Recently, I discovered a writer I admire (who happens to be a friend) cannot stand mouth noises. For the uninitiated, mouth noises are those ones people make while eating. They include but are not limited to vocalized swallowing, an exhalation of “ahh” after sipping from a Coke, clacking a spoon around in a jaw, or scraping the tines of a fork against a ceramic bowl. When I found out, I howled. Another person on the good side of misaphonia. I also cannot stand mouth noises. Even when my dog makes them. I love dogs with abandon, but no infatuation can overcome this defect. Ask my husband.
When my sister and I want to get on each other’s nerves, we text videos of ourselves, internet animals, or our pets making mouth noises. (Lil Bub is particularly good for this.)
To concentrate, I require silence. Much like the fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in The Phantom Thread, merely buttering one’s toast too loudly can ruin my whole morning:
“Please don’t move too much.”
“I’m just buttering my toast. I’m not moving too much.”
“You are. Don’t move too much.”
“Maybe you’re paying too much attention.”
“It’s like you just rode a horse across the room!”
(You can read an interview with the sound designer here that is fascinating. Apparently white toast and sourdough are the most annoying.)
I do not want to be this way and work hard not to be, but I cannot deny that my husband has eaten breakfast in the bedroom instead of the dining room for fear of interrupting my writing with crunching or clinking. (And it is hard work.)
In the movie, when Reynolds is hard at work on a wedding dress for the princess, closed in a room by himself for hours on end, Alma, Reynolds’ live-in girlfriend/model/sewist, makes the mistake of bringing him a tray with tea. What would be a kind act for a high percentage of humans is, in fact, an unkind one to someone in a flow-state. Or, as Reynolds says less politely but more succinctly:
“The tea is leaving, but the interruption is staying right here with me.”
Confessing that I relate is embarrassing but also a fact. People who are trained to be sensitive their whole lives (and who often enter creative professions because of this sensitivity) have a tendency to be, well, sensitive.* My sensitivity, which I regarded for most of my life as the worst part about me, is the part that poems and songs and empathy come from. It’s not good or bad. It calls me to who I am. I’m called to observe, so it’s difficult when the task is to ignore or let go.
I think of vocation, which we often call “a calling.” In the South, people often say “God called” them to do a thing, to stop doing a thing. It’s the best shorthand for what’s inexplicable but necessary. What calls you? When that calling is a siren song, the work can be done most intensely, and it’s absorbing but fatal. I once stayed up for three days seaming and rearranging quilt squares and writing poems. I felt satisfied and also like hell afterward. The come down is intense. Still, I miss that feeling. Alma loves Reynolds best in this mode, or maybe better put, is able to love him best then—caring for him, nursing him, snuggling him, being still. When he will not cease, she poisons him with mushrooms. Not enough to kill. She makes him sick so she can make him well. Maybe she makes him sick so he can be well:
“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.”
It’s in sickness he sees how ugly the dress he’s made for the princess is. It’s in sickness he’s reunited (through hallucination) with his dead mother, whom he’s missed desperately for decades, whom his work honors. Of course, lovesickness is equally torturous and transformative. Figuratively speaking. I don’t plan on eating any questionable fungi.
Our work calls to us, and we need something (or someone) to call us from it.^
It isn’t easy to make space for another love in a life. In mine that’s a husband, a dog, a home. The work—doing it and thinking of doing it and preparing for it and reading for it and finding what belongs in it—can take up ceaseless days. It can take up all the flat surfaces in a house. It can invade meal times and the will to exercise and conversational skills beyond enthusiastic monologues and grunts. The work is selfish; it may be made for consumption but it consumes.
Still, the work, the part of the artist that needs to create, needs a protector. Cyril, Reynolds’ sister, protects his creative space and his time, eating silently, arranging his schedule, and breaking up with girlfriends once he’s through with them. Of course, I don’t mean a woman to deal with all the details; a protector could be a person in your life, or it could be an autoresponder on your emails. It could be Saturdays you’re unreachable. Un. Reachable. It could be as simple as a closed door. But the protector doesn’t suffer the artist’s complaints. The protector wears blood-red nail polish and, just like Alma, will knock the artist out when he tries to argue with her, “Don’t pick a fight with me, you certainly won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through you and it’ll be you who ends up on the floor.” It’s worth noting that Cyril is protecting Alma, not Reynolds, in this conversation.
Cyril likes Alma, in spite of their disagreements; however, Cyril can enter breezily and slam doors, seen as a necessity, while Alma, even tiptoeing or seductive, is seen as interruption. For artists, maybe, or at least for me, the protective part is like a sister, a relative, blood of my blood. We share DNA. The love that interrupts, however, is foreign, my cells don’t recognize it. It’s bewildering and requires attention, attention to its oddity at the very least. Not a muse. A necessary distraction. Or maybe, the work is the necessary distraction.
One kind of love draws us closer to the work, the other away from it. Both knock us out cold when we cross them.
Romantic love, other interests, responsibilities take time from the work, and they may not make the work better. But love demands we rest “open and tender.” It clacks its spoon in its teeth and goes dancing without us if we sketch dresses on New Year’s Eve. And love does respect the work; Alma rescues one dress from a ruinous end.
Rather than a New Year’s resolution centered on productivity, this year, I am wondering how to eat the poison mushroom delightfully and to appease the person who makes my omelet.
Work can draw us inward to the deepest place, protected and dangerous like a fable forest; but something (or someone) else must draw us out—call us out—homeward—serve us a dish we won’t forget.
A garment, a painting, a book; none of it is because of one person’s genius. It’s because of a genius spirit that dead mothers, lovers with toast, sisters with teacups, teams of women in white jackets with pockets for shears, and whole houses foster. In this way, I believe the film can be seen in a feminist light—showing the difficult work many women do to help a man create a single dress (though I’m interested to read more on gender roles in the movie).
Sometimes the myth of the artist, particularly maybe the writer, is one of loneliness. Sometimes I like to buy into this myth. It helps me to believe I’m so good or so rotten, as is my work. But of course a truly lonely person would be unable to write. Literacy necessitates a someone else and a before; it presupposes an after. Sometimes our friends are our sisters, sometimes our lovers, sometimes models or muses or ghosts we can’t conjure. They’re all here. To quote Oprah paraphrasing Maya Angelou, “I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand.”
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*This predisposition isn’t an inevitability, however. Sarah Bakewell notes in her biography of Montaigne, How to Live, for instance, “Even when Montaigne went off to his tower to write, he rarely worked alone or in silence. People talked and worked around him; outside his window horses would have been led back and forth from the stables, while hens clucked and dogs barked. In the wine-making season, the air would be filled with the sound of clanking presses.” (173) Terrible. Terrible.
^My husband read this statement and asked, “Why?” I do not know why; I only know this statement to be true. It isn’t as a muse, really, or for amusement—though I’m sure it can be either. I guess maybe to live a life?