An interview with Terrance Keenan: Artist, Writer, Monk

Fiona writes: Sometimes you come across an author who speaks to you as if they knew you. Writing that answers questions you didn’t even know you had.

Terrance Keenan is one of those authors for me. I was amazed when I wrote to him and he actually wrote back. It turns out he’s an ordinary human being after all, as well as being a hero of mine. As you can tell, I’m very happy to welcome him to our series of interviews with creative people today.

Terrance, what drives your creative work?
I feel I was put here to do it. Not by anyone or thing, but it is why I am here. And as I age I am driven harder because there are certain things I feel I must finish before I die and time is simply running out. It’s a great excuse for cutting out what doesn’t matter. But if you want to go back to the roots of it, I can identify two experiences that have marked me and which I think about, without exaggeration, every day.
When I was four I was sitting in my grandfather’s studio (he was the Irish modernist artist, Peter Keenan) watching him work. He would entertain me with stories of elves and dragons and big bad wolves and so on to keep me quiet and still. At one point he got absorbed in a section of a painting and forgot I was there. Suddenly I asked him, “Granpop, why do you paint?” He stopped just as suddenly, brush poised. Then he turned to me and said, “Art is a way to talk to God.” A few minutes later he told me to go. I went down to the kitchen where my grandmother was baking her famous potato rolls. I asked her why she _didn’t_ paint. She asked what I meant by that. I told her what my grandfather had said about talking to God. She lifted her flour covered arms from her kneading, placed them on her hips and said, “My home is my art.” Whether or not you believe in God (and I don’t), this is a wonderful lesson about wakeful, mindful attention to being and why we should do anything. The other story happened when I was sixteen. I was at school in England, studying science for my A-levels. During the spring holidays I found myself reading Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It was a rewarding book for me in many way, especially reading about an Irish family that was very like my own, even down to Sunday dinners with roast chicken and jokes about the Pope’s nose. But the book closes with this passage: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” I had a life-changing epiphany reading that. I walked away from the study of science and turned finally and completely back to art, especially poetry. In Zen we recite the lines: “Whether singing or dancing, we are the voice of the Dharma.” We also chant in our morning service “Atta Dipa”, you are the light itself, don’t be afraid, there is no other light. I wouldn’t be able to grasp this without those earlier experiences.

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?
Don’t do it unless you have to. You do not have to choose between your life and your work. You can live, love and work and still create. Never give up. Health, weakness, relentless negative feedback and rejection, tragedy, shattered relationships, or powerful emotional responsibilities may pull at you and make you want to give up. Don’t. Show up. You can’t create if you are not there. And there is always more. When you think you have exhausted all the possibilities, it is time to rest. Then begin again. The discoveries are endless. I look at Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright, Georgia O’Keeffe, they never stopped until they died.

How do you keep creating when things get difficult?
I think there are two kinds of difficulty. The first is rejection or, even worse, being ignored or disregarded. It takes courage to continue in the face of that. It is difficult to get your damaged ego out of the way, to have the faith to take the next step regardless. I turn to my spiritual practice as a Buddhist to renew strength against the unremitting odds. The other difficulty, at least for me, is when I am working on something and it just isn’t turning out. I can’t make it go anywhere, all I had envisioned has gone flat. I have no new ideas. It sometimes got so bad I thought it was all over, that I was dried up. I had writer’s and painter’s block that could last for years. Now I realize I just don’t have the vocabulary to continue my conversation, that talk my grandfather referred to. I’ve stopped worrying or thinking myself a failure. To discover the vocabulary, I sit in zazen, go for walks, do mundane chores, never letting go of the koan of stymied creativity. And I still show up at my desk or studio when I normally would. Sometimes I just sit and do nothing. Sometimes I just read or stare out the window. Then, eventually, but always, I find the words, the colors, whatever music it is I need to go on. Then comes the joy.

How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
It touches every aspect of it all the time. But that is trite, almost trivial to say. My need to work has caused stress in my long marriage, when my wife has felt I was putting it before her or our children. I felt guilt when my need to work was hindered by my children. Yet I did write a line in a poem in our first year together, and have always felt, “that there is not in being one I may love after you.” It’s just not always easy to remember to say it out loud. I was primary caregiver for most of their childhood and, this is an experience many women have, I felt torn between three equally demanding responsibilities: the real and natural needs of my children for care, attention and love; my need to continue with my work before I lost touch with it; and the need to be true to myself, which somehow and confusingly mixed up the other two within me. But on the other side, our lives were richer and creatively attentive because I did not block out all the possibilities art brought into our personal lives. In recent years I have been going through the most creative period I have ever known. Instead of drifting into my personal twilight years, retiring and relaxing, I am filled with joy and possibility. Sure, I get tired, of the art, of myself, of people and things around me. But now I know when to stop, rest, and accept that the low times are just as passing and ephemeral as the high times.

What is it like to send your work out into the world?
It was always scary. I used to feel it was part of my soul out there. A rejection slip meant days of dejection and depression. I still get irritated when others cannot hear or see what I am saying, especially when I know it is good and that I have the work the right way round. The important thing was to do it. But a young friend of mine insists that the reason we write or paint is to be read or seen. Otherwise what is the point in our community of longing. So doing it is not enough. It takes more than one to have that conversation. I am no good at self promotion, but I still must do it, if only for the work’s sake. So I write the letters, stamp the return envelopes, whatever must be done. Then I let my children go.

What was the best advice anyone gave to you?
Show up. Then sit down and shut up. There is nothing wrong with joy.

What helps you to pay attention to the world?
I have a daily mantra of sorts: No blame, be kind, love everything.

Thank you so much for your words, Terrance, here & elsewhere.

Terrance Keenan was born in Munich, 1947, of Irish parents. He has lived variously in Ireland, the U.S., Liberia, England, Spain, Puerto Rico, and was a longtime resident of Upstate New York.
In May 1994 he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest, and has taught meditation to alcoholics and addicts and worked with the sick and dying in the oncology unit at John Hopkins Hospital. He has authored four books of poems with various small presses, the most recent being Practicing Eternity, BASFAL Books. A book with Tuttle Publishing called St. Nadie in Winter: Zen Encounters with Loneliness, was one of only four finalists for the national NAPRA Nautilus Award for books that promote spiritual growth and conscious living. His art work is in many private collections and his recent U.S. exhibitions were in Monkton, Towson, at the Studio 6000 Annual and at the annual Creative Alliance shows in Maryland. He now lives permanently in West Cork, Ireland.

Find his site at http://www.terrancekeenan.com.

Image – Splash by Terrance Keenan.

Comments & replies

6 thoughts on “An interview with Terrance Keenan: Artist, Writer, Monk

  1. Jean

    How wonderful to find this interview today! Terrance Keenan’s book St Nadie in Winter is the book by a Buddhist teacher that has spoken to me most directly and moved me most. It should be much more widely known and distributed and I can’t recommend it too highly. His vocation as a writer, poet and visual artist, as well as a Zen priest, has a lot to do with this, I expect.

    I didn’t know he’d moved back to Ireland and I’m wondering, Terrance, if you will ever give Zen teachings on this side of the Atlantic.

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