At the Art Students League in New York one of her fellow students advised her that, since he would be a great painter and she would end up teaching painting in a girls’ school, any work of hers was less important than modeling for him.
So goes a brief passage of Joan Didion’s brief bio-critical essay “Georgia O’Keeffe” from The White Album (nothing to do with The Beatles, except the era), which I have been reading slowly, chewing and savoring each essay by a master of the craft. Georgia O’Keeffe fought her trolls, like the fellow student, male, dismissing her and her work ( “Style is character,” Didion writes) before O’Keeffe ever opened the narrow snake eyes of the art world to her paintings.
Trolls, however, lurk in both sexes, in all arts — painting, music, writing. All slobbering, ready to eat anyone who tries to cross the same bridge they’re living under. When I moved to Austin, briefly, in 1995, I lived with a troll under the bridge, Frances, who dismissed my writing, as if all I might ever produce would be samples to teach writing, if that. She, on the other hand, would be the great artist, the one who aggressively dismissed me and my writing as naive. She would achieve, publish novels, become wealthy, where I would not.
Dorothea Brande, in her classic Becoming a Writer (1934), warns of trolls, and advises writers to surround themselves with people “who, for some mysterious reason, leave you full of energy, feed you with ideas, or more obscurely still, have the effect of filling you with self confidence and eagerness to write.”
Trolls still lurk under my bridge — most recently a former boss, but sometimes Frances, and sometimes an old former editor at the paper. It can be hard for writers or artists to dismiss the undermining voices and go on to achieve what artists like O’Keeffe achieved. It’s part of our nature, I believe, to remain open to the underminers. Perhaps we feel the thing we love to do most is somehow unacceptable to the outside world, and therefore sinful, and we shoulder the sin, the temptation to keep writing or painting or composing, bearing it as a guilty pleasure, something we secretly desire to be absolved of.
And yet the believers exist out there: They share the sweet-tooth cravings, the indulgence in dolce peccante. They “fill you with self confidence and eagerness to write.” They are people like my wife, and my former colleague Clay Coppedge. Listen to such people. Cross the bridge, but keep from eating so much you get too fat to walk. Savor just enough of their influence to keep the words flowing.
Georgia O’Keeffe had her sister Claudia to inspire her when she lived in Texas. On their walks O’Keeffe would watch the evening star come out. She got ten watercolors out of the star. She savored enough and then produced art.