved the hospital’s broken door aside and looked into a ward. There, amongst the remains of beds, he found a dirty white sheet. He tied it to a broomstick.
Bending low, he sprinted to the headquarters, climbing up the rubble and out onto the shattered roof. A strong gust blew off the desert, buffeting him as he straightened up. He staggered and sat down hard astride the roof ridge. Bullets clattered against the roof tiles next to him. He tried to drive the broomstick in between the tiles, but could not get purchase. He would have to stand again.
He planted his feet on the tiles and was half standing, rocking in the wind, when he felt hands on his ribcage, stretching him upright.
“Kahle! Steady!” Andrew’s voice.
Sipho rammed the broomstick between two cracked tiles and it held fast. As he and Andrew slithered and scrambled to the ground, the wind lifted the dirty white sheet and Sipho heard it, flap, flap, flap.
The guns went silent. Flap. Flap.
There Should Have Been Five is published by Tafelberg. Read Bill Nasson’s review here.