Viv Albertine’s brilliant memoir of creative frustration
“Every day the task seems hopeless and I feel like giving up.”
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers, a fortnightly newsletter on wriggling through a creative life from the author of the Daily Rituals books. If you enjoy the newsletter, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for $5/month or $30/year.
Viv Albertine (b. 1954)
While putting together last month’s three-part series on creative blocks—if you missed it, here are parts one, two, and three—I wondered several times if the whole thing was too writer-centric. Because so many of the examples I gathered involved novelists and playwrights (and a poet who didn’t write a single poem for seven years!), I even started to think, well, maybe blocks are actually a writing problem in particular, rather than something that all creative artists might face.
As I worried over this, I happened to read Viv Albertine’s wonderful 2014 memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. Albertine was the guitarist of the Slits, the beloved punk band that formed in London in 1976—Albertine joined the following year—recorded two albums, and toured Europe and the U.S. before fizzling out in early 1982. (Its debut album, Cut, sounds better every time I listen to it.) In her memoir, Albertine recounts in vivid detail the band’s rise and fall, as well as her own long, post-Slits search for personal and creative fulfillment—conditions that elude her for a painfully long time.
It’s a fascinating read, and it contains some of the best writing I’ve found about the struggle to make one’s chosen medium bend to one’s taste and vision. Here, for instance, is the 22-year-old Albertine trying to teach herself to play guitar:
When I’m alone with the guitar, I experiment and try to recreate the sounds of animals and other noises. This is how I build my guitar style from scratch, from a starting point of no chords, no twelve-bar blues chord progressions, and no scales.
. . . I twang away every day, trying to find my way around the guitar, to understand what pick-ups do, what settings to put my amp on, trying desperately to hear. I want to develop a distinct personality with both my guitar playing and my guitar sound. I need to be sure that I am conveying the right message with my instrument. . . . I keep twiddling the knobs on the amp and my guitar to try and find the right combination that will lead me to THE SOUND. . . . Every day the task seems hopeless and I feel like giving up. I lie on my bed a lot, just holding the guitar, feeling like a fraud.
. . . Slowly I start shaping a guitar style, twisting strands together, layering then undoing and starting again, until I start to sound like me. I just wish I loved playing guitar. I thought you were supposed to love playing music, that it’s a release and a comfort, that’s what other musicians always say. For me it’s agony.
This is exactly how I feel when I’m writing! And though Albertine is not describing a block, exactly, this passage and others like it reassured me that this kind of bone-deep frustration is not particular to writers but rather lurks around all creative work, regardless of discipline. How comforting.
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE
I can hardly write about Albertine without mentioning her role in Joanna Hogg’s 2014 film Exhibition, surely the best-ever depiction of what it’s like to be moody middle-aged married artists working in the same house. And what a house! Designed by the commercial architect James Melvin for himself and his wife—and, tragically, demolished in 2019—it is the third character in this quiet, strange, wonderful film.
INTRODUCING THE KAFKA–KLUM WORM!
The other week, a couple days after Halloween, I decided to try out the new Substack Chat feature (available in the iOS app) by posting an impromptu message about Heidi Klum’s amazing and horrifying worm costume, which, it suddenly struck me, embodies the same vibe I’m trying to capture in this newsletter, sort of?
Two minutes later, the New Yorker cartoonist—who also publishes the newsletter New York Cartoons on Substack—replied:
Um, how could I say no? I told Jason to go for it, and another five minutes later I had a new Subtle Maneuvers avatar! Here’s Jason’s spur-of-the-moment sketch and the cleaned-up version he sent me the next day:
What does everyone think? I’d say it certainly captures the “wriggling through by subtle maneuvers” idea that inspired this newsletter in the first place. Huge thanks to Jason for his volunteer illustration services; do check out his newsletter for more of his work, plus some revealing glimpses of his cartooning process.
For my ongoing/neverending book-in-progress, I’m continually thinking about the variety of ways that writers and artists (and literary/arts organizations) have funded their creative work, and I’m always on the lookout for novel solutions to this age-old dilemma. One that I love is n+1’s annual Bookmatch. Donate any amount to the journal and you’ll get access to an online personality quiz that will match you with a list of ten books recommended by a variety of literary luminaries. (This year’s roster includes Jonathan Franzen, Jia Tolentino, and Hari Kunzru.) It’s a lot of fun, and the money raised by Bookmatch in the last two years helped n+1 establish a new $5,000 award for fiction writers—a worthy cause for sure. It runs through November 30; donate and take the quiz here.
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