Four years ago I saw this play by Alan Bennett at Studio Theater here in Washington, D.C. Next day I ordered a copy, read it hungrily and marked it up. A few weeks ago I dipped into it again. Why? I wanted inspiration and, for me, “The Habit of Art” offers plenty.
It’s set in the poet W.H. Auden’s digs at Oxford University and centers around a late life meeting between him and the composer Benjamin Britten, once friends and collaborators, now estranged. The theme it addresses is art and the artist.
Britten asks Auden: Do you not work?
Auden replies: Every day, but I do nothing. I have the habit of art.
I love this line and feel I understand it entirely. It expresses the writer’s consistent bent toward her calling—the stray observation, the words jotted on a piece of scrap paper then lost, the snatch of dream or conversation—all cached in memory, awaiting transformation or evaporation. Reading. Ruminating. Idling, pen poised in thin air. The habit of art.
A few more memorable lines in Auden’s voice:
Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life. Some writers are all will. Talent you can dispense with, but not will. Will is paramount.
On writer’s block: It’s not a complaint from which I’ve ever suffered…or entirely believe in…It assumes, too, that the natural condition of writers is writing whereas the natural condition of most writers is not writing.
In the end art is small beer. The really serious things in life are earning one’s living and loving one’s neighbor.
As a writer and a nurse with a good day job and circle of family and friends, I almost agree.