Blank Canvases

One of my favorite novels about the creative process is Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Narrated by its protagonist, the novel follows the vagabond artist Gully Jimson as he scams his way through London seeking enough money to buy paint and canvas. Jimson is a very chatty narrator, and has a lot to say about why he likes to paint and why sometimes doesn’t like to paint. As I recall, he spends a good chunk of the novel trying to finish one painting that, in the end, simply won’t come together. When he finally chucks it and starts a new one, Jimson waxes euphoric about the beauty and allure of the fresh canvas, its unique perfection, its pristine field of possibility.

I thought Cary caught this moment perfectly, because even as I read Jimson’s ode to the blank canvas I could feel the coming trouble. One brush stroke and the field is broken. One brush stroke, and you have committed to a direction that ineluctably eliminates more possibilities than it reveals. Such is the unique tension of creation—this seeking of the finite within the infinite.

I used to live my life thinking, “I could do that.” I could be a journalist; I could be an actor; I could be a screenwriter; I could be a game designer. I could, I could, I could. It was a sneaky kind of thought, one that felt like the spark of action but was designed to keep me forever beginning. I was a promiscuous, though romantic, careerist, always certain this next love would be the one.

Yet just as in a marriage, we may think we choose that someone for the candle-lit dinners, for the laughter and kisses and happy conversation, but soon enough will come to the arguments and accusations. Always these moments feel like the middle of an intractable novel. This thing had such promise—now look at it. By and by we find our way through, and when we emerge on the other side I quietly acknowledge it was perhaps the disagreement I was seeking. Within me lived the thought not that I could, but that I could not, and so I seek the crisis, and so the light comes, and so the page is open once again.

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