I was once in the print room of the Royal Ontario Museum when a curator giving a tour brought out a pastel sketch of red lines radiating against a brown background (I don’t recall the artist) and said, “What can anyone tell me about this?”
I said, “Well, it looks spontaneous, but it’s not.” I pointed out that pastel is messy, and to maintain the crisp borders between red and brown, it had to have been done with considerable care and skill. The curator looked surprised; she knew that already, but I don’t think she expected anyone else to.
I’m a little wary of people who “write because they have to”; I believe in control in art as in any other part of life. Not that things should be rigid and regimented — as Joe Orton says, there has to be room for both Apollo and Dionysus in the work — but because if you don’t control your skills, don’t have mastery over your talent, then the work rules you. That rarely means good work.
Associating a creative impulse with the terminology of compulsion implies that control isn’t possible. Slippery slopes.
I write for a handful of reasons. One of those is to entertain myself, because I bore easily. Another is to communicate beliefs and values that I hold and think other people should hold too. A third is that I get an idea and it sounds like fun. A fourth, and perhaps this should be listed earlier, is that I am challenged by something — a person, a concept — to produce something difficult. And I won’t deny that the challenge is a little compulsive.
As a child, I used to roll my eyes when my teachers said “don’t use the word can’t! You can do anything!” No thanks. Even then, I knew that nobody else but me should be allowed to define my limits, but that it was rude and counterproductive not to respect my limits when I defined them.
Teachers aren’t used to nine-year-olds knowing their own minds, so of course I got in a fair few tussles about it, not all of which went my way. Oddly enough, all this battling about whether I could or could not do something led to a certain “motherfucking watch me” sentiment:
I can’t write a story about LOLcats? Motherfucking watch me.
It’s not precisely the classic response to reverse psychology; tell me I can’t do algebra and I will genially agree with you. But I’ve tried doing algebra, so I’m aware of my inability. Until I write a story that seems unwriteable or challenging, I don’t know if I can do it or not. But if someone says I can’t, well. Watch me try.
I suppose the point is that every artist, no matter how controlled or how much they believe in control, has their compulsions. Mine is the challenge, but as impulses go I guess that one’s not so bad.