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Consider: Make Your Unknown Known
On vagueness as vitality in Georgia O'Keeffe's archival correspondence
At one point Georgia O’Keeffe became unlikely pen pals with the writer Sherwood Anderson. Her letters aren’t the easiest to read. They’re full of starts and stops and half-formed sentences that go nowhere — alas the permanence of pen! — but for whatever reason her letters to Anderson have stuck with me.
O’Keeffe was notoriously allergic to divulging details of her inner life or process (I mean, the woman did move to the middle of nowhere to get away from everyone; she was the queen of falling “ill” to avoid confrontation and a bit of Lite Recon™ will reveal the many failed attempts to find and interview her. I do recommend this bizarre combo of Andy Warhol & Georgia in conversation, where he suggests she get contact lenses and she refuses dessert unless it is raspberries from the garden.)
Anyway, back to Sherwood!
Here, for whatever reason she’s a bit less opaque, writing to Anderson in 1932 about her desire to create, which begins by beholding a glimmer of something felt but not understood:
“I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known.
By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark[…]
Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of itself if you can keep your vision clear.”
Three bits of this on my mind on a Sunday night:
One, the defining of “unknown” as the thing that means the most — so much that you can’t even bend your brain around it.
Two, a tension between what’s fully crystalized…and what’s vague, unrealized, and blurry. The latter is infuriating and probably a better place to linger.
Three, aspiring to make your “unknown known,” but knowing that by the time you do…there’s a new, more generative mystery to chase.