I wrote in my last post that there may be hedgehogs and foxes in my upcoming sketchbook pages because I’m reading “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay about Tolstoy and history based on the Greek aphorism “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”
In his book Isaiah Berlin writes (I’m paraphrasing) of how history is actually created by a whole bunch of people but when we talk about a time in history we tend to single out one person as a “hero” and the lone “causal agent” of an event. Berlin writes of how as a creative person Tolstoy was naturally a “many things” fox but as he got older Tolstoy wanted to be a hedgehog with “one big thing” that explains everything.
My reading got me to thinking about hedgehogs, foxes, Tolstoy’s demands of himself as a creative person and how that aphorism related to creativity. I said something about that and my friend Liz Gauffreau asked me how hedgehogs relate to the literary world:
Well, besides the fact that both foxes and hedgehogs are so very cute and fun to draw and write about here are a few of my somewhat random thoughts while reading the essay by Isaiah Berlin. Don’t worry I’ll intersperse my thoughts with sketchbook drawings of hedgehogs and foxes using all 3 of the new fountain pens I described in my last post. (BTW there are even more fox and hedgehog sketchbook pages in my recent email newsletter )
As I read Berlin’s essay I’m realizing that as a creative person I use the fox-like kind of “knowing many things” in a free ranging playful open way while I’m in the midst of creating. I’m free-associating between many things while I’m on the hunt for how to best express my elusive thought. But once I’ve finished my creation and caught my thought then, if I’m not careful, I can curl up into a prickly ball hedgehog-like defensive about whether my creation “means” something, what it means, whether it was worth doing, which “one big things” label it belongs within…etc. Staying for any amount of time in such a prickly ball isn’t helpful.
This getting stuck in a hedgehog ball mode happened more often in my younger years but still occasionally I feel a despairing “what was the point of doing all that?” moment. By now I know not to “feed” such overly self-critical negative thoughts and to deliberately stretch out and switch my thinking to some other more pleasant topic. I know such moments will pass especially after a good meal, a good night’s sleep, time spent reading a novel or going for a walk with my spouse. It’s not always easy but that’s the way I deal with it. I avoid getting stuck by deliberately keeping fluid movements between the modes of fox and hedgehog. Anyway, in my mind, that’s one part of how hedgehogs and foxes figure in the creative/literary life.
Another part of how hedgehogs and foxes figure in to it: our creative life isn’t “one big thing”: we aren’t the sum total of one published book or one painting. We aren’t one label. A creative life is cumulative. Of course when people talk about artists or writers shorthand references – labels – are often made like “So And So is the insert genre label author of Famous Book”. But this is just a way of speaking, a verbal convention. It’s even a necessary one because we use helpful labels to find things, like books to read, and a name or a genre category label is a great starting place.
Yet during the lived reality of a creative life things aren’t so simplistic. Creativity is many-things fox like when we’re in the midst of our unnamed, unlabeled creative project. It can feel unfocused, messy, free ranging all over the territory at the beginning only slowly becoming focused over time as the thought “scent” is caught and the project develops towards completion. After completion then the one-big-thing hedgehog label can be applied. And while my diagram below simplifies the fox/hedgehog creative process please know that this process isn’t linear, its fluid, there will be foxhogs and hedgeoxes, there’ll be all sorts of fits and starts, beginnings and endings, rushing currents and still pools… before a project is finished.
This process of metamorphosis from fox to hedgehog is part of why it is such a challenge for writers and artists to think up loglines or book jacket blurbs or elevator speeches or art statements that sum up their creation in a few sentences (or a Tweet). To sum up their work of the last few years, work they sweated daily over, work they gnashed their teeth on – to distill what it was about using 150 words or less both encompasses and transcends the lived creative process itself. It’s hard to rise above the creative life meadows where the foxes and hedgehogs have played and, from a birds eye viewpoint, select a single meaning for the shorthand talking points. This difficulty is why it’s also a challenge to write query letters that briefly describe a manuscript submission. It’s hard to reduce a fox-y many splendors creation down to a hedgehog-y one big thing and to call the hedgehog an accurate, yet attractive, name.
By the way if you formulate the hedgehog one-big-thing, the logline or art statement, in advance and are rigid about it (i.e. curl up in a prickly hedgehog ball) the resulting project is seldom satisfying to either the foxes aka the creators themselves or to their audience.
And yet a hedgehog can be a great starting place – if you aren’t rigid about the hedgehog label and use it as a prompt! It’s highly likely that a creation that starts out as one defined hedgehog can shape-shift to a fox during the creative process and finish up needing an entirely different hedgehog-y label. So that’s another reason it’s a challenge at the end of a project to select the exact hedgehog that was metamorphosed from that fox. This is also part of the exhilarating fun of a creative life.
