My new book, Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art, will be released by the British publisher, Canongate, in a few weeks. It had its genesis in my unlikely meeting with Robert Plant several years ago, and grew out of my belief that there comes a time when you have to share what it is you have learned on life’s journey.
Wolf nor Dog will have a special promotion of this book when it becomes available. In the interim, I thought you might like a preview of what this book has to offer. It is meant especially for people just beginning the fascinating and difficult journey of a life in the arts, but is also a worthy read for anyone who has ever felt the the stirrings of an artistic awareness in their heart.
Go to wolfnordog to get on their mailing list if you have not already done so. Information on pre-ordering will be coming soon.
Excerpt from Dancing with the Gods.
DREAMS AND FEARS: Choosing the artist’s life
Recently I received a note from a young woman named Jennifer who was questioning her decision to pursue a life in the arts. She had a dream, she felt a calling, but she was feeling alone and misunderstood.
“Is it worth it?” she asked. “Is it possible? What advice can you give me?”
Her letter touched me. It mirrored the doubts and yearnings of my own youth. Though I couldn’t tell her what to do, I wanted to respond.
This is what I wrote her:
Thank you for your kind letter. You honor me by thinking that I might have some advice to offer on your questions about devoting your life to the arts. It takes great courage to reach out to a person you don’t know because something in their work touches a chord in you and resonates with that private, unspoken place of your dreams. I know, because I did the same when I was younger. In my case, it was to Norman Mailer.
Why I chose Norman Mailer, I don’t know. I certainly didn’t find his emotional sensibilities attuned to mine. His work, though powerful, was not consonant with my own literary spirit. I think it was because there was a muscularity in his intellectual manner that I felt was lacking in my own life.
I had just begun a graduate program at Stanford University, and the combination of the intellectual demands of the academic life and the shock of a new living and learning environment – graduate school, at least at that time, was a far different animal than undergraduate school – made me feel ever further from the living streets and ordinary people where I felt most vibrant and alive. Mr. Mailer’s work probably gave me hope that there was a way to be intelligent without being an intellectual, and that a life on the streets did not negate a life of the mind.
Whatever it was, I wrote him, and though I do not have a copy of the letter, I can guess what I said. It was likely very much like your letter – confessional, almost pleading, a lifeline thrown to a person whose life and accomplishments seemed to resonate with what I wanted for myself and what I felt that so few others understood. I suppose I wanted a helping hand, or maybe an occupational road map, or maybe just the simple acknowledgement that my plight and dreams were real and worthy.
I do remember that I asked if I could come to New York and work with him — a request that makes me blush even now when I think of it. But Mr. Mailer, gruff though he might have seemed in his public persona, wrote back with gentle compassion. I have the note still today, written on a manual typewriter and signed with a fountain pen. I’ll share it with you in its entirety, because it speaks to the generosity of the man:
Dear Kent Nerburn:
Your letter was fine but I’m not going to respond to it. I work alone and I think very little can be learned about writing being in the neighborhood of another writer unless one uses a scribe and that hardly seems a role for you. The heart of becoming a writer is to come into focus on oneself. To know — and usually it’s best not to know until after you’ve done it — what has finally become important to write about and what you can say that no one else particularly can say. And that can take years and all sorts of occupations. But there’s no quick road to a focus like working. It’s part of the hurdle. In fact, it keeps most talented people from becoming real writers. Anyway, you wrote your letter so long ago that you’re doubtless in a different mood.
Hope this finds you well. If you’re in doubt, work. Write more than you have been writing.
I don’t remember my immediate reaction. But I held onto that note like a drowning man holds on to a piece of passing wreckage. I was acknowledged; I was real; I was worthy of a response from a man whose life was inconceivably greater and more resolved than mine. Perhaps I was not going to drown.
I hope that by writing to you I can give you some of the same solace, because you are real, you are worthy; your dreams are worth pursuing. And you are not going to drown.
I know, because I have walked the same time honored path. All artists have. We have shared your doubts. We have wrestled the same demons and held the same dreams. And all of us would tell you the same thing: though it is not an easy journey, it is a journey worth taking.
You will live in a world of uncertainty, never knowing if your creations are good enough, always fearing financial cataclysm, unsure if your dreams are more than self-delusion, and vulnerable to feelings of persecution and self-doubt. You will see others with less talent accomplishing more, and feel the sting of unwarranted criticism. You will feel angry, lonely, unappreciated, and misunderstood.
But you will also live in a world of joy, with its magical moments when the act of creation lifts you and propels you with a power that seems to come from beyond yourself. You will remain constantly vibrant and young at heart because your urge to create will keep your spirit alive and interested in the world around you long after others in other professions have become weary and soul-deadened in the monotonous sameness of their everyday lives. And you will own your own time, and know the miraculous experience of having intimate conversations with people long dead and far away through your personal dialogue with their art. You will know what it is to work with love.
