Jessica Helfand | The Self-Reliance Project


Ed Ruscha, That Was Then This Is Now #1, 1989.

Several years ago, I was in Europe on an artist residency, working on a demanding book with a rather punitive deadline, and I was stuck. One of the great benefits of artist residencies is that you’re generally not the only artist in residence, and it soon occurred to me that I could get a second opinion.

I consulted with my friend, the Iranian writer Azar Nafisi. Did she have a method for breaking through writer’s block, I asked?

I do, she said. I read poetry.

Sage advice—and here’s at least one reason why. To read a poem allows you to visit words, the same way you might, say, go to a museum to visit a particular painting. Each word then conjures other ideas and associations on everything from the incomprehensibility of the planet (poetry expresses the universal, wrote Aristotle) to the incomprehensibility of your own existence. (Poetry is just the evidence of life, Leonard Cohen once said. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.)

Curiously, many artists and designers have an uneasy relationship with words in general (and poetry in particular). Perhaps they’ve been groomed to self-identify as visual people, as though to do so precludes verbal fluency. Perhaps their education has obliged them to privilege hard over soft skills, to choose pictures over words. Perhaps they simply fear what—and who—they do not know, including, and especially, themselves.

Emerson’s call to self-reliance is simple on this topic: listen to the inward voice, he wrote, and bravely obey that.

What’s important here is to recognize that words are the precious raw materials in which we all trade—so let’s try not to misuse them. (We are spendthrifts with words, wrote the late American poet Pauli Murray). Let’s not try not to abuse them. (Words, words, words, says Hamlet to Polonius, reminding us of their capacity to be meaningless.) Remember, too, that their power lies in the mystery of their epic migration: what words teach us about ourselves, how they prompt new questions, and how they might land, exquisitely, for someone else. (I wasn't trying to make a sentence, writes the Vietnamese novelist Ocean Vuong. I was trying to break free.)

Choose your words carefully. Listen to that inward voice. Embrace the ambiguity of this uncertain time with courage, compassion, and grit. And bravely obey all that you are, have been, and will be.

And for the weekend ahead, I offer you some more wisdom from Azar Nafisi:

Art is as useful as bread.

Being in your studio and making work is essential right now. It will keep your life burning well. The rest, including the ash, will follow.

The Self-Reliance Project is a daily essay about what it means to be a maker during a pandemic. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox here.

Jobs | June 15