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71–This project, recalibrated.
#71. And in writing about this grief – grief for him, and grief for myself as an artist – I renovated my relationship to art.
Hi! I’m back. It’s 2023. What’s the future like? Do tell. I took an (unplanned) sabbatical from this project, and I missed it. So I’m going to continue publishing — but biweekly. Expect more letters about art, creativity, fatherhood, grief. But also some new themes, like travel, sailboats, and France. As always: the greatest gift you can give is reading. Second: sharing it with a friend (or foe). Third: telling me what resonates (just hit reply!). I appreciate you. I hope you’ve been well. Thank you for subscribing. Yours, Joey
I started writing these letters two years ago. I intended each to be a chronicle of joy—a creative joy. A self-reflective study of how I was using writing to access that joy.
This was six months into the pandemic. Six months into my work having pivoted irrevocably toward the virtual. Six months after the aperture of what felt possible condensed around what was proximate: a bedroom, a house, a small circle of friends.
Everyone reacted to the pandemic differently, and while it’s not for me to rehash what that was like for anyone else, I can say this for myself: that closure was a liberation. It gave me a freedom to focus—with fervent simplicity and a lack of distraction—on what felt important.
A bedroom, a house, a small circle of friends. My body. My heart. The page.
The pandemic shrunk the aperture of what felt possible and replaced it with a kind of ease. Like a child growing up in the Midwest for whom “Hollywood” is such a foreign concept there’s no temptation to try to be a star, I was able to release myself from most of the existential distractions that kept me looking outward and to dig into the hidden places.
There were bodies under the floorboards and the floorboards, it turned out, were me.
Work was easy. Dating was dangerous. Sex was solo. Going out was canceled. Even the coffee shops where I’d normally be lured to set up shop (then, shop set-up, be lured further into distraction…) were closed. And in this closure something else opened up in me: grief.
These notes were meant to be a study of how joy could infuse a process which had, up until that point in my life, been marred by feelings of failure, frustration, and stuckness. For six months I’d written with freedom, with consistency, with diligence. The letters were meant to speak to this. They were meant to be joyful themselves. Heady on the fumes of this breakthrough, I figured they could offer something akin to advice.
Instead, I wrote about my father. I wrote in mourning. I remembered. Heavy, I felt the loss. Then I expressed the loss.
The process was joyful but the topics were not. Advice, it turned out, was not what lay beneath the floorboards.
After nine weeks, this series morphed into a study of how I came to be creative, how I came to value art—and how that unseen and unnoticed process was born of my relationship to my father.
Despite spending my whole life with him, in awe of him, chafing at his edges, and (in the way of many sons) studying him, I found myself able to write with meaning and joy when I was writing about him, toward him, to him.
If the notes were joyful, the joy was in the process—of excavation, in evocation—not in the subject matter or style.
Yet in that joy I rediscovered art: beneath those floorboards, in the subconscious tension of trying to understand my father, to see myself and my own manhood in relation to his, lay the very tools I needed to renovate and refurbish my relationship to art-making.
I grieved for him. I grieved for my young man’s dreams, desires, illusion.
And in writing out this grief—grief for him, and grief for myself, grief for our aborted lives in art—I renovated my relationship to art.
Rather than pithy reflections on how to get to the heart of joyful creativity, I wrote about death and enacted my own creative rebirth.
My father’s life, his death; my grief and grieving, mourning and imagining; the relationship I have to a patrimony of art-making and artistic appreciation and a patriarch himself whose relationship to art was fractured, inconcrete, and unarticulated—on the back of such topics, I found a way to resurrect my own life.
And after five dozen entries (or essays or newsletters or whatever we want to call them), here we are.
Shall we see what’s next?
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