Tuesday night I went to our fabulous local bookstore, Magers & Quinn, for a reading by Michael N. McGregor of his new book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. McGregor teaches at Portland State University and was the resident writing mentor at the two summer Collegeville Institute workshops I attended in recent years. I don't know much about Robert Lax; in fact, I know nothing other than what I learned at those workshops when McGregor mentioned the book and then what I learned at the reading, but I'm so intrigued now that I can't wait to read this biography.
Lax was a poet who lived a reclusive life on the island of Patmos, Greece. He was a dear friend of Thomas Merton. He was a former circus clown (!) and writer for The New Yorker. I’m sure never before has circus clown and writer for the The New Yorker appeared on the same resume.
Yesterday afternoon I dipped in and out of Pure Act a bit and found this passage about writing from one of Lax’s journals. I think I’m going to like this guy.
"not by deep breathing and lots of brandishing the pen will the page be beautiful and weighty but through clarification of the soul /// the need to speak and its expression in true speech / the words will look good on the page when they express the true meaning of the writer speaking in a serious vein. the words will look right on the page when the whole being the whole mind of the writer goes into his work word by word and minute by minute / when his whole weight comes down on the key with the care of a chinese writer painter making a character
and he will speak as he thinks at that time and the speech will have balance even as the thought does and the writing will have maturity even as the writer…"
All of that rings true to me, but particularly the last line about the writing having maturity even as the writer. It makes me think of a line from Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy, which I wrote about on this blog several years ago: "Inside himself he had to grow as his sculpture grew and matured."
It makes me think of these lines from Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture: "The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the 'ballast' in the inwardness of the subject."
It makes me think of these lines from Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art: "It is very important for the artist to gauge his position aright, to realize that he has a duty to his art and to himself, that he is not king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand."
Whether in writing or any other activity of life itself, including work, the inside stuff makes its way to the outside. The benefit that time and experience confer on maturity, on inner ballast, on a well tended soul begs and rewards our patience. Patience with ourselves and our endeavors.
Photo: taken of Pure Act, waiting to be read cover to cover.