But Few are Chosen: The Artistic Temperament, Fanaticism, and Life

“I don’t really think it is discipline you lack, if you are thinking of discipline as the ability to sit down and work, to do it, to keep at it, etc… Rather than something you lack, it may be something you have too much of… [it may be that] you simply don’t know how to control your own sensibility—too much sensibility… The writer [requires]... a certain fanaticism... an automatic control to the sensibility.”
~ Flannery O'Connor

Flannery’s words make me think that sometime, some writers don’t have to choose. They have that ‘certain fanaticism’ which automatically controls sensibility.... Flannery had it, Tolstoy did not. Which comforts me, because it shows that even the distractions of an over-developed sensibility can’t get in the way of the artist’s vocation—if there is enough genius to make up for all the time away.
~ Masha

A lot of factors will "get in the way of the artist's vocation", and distracting sensibilities are just the start of it. Considering the powerful rewards of creating beauty, though, distractions and difficulties are a good thing; if it were easy, everyone would be a fine artist, and no one would fix the plumbing.

I couldn't find O'Connor's letter to playwright Maryat Lee, from which the above quote was taken, but Masha interprets it as something like a championing of artistic dedication:
Maryat... has flung herself passionately into the racial turmoil of the fifties and sixties. Her involvement in the fight for social justice is intruding on her writing. Flannery is not a part of the movement, not because she is for segregation, but in part because she has that fanaticism necessary to the writer.... [S]he is comfortable in her role—a vocation to see, reflect, and inspire rather than a more active and public vocation.
It goes without saying, of course, that there's a place for both roles. For some, the active and public vocation needs to take precedence over artistic tendencies. If I got actively, publicly involved in a battle like that, I'd be in a mental hospital within three years, but for some people, it's exactly where they ought to be.

Masha closes her piece with concern about the self-deluding tendency to glory in the possession of the artistic temperament without earning the right to the title of Artist by producing Art. About this, I have little to say. The artistic temperament makes a lot of happy people who surround themselves with works of beauty that are far more practical than efforts at fine art could ever be. Anyone who reads Masha's other blog, in which she talks about her home life, will see this in action, though she may have perfectly achievable literary goals as well. For myself, my flower garden is more practical thus far than my three novels put together—it's a glimpse of beauty that costs the observer nothing, and it makes our little house more of a home.

Not everyone with the vocation to art has the vocation to create fine art, though I suspect nearly all of us in the Western world attempt it. Still fewer people possess the combination of determination, skill and lucky timing to sell their attempts (and that's the problem that'll get me, if anything does.)

I don't have much dislike for the artistic temperament as such, provided it isn't used as an excuse for bad manners and failures of generosity. But I don't possess much of it myself. What I have is the badgerlike tendency that makes me identify with the house of Hufflepuff—an inborn obsessiveness that locks on and doesn't let go, that allows me to bypass my own distracting passions and work till my hair starts falling out and lack of sleep threatens my emotional stability.

It's both strength and weakness, that perseverance, but it's absolutely necessary for me to do what I hope to do. Not every art form requires such levels of dedication to a single project, and not every artist works with my near-unbearable slowness. The fanaticism, as O'Connor put it, is crucial for me. I am no Tolstoy. But if he got by with distracting sensibilities, others may do likewise.


  1. The letter I used is in A Habit of Being - a collection of O Connor's letters, which I think you'd like. Her letters are not like her fiction, and her writing on writing is very kind and supportive, and very lacking in "the artistic temperament".

    "timing to sell their attempts" is what gets me too, and distraction, and a tendency to lose drafts 1/2 way through..but timing to sell is a great failure. I would say we should have a discussion on that but I wouldn't know how to start.

    Thanks for the link to Piekno! And the comments in defense of everyday beauty! I loved them.

    1. Oh, I love Piekno. I should comment over there sometime. There are some ways in which our lives are very much alike, even though the forms of simplicity we've chosen are different.

      We can have a discussion on timing to sell, but I don't know what I'd say! For myself, mostly I need to get over my fears of failure and my tendency to believe no one wants to read my work if they haven't beaten down my door asking for it--which tendency makes it very difficult to approach agents. :)

  2. It seems like they're a lot alike - I think forms are pretty fluid, it's very much about the attitude behind them - we know couple who are doing something very similar to what we're doing, but with a completely different attitude and for very different reasons, it ends up feeling almost more different than if they were living normal life - if that makes sense.

    I put up a 'discussion' - but I kind of dropped the ball a bit. I don't have fear of failure so much as lack of attention, I think. But at least from your blog posts and your essay, honestly, I don't think you have anything to fear. You're good. You make me all emotional about Harry Potter..and I don't even like him! But I still went back and read Deathly Hallows after crying over your essay..that's supposed to be more a compliment than it sounds, by the way. ;)

    I'm glad you love Piekno. I have fun with it, and I think it's the only one my parents read - they like the pictures.

    1. "forms are pretty fluid, it's very much about the attitude behind them"--that's a great way of putting it. I hadn't thought of that, but I believe you're right. :)

      All right, that might be one of the top ten compliments I've ever gotten on my writing. My day's officially made! Thanks--and thanks for the discussion post. I'll try to comment on it shortly, and will look forward to working on the response. It's going to take some thinking through. :)


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