by Jessie Lynn McMains
Since Stephen Sondheim died, I’ve had “Finishing the Hat” stuck in my head. “Finishing the Hat” is a song from Sondheim’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, and in some ways it is the consummate Sondheim song; one of the finest examples of the way he blended music and lyrics to make them both more than the sum of their parts. It is also the only one of his songs he has admitted is at all autobiographical, any kind of personal statement. In fact, he chose Finishing the Hat as the title of his first volume of collected lyrics, and a line from it—Look, I Made a Hat—as the title of the second. But the reason I have had it in my head is because it is also my favorite Sondheim song. I relate to it, as an artist, and I believe that any artist or creator of any stripe or medium, can relate to it in some way.
Sunday in the Park with George is a fictionalized version of the life and art of painter Georges Seurat. It imagines that the woman in the right-hand foreground of his famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is his mistress, Dot. (As an aside: can I just say how genius it was for Sondheim to name the mistress of a pointillist Dot?) Dot loves Georges, but grows increasingly frustrated with the way he frequently ignores her needs to make his art, to do his work; and ultimately, she leaves him for another man who treats her better. When Georges realizes she really has left him, he sings ”Finishing the Hat.”
He sings the above lines, in a way that’s both fatalistic and hopeful, angry and accepting. All his lovers leave him, none of them understand, of course Dot didn’t understand and also left him, but of all the women he’s ever loved he thought she might be the one who would get it…
The central conflict of the song is not just about the loss of his mistress. Rather, it’s about the distance every artist has from the world. It’s about losing yourself in your art/work, to the detriment of everything else in your life. It asks us: can we maintain the distance and solitude we need to do our work, without sacrificing our personal relationships, our very lives?
In Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness, Ariel Gore writes:
In Recollections of My Life as a Woman, the poet Diane di Prima tells of a night at Allen Ginsberg’s place in New York. She’d gotten a friend to babysit her young daughter and headed over to Ginsberg’s apartment because Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen were in town for “one of those nights with lots of important intense talk about writing you don’t remember later.”
Well, Diane had promised her babysitter that she’d be back at 11:30 that night, and 11:30 starts rolling around, so Diane bids her farewells. “Whereupon, Kerouac raised himself up on one elbow on the linoleum and announced in a stentorian voice: ‘DI PRIMA, UNLESS YOU FORGET ABOUT YOUR BABYSITTER, YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO BE A WRITER.’”
Kerouac obviously subscribed to the idea that in order to be an artist, one has to ignore all of their relationships and responsibilities. And look what happened to him—he died at age 47, of an abdominal hemorrhage that came from a lifetime of heavy drinking, after destroying not only his body but almost every interpersonal relationship he had. Diane di Prima, on the other hand, lived until the age of 86, published dozens of books, had several longterm romantic partners, and raised a whole passel of children, amongst many other things.
Men—especially white, cisgender men—are often “allowed” to be more selfish. They’re more encouraged than women and non-men to be there mapping out a sky. But it’s not just a gender-based thing. All artists need time to lose themselves in their work, and eventually, it will come at the expense of something else in their lives. The question is: how do you choose? How do you choose when your lover, or child, or friend, or family member, or day job, etc., etc., should take precedence, and when your work should?
I recently wrote in my journal:
I’ve long felt able to fit into many different groups of people, in many different places, but at the same time I’ve always felt…just a bit on the outside of all those groups and places. Like an infiltrator, an observer. That might stem somewhat from moving and traveling around a lot, and also from being interested in so many different things—I flitted in and out of a lot of different scenes, some I had deeper roots in than others, but I never stayed in any one place, with any one group. Or it might just be a side effect of being a writer. I think feeling a little bit like an outsider in any given situation is essential to being a writer; it makes you a sharper observer if you’ve got a little bit of distance between yourself and whatever you’re experiencing.
(A little space in the way like a window…)
This is a phenomenon that I’ve heard many artists speak of. Nelson Algren wrote: A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery. Many, many artists have spoken of not being able to write/make art about a person when they’re with them, or a place while they’re in it. Of the sense of always being at a remove, even when you’re trying to be fully present. Because not all of it is a choice.
A distance, a sense of alienation, stepping back to look at a face, might be essential to being an artist. But, personally, even when I want to be fully present, there’s a part of me always standing by. A part of me observing my surroundings and experiences from a remove. A part of me describing the birds, trying to find the words, mapping out the sky, finishing a hat.
In a way, being an artist is like Jonah – you’re just dogged and dogged and dogged with having to do this task instead of being able to proceed with life. You go to a party and something that happens in the party moves you to start thinking of a song, or you meet someone who gives you a character in a story you want to write, and instead of engaging in this social party you’re losing yourself. You’re creating in your head, or weaving in your head. It’s a precious burden, but it’s a burden.
It’s not about choosing between giving up your art and giving up the rest of your life. It’s about knowing when to be selfish and lose yourself in the work, and when your relationships and responsibilities need to take precedence. It will never be an easy choice, but it’s one every artist has to make every day of their lives. Some poems, paintings, plays will be lost to you forever when you choose the rest of your life. And some relationships won’t weather the times you choose art. At those times, all you can do is remind yourself…
Poetry in America has an episode about “Finishing the Hat,” which goes far more in depth into the lyrics and music and how the two work together. It also closes with Raúl Esparza’s rendition of the song, which is probably my favorite.
This is my last post as Racine Writer-in-Residence. It has been an honor and a privilege to have this position for the past six months. Stay tuned for the next Racine WiR, who I know will be fantastic.