The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
My whole life long, I’ve been called to the vocation of writing. My Georgian grandmother was a published poet in Iran, which I discovered years after I had written my first poem. Diaries were kept since I was old enough to scrawl, short stories preserved in spiral notebooks. Letters to friends, spilling over excessive pages of stationery, were indulged by the reader and myself.
In hindsight, surrounded by manuscripts, three literature degrees and the memories of English teachers’ praise, I am able to recognize that writing was what I was born to do. It took a year and a half of detours, brick walls and other people’s questions before I would deliberate the idea of an art as vocation. Looking back, I see that my mom’s illness and death were inextricably bound in my birth as a writer. Every post-graduation job as administrative assistant, meant to bridge the gap to my undefined career, was cut short for the next season of chemo, recovery, or hospice.
What was I to do in the meantime? Well, what did I actually want to do with my life, stops and false starts aside? I sat across from a friend at an outdoor café in full view of the International Peace Palace. She prodded me for a concrete articulation of my heart’s vocational desire. I was at a loss for words. I had tried applying for translation work in this town, a center of international diplomacy and government. My qualifications had been found a little less than perfect. The idea of teaching, though natural for most PhDs, made me want to run off, screaming. I had no interesting response for my friend, no reply that would illicit the “Wow!” I had grown accustomed to during years of overachievement. I asked her if she, a minister, had any other professional pots bubbling on the back stove.
“I’d like to do some more writing,” she said. My ears perked up.
“As in, leave the ministry to write?”
She sat up in her seat and leaned forward, adamant in protest.
“No, no, this is definitely what I am called to do. I mean, there will be a time to develop my interest in writing, next to that which I am doing. I don’t know what form yet, or for what discipline, but I just know that it is something I’d like to pursue.”
While she went on to tell me about her first article for The Economist, my mind drifted a little. My heart had panged when she said that, about writing. I was a little jealous. My insides had released an almost imperceptible sigh, which, en retour to my belly, had gotten stuck in my throat. Heartburn of the soul?
When I dared to tell her that I, too, wrote, I framed it as a hobby. She asked a few questions that engendered more of my non-committal, unformulated murmurings. Then her eyes lit up.
“Do you know Anne? She’s a writer, American and sometimes preaches at the church.” She said I absolutely had to meet her, sit down, share a lunch.
The rest is history. From that lunch with Anne over a year ago, I have since progressed to the point where I no longer stutter to answer the question, “And what do you do?”
I used to preface my response with the story of my mom, explaining I’d been away and was now figuring out the next step. When I finally dared to speak of writing, I’d buffer my lack of publications with the rationalization that I’d just “started out.” Today, I simply swallow, smile, and say, “I write.”
What was so unnerving about deciding to be a writer? Why did it take so long? At first retrospective glance, the source of that hesitancy is easy to qualify: money. Artists don’t make it. Financial security is afforded by regular paychecks, which artists rarely receive. My father is a violinist, my mother studied painting. Surrounded by artists and nurtured by their work, I learned to love the craft while stay at arm length’s away from the notion of a viable, artistic profession.
As my husband now supports my attempt to jump start a writing career, I am ever aware that money is an issue. But I’ve discovered that money isn’t the most unnerving thing about art practice. There is something so much more disarming, namely, a required vulnerability that is endemic to the nature of art production.
It’s the act of what Madeleine L’Engle calls “serving the gift.” It is the habituation of what C.S. Lewis describes above, “simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in” – from nine to six, five days a week.
While the rest of the world – who opens the shops, turns on the stock market, fights for the rights of the marginalized – makes the world go round, grinding through the ebb, flow, and trials of exterior existences, the artist sits still. She looks inside herself to create her next canvas, compose her next measure, write her next stanza. She tunes out the noise of all noble and ignoble pursuits outside, to tune in to the strata of the divine.
The artist connects to that layer of the cosmos that one connects to when engaged in prayer. But she doesn’t get up after “Amen.” She stays there, stretching her insides, pulling herself open to listen. While conversing on a plane of which most people are rarely cognizant, she extracts the voices of the unborn and the dead. She visits what Anne calls “God’s courts,” in search of the eternal, immersed in the outer reaches of heaven.
Everyone who creates has channeled into that plane. It exists and subsists, providing creative nub for all who are engaged in the art of expression – regardless of whether they’ve drawn an IKEA design or a self-portrait, regardless of whether they believe in God or not. I’m not talking about God raining ideas and inspiration down onto creative heads, though I am sure that does happen. I am talking about what it means to serve the gift, to lean forward and stay put, exposing ourselves to those layers of our lives that are so much easier to overlook.
This is probably why it’s difficult to make art practice a lucrative business. People who foster a vocation of articulating the innate will be underestimated, humored, even ridiculed – by others as well as themselves. We respond to a voice that commands us to drop all other pretensions of progress to do that one thing we were, no kidding, born to do: paint, write, play. Artists do, even though secular standards make it difficult to subsist on the filling of an inner requirement, on the simplifying of one’s life down to the unadulterated urge to create.
I get this urge when I’m walking around empty art museums. Something about gesso and light-filled spaces generates my desire to run home and write. In essence, my museum high is the legitimation of my craft by the company of other artists. Sitting with Zaida, photographer and future godmother of my baby, I have that magical company-of-artists feeling. It is the feeling of being in the itinerant church of creativity, of being a part of the small congregation of people serving the gift.
It is our collective bearing down into sofas, the smug admission into levels of comfort disallowed by other social situations. It is a silence laden with photos waiting to be taken, of poems brimming to be written, of hours yet to be invested in the troublesome movement of a Rachmaninoff concerto. All these things rest in the interstices of artists, whose shared company affirms the unpopular, intrepid surrender of prioritizing art practice. We revel, bathe, and replenish in it. We smile at each other, rosy from pregnant projects. We tip up the bottom of the tea cup, feeling the last drop of drink roll as we rise to our feet. We pull our scarves up from the seat with a certain zeal, the afternoon’s passage notwithstanding, before taking grateful, slightly premature leave to go home, encouraged to create.
Copyright © 2007 Anastasia Hacopian. All rights reserved.
Published in The Penwood Review, vol. 12, number 1, Spring 2008 issue. ISSN 1092-5155. www.penwoodreview.com