Few people on the outside will understand the precarious nature of this life. They will see only the accolades and accomplishments, the apparent freedom, and the finished products of your efforts.
They will not understand that the person who creates something whole cloth and places it before others as a gift of the creative spirit stands on the precipice of failure and rejection – or worse yet, mediocrity — at every moment. That by creating a work of art — a performance, a painting, a piece of writing, or anything else — you have, metaphorically speaking, brought a child into the world, and the rejection of a child of your creation hurts you with the pain of a parent watching a child be ignored, demeaned, and seen as unworthy.
These are things that you will come to know if you devote yourself to a life in the arts. It is not a life for everyone. But if you have the courage to choose it, you will have embarked upon one of life’s great adventures. You will have joined the tribe of the dreamers, the keepers of the stories, the shapers of visions and caretakers of the imagination. You will have chosen to set your sights on the stars.
I hope you will choose to become one of us. We come from many different backgrounds, with many different talents, and many different dreams. But there is one truth we all share. If we had it to do again, we would choose the very same path.
This is a life truly worth living.
All my best,
When I had finished my response I sat back and read what I had written. It seemed good, and it felt good. With luck, my letter would touch Jennifer as Norman Mailer’s letter had touched me, and would help her chart a course in life that was worthy of her dreams.
I sealed it up and sent it off.
But I continued to be haunted by the earnest hunger and yearning of her words. That she had reached out to me, sharing her deepest fears and dreams, was both humbling and daunting.
I kept thinking back to a time several years before when I had been asked to participate in a sweat lodge with some Lakota friends deep in the hills of the Pine Ridge reservation in western South Dakota. They were honoring me for my 30 years of working as an ally of the Native people. By sheer coincidence, the sweat took place on the day of my 60th birthday. It gave an already profound experience an even greater meaning.
A sweat lodge is not something to be taken lightly. It is a ceremony of deep significance – a religious practice, actually – meant to cleanse and clarify those who attend. It should be undertaken only with an open heart.
In the course of the ceremony in the darkened, almost unbearable heat of the lodge, everyone is asked to speak what is in their heart. When my turn came, I said, almost without thinking, “I want to learn how to be an elder.” I meant it in the most profound sense of the term.
Over the years, I had become close to the Native people and immersed in their way of understanding. For them, life is not a straight line from birth to death, with the time of central importance being the years in the middle; but a circle, like the seasons, where each age has its gifts and responsibilities. The elders, as the only ones who have experienced all the seasons of life, have the responsibility of sharing the wisdom they have gained on their life’s journey.
Jennifer’s letter had brought that experience back to me. As I reflected on her letter and the others like it I had received over the years, I realized that the time had come for me to take on that responsibility that I had prayed about in that sweat lodge. It was time for me to speak, as an elder and a teacher, about what it means to live a life in the arts.
I had spent thirty years living the life of the writer, and twenty before that as a practicing sculptor. I knew the heart of the artistic life – its dreams and fears, its unspoken challenges and its unexpected rewards. It was time to share my thoughts about what it meant to live the life of the artist, so that not only Jennifer, but all the Jennifers of the world — and all those who had once been like Jennifer but had been forced to put their artistic dreams on hold, or those who had come late to the artistic journey — could learn from my experience and have a glimpse into the magic that a life in the arts offers.
And so this book was born.
In it I try to share, with as much honesty as I can, some of what I have learned on my artistic journey. It offer it to all of you who have fallen under the spell of the arts and dream of giving voice to the creative spirit that lives inside of you. But, most of all, I offer it as a gift to you younger artists of the world who are just beginning on your life’s journey and feel the arts pulling on you, like the moon pulls on the tides, and want to know something of what your journey will be like.
To all of you, and any others who wish to have a glimpse into this life that so many admire and so few understand, I offer these words with an open heart.
May they give you insight, inspiration, and courage.
I hope you find them worthy of your time.
I see that my old home country of northern Minnesota is under another blizzard and winter storm warning. Those of you from the north know what this means. Those of you who have never experienced a blizzard on the plains or prairies have little sense of how unique and haunting such an experience can be. In honor of this storm, I’ve decided to post a piece from my new book, Native Echoes. It is about a drive into high prairie country in winter. If you like it and want to read more like it, you can order a copy from wolfnordog.com or pick one up through any of the usual outlets. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into our northern world:
It freezes where they abode.
It snows where they abode.
It storms where they abode.
It is cold where they abode.
The horizon is a line across a phantom sky. The windblown fields stretch towards infinity. Fragments of cornstalks — brittle shards —stick through the snow and bend and rattle, and the wind is the largest thing, the only thing.