We enjoy the arts for the fox-y complexity of many things in them – we talk about that complexity we enjoyed viscerally using simple hedgehog-y verbage. The fox represents a direct experience and a nonverbal expression of life. The hedgehog represents a definition and ways of talking about that artistic representation of life. We need both the foxes and the hedgehogs. The challenge is to remain loose, open, letting the foxes and hedgehogs become themselves while also keeping a benevolent watch over them.
What a work of art or literature “means” in the big scheme of it’s hedgehog label, is identified (if ever) after the work has been made and existed in the world a while. After the artist is finished then we use simple language to sum up what a creation meant. We give it a genre, a category, a label. That summing up or meaning finding is done and verified over the duration of time that the art exists – it gets reevaluated by the artist and by the audience constantly. The lables often get changed multiple times before they “settle” if they ever do. Almost all of Tolstoy’s work has gotten reevaluated numerous times since the era in which he was living and working.
From a creative person’s point of view I find it’s sanity-saving to not worry about the meaning of one work in the big scheme of things but to just get on with the next project. I don’t worry overmuch about the hedgehog labels I give my work for use when submitting or promoting it. As I wrote in my last post I’m regularly surprised by what labels publishers, distributors and art gallery owners place on my work. I just accept the label and these labels become tools I can use to talk with that distributor. For example I now can say to Storyberries “Here’s a new ABC123 Poetry book from me”. But even with that new knowledge generally my attitude when I’m working in my studio is “I’ll make the stuff and you can sort it out” rather than getting stuck on any of the potential labels while I’m in the creative process. Anyway, here’s a note on this topic that I have thumbtacked to my art studio wall.
The meaningfulness that is found after the creation is finished also has an element of danger. Sometimes because an artist is so tired upon completion they, in their fatigue, misjudge their own work and may mislabel it or even destroy it. Sometimes an artist gets stuck on a label and that impedes their progress. Sometimes the selected audience isn’t ready for a creative work and rejects it. Sometimes a work isn’t found to be meaningful until long after the artist and audience’s current era is gone and a new era begins. Sometimes a different audience within an artist’s lifetime finds the work more meaningful. Sometimes meanings and labels change over time too. Sometimes these new labels are helpful and sometimes they’re not.
So for all of those reasons I find it’s best to avoid gaslighting myself, i.e. making hard declarative statements about my work, either as I’m working on projects or whenever they’re finished. I just enjoy the process of making things. Other people can sort them into meanings and categories. That said, I do find the effort of succinctly summarizing my own creative works as a logline etc helpful as long as I don’t take it too seriously. Whatever you want to call it is fine with me as long as my personal foxes get to play and my hedgehogs stay cute.
Which brings me to book banning. I despise censorship because someone somewhere has decided in advance what a book or work of art “means” and they aren’t willing to let people decide that for themselves. They get rigid, in a hedgehog-y prickly defensive ball way, about everything fitting into their one big thing label whether that label is political or religious. They can’t, or won’t, deal with the foxes free ranging exploration. They’re allergic to questions and uncertainty. They reject categorically the concept of changes over time. They’ll decide they just don’t like one particular fox or hedgehog and insist that the external world must conform to their preferences.
Creativity is all about questions and dealing well with uncertainty. To be creative is to actively participate in change and growth. Creativity is a response to the world. Anyway, here’s an article about many of the current censorship efforts that I keep a careful eye on.
In my current art exhibit at the Aurora Gallery on the upper left shelf in the photo below is an artist book I made which tells a truth about rabbits and metaphorically about people. It’s called “The Rabbit” and it is about book banning.
You can see my original artwork in person at the Aurora Gallery www.auroragalleryonline.com or still photos of the exhibit and the entire book “The Rabbit” online here. https://sueclancy.com/portfolio/for-you-by-sue-the-abcs-art-books-cards/
There’s also a video look through the illustrated poem artist book here https://youtu.be/6-T5zi-fLvM
on my YouTube channel. Below are a few still photos.
Speaking further of free expression I avidly watched the recent Stand with Salman Rushdie event. It did my author/artist heart good to see so many people so supportive of authors and the literary life!!
I also participated from home by posting this:
I #standwithsalman in favor of free expression. For the Aug 19 2022 @PENamerica event I’m reading from “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” by @SalmanRushdie – it’s one of my favorites – Here’s my reading on YouTube.
There now that I’ve finished this blog post I’ll deliberately avoid the one-big-thing type question of “did my efforts to write this blog post mean anything or matter in any way to the larger literary or creative culture?”. In such a question lies gaslighting madness. So instead of going there I accept that I enjoyed writing out my views of the creative process within the context of hedgehogs, foxes and the essay by Isaiah Berlin. And I hope my friend Liz will enjoy reading my thoughts on how hedgehogs and foxes relate to the literary world. There, that’s enough mattering and meaning for me.
Aha, now after rereading what I’ve written (and correcting the autocorrect 🙄) I see that there’s a few category and tag labels that I can use when publishing this blog post! Good enough…
I hope your creative week is full of playful foxes and hedgehogs. See you next Monday.