Discover more from Tender Buttons by Rebecca Mqamelo
Honest writing · 24 August 2022
Notes on agony and art
About once a year – usually around the months of August, September and October – I experience a spell of existentialism so agonizing that I am prompted to seek out new modes of living. During this time I find solace in three things: travel (for all Proust said about voyages of discovery and brand new eyes, statistically speaking, my moments of inner stillness tend to be preceded by movement), Russian literature, and a prodigal return to those forms of art most familiar to me – sketching and writing.
Routine flies out the window, time slows down, and little by little, I begin to experience a profound shift in how I relate to myself and the world around me. The roiling chaos is subdued; in its place emerges some semblance of new normality.
But during my most recent bout of inner turmoil, I realized that just as I write from the depths and heights of passion, I must learn to write from a place of calm, too. My artistic expression is far too correlated with the variability of my emotional state.
How can it be that my most lucid thoughts arrive in the dead of night after reading Tolstoy’s tenth chapter concluding with “I wanted to kill myself”? When Michaelangelo spoke of carving at the marble to free the angel within, surely he did not intend for the sculptor to simultaneously chisel away at her own flesh?
The “artist in agony” is a typecast I do not wish to don (and I suppose no one does), yet the periods in which I express myself most sincerely and honestly seem to come from just that – agony.
There is this consolation: one day, these scraps of desultory rambling might be collected into some more respectable form of literature, a fragment of what I hope will be a far more inspiring story.
But does this not betray the very point of “honest writing?” I created this container so that I might escape the pointless debate of what is “appropriate” to share with my “audience”. I think it’s sad how many people reserve their most beautiful work, their most sincere inner dialogue, for closed-friend Instagram stories or diluted tweets preceded by unnecessary disclaimers.
Our challenge is to reclaim psychological safety around self expression, even when it necessarily reveals the percolating chaos within. No writer, no matter how great, escapes it. For example, Virginia Wolfe said this of Charlotte Bronte:
“Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?
She had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander the world.”
But Wolfe made this mistake: worldly freedom does not equate to inner freedom. I have wandered the world a great deal, and yet there are times when I am still unable to escape the inner rancor. I hold on to artistic expression like a prayer, lighting a candle against the darkness that threatens to engulf me.
I have read Man's Search for Meaning; I have grappled with Tolstoy and danced with Dostoyevsky, found solace in Chekhov and meditated on the Bhagavad Gita. What, then, is this unraveling? Am I going mad? I am just cloaked in self pity?
Perhaps I need only turn from this brick wall to see that life indeed is a path – or better yet, an infinite garden.