In the distance, copses of trees stand like battlements — isolated, alone, small islands against the prairie sky. On the far horizon, purpling night has started its descent, too soon. There will be no sunset, for there has been no sun, only pale light — weak, and without source. Snowblown, blinding, aluminum, it leaves without event, giving way to dark.
The wind rises up, sensing an ally. It is filled with banshee howls, screams, and distant laughter. Amid the copses single lights go on in farmhouses, miles apart. One, then another, as if in signal.
Fingers of snow drift across the road. “Lose the road, lose your life,” the old farmers said, and the snow is drifting, drifting.
Attention takes a fine edge, now. There is no room for error. A man was found last week but a half a mile from his car, frozen. Two weeks they had searched. A gust of wind had revealed his hand, as if clutching, or waving.
It is the swing that stops me. It hangs and twists by a single strand from the arm of a great oak, far back amid a shadowy copse. Behind it, almost lost in darkness, I see the house, abandoned, swaybacked, empty. I should not stop; this is not a night to challenge. But something cries out for witness.
The wind screams in outrage as I step outside. The shadows of the trees grasp at me as I walk.
Movement is hard. My steps punch through the frozen crust. I sink to my knees. The wind lashes my face; my chest heaves. Snow burrows in at my ankles, sending waves of pain as the icy wetness cuts the flesh, then begins to freeze. So little time, so little time.
The door is heavy — rude planks covered by torn tarpaper — wedged half-open. Drifts have heaved against it in a frozen wave. In a weathered eave a wasps nest rattles, grey and ragged.
I push hard. The door scrapes open. A froth of snow whisks across the floor. Wolf tracks, or dog, mark a single line to a far corner. Scat covers the floor. Is he here?
Holes have been punched in the walls. The windows are gone. A sink hangs from its plumbing, kicked, perhaps, or hammered. In a corner a stove stands covered with dust and mouse droppings. Its oven door is open, a cry into the night.
On the floor a book is flapping. The pages turn and rustle in the wind, then settle for a moment. I touch it with my foot. It is brittle; pages detach and scatter. One flies up against a wall, where it flutters, like a dying bird, desperate to escape.
Through an empty window I can see the swing, twisting in the winter dark. The wood is grey as bone, and frozen.
That someone thought there was a life to be lived here. That for one brief moment hands were joined in common effort, and from each hammer blow, each chop of ax, rang out a song of hope.
I see them rise before me. The father, planting shelterbands of trees and planning yields and harvests. The mother, at the stove, cooking dinners, baking bread. And the children, at the swing, called in for dinner from summer play.
Did they have bicycles? Did they ride horses down the road to that next far house among that next far copse, that next small island in this eternal flatness? Did they camp out on warm summer nights, counting the stars and finding messages in an owl’s call? Did cicadas sing them to sleep?
Did their father take them aside, in a moment of fine hope, and tell them, “Someday this will all be yours,” and mean it as a gift? And did they sit there, listening, thinking in the simple colors of their childhood, how good it would be to someday work this land? Or did they, with each visit to a city or some nearby town, say, “Someday I will leave.”
And what of the night that it was decided? At the table, amid long silences, who was it that said, “Enough, we cannot go on.” Was it the woman, wide-eyed and hysterical from too many days alone in this too awful space? Or was she the happy one, hanging clothes in the summer air and gathering her children to her in the evening, while her husband sat vacantly, adding up figures, projecting yields, cursing bankers and God? Did he one day walk in and say, “It is finished. There will be no more.”?
Or was it something darker that broke their will? Is there, beneath these snows, a tiny grave, a tragedy too great to be borne? Or did they all, like the pages of the book, simply turn frail, and blow away?
I step among the boards. It is wrong to be here. There is no humility in this defeat, only shame. This is life that wants to be forgotten.
The darkness has risen now, and looms across the land. There is only the great cold, and the shadows, and the wind. Whispers of snow have almost hidden the road. The copse, the house, are disappearing. Darkness is folding them in, like sleep, like death.
I retrace my steps. Already my marks are being erased; they, too, have lost their shape.
I drive in silence, listening to the wind. In the distance, a church stands lonely in an empty field. It is small, white, boarded up against the winter dark. By its side, a tiny graveyard sits inside a wire fence. There are no tall monuments — such presumption would be unseemly — only a few low stones poking humpbacked through the swirling snow.
Far behind, almost lost in shadow, a single cross stands half buried in the winter night. The wind swirls angrily around it, as if to hide it from my view.
I squint my eyes, as if there is something I have not yet seen. But there is no life anywhere — only the wind, and the dark, and the stark arm of the single cross, protruding, beckoning, like a frozen hand above the drifting snows.