Review: The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry

The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry

Stacey d’Erasmo

Graywolf Press, July 2024, $17

How did I get this book? NetGalley ARC

In two ways, The Long Run by Stacey d’Erasmo was not what I expected, and in both ways, I am glad to have been mistaken. First, I requested this book for review and then forgot about it while I finished reading other books for review. When I saw it on my ereader, where it was identified only by its title—no subtitle—I assumed I had requested a book about running during one of my fits of devotion to running as a sport rather than my usual consideration of running as something I like to do with the dog four times a week.

This is not a running book.

Then I read the synopsis again to see if I even wanted to read The Long Run anymore, once my running-as-sport fervor had passed and I was back to tooling happily around the neighborhood with Mabel. That’s when I realized that it was a book about maintaining a creative practice and living a creative life over the long run. I thought maybe it would be like Csikszentmihaly’s Flow in a way. Oh, I do want to read this, my middle-aged self thought.

This is not a how-to or advice book.

D’Erasmo has instead created the clearest example of the old writing saw “show, don’t tell” for a book about sustaining one’s creativity when the demands of family, the necessity of paid work, and the maintenance of friendships drain the energy you would otherwise put into art. She interviews a variety of artists—composers, dancers, actors, writers—who have been at their work for decades. The interviews are interspersed with memoir sections of the evolution and struggle to maintain her own creative practices. As she says in the prologue: “How do we keep doing this—making art?”

Bearing in mind that I was coming at this book from all the wrong angles right from the start, it took me a minute to understand what d’Erasmo was doing. The first chapter, which centers on dancer Valda Setterfield, suddenly veered away from the performer’s story to a memoir segment about d’Erasmo’s twenties in New York City. It was interesting and, as with the rest of the book, well written, but I couldn’t see the connection. Why had she broken away from Setterfield’s collaborations with her choreographer husband and the way her dance changed as she aged and became unable to move in the ways she always had? I was perplexed, but I still somehow trusted d’Erasmo to come through. I kept reading.

The more I read, the more the connections became more clear. The memoirs connected to the work of the interview subject, or to their gender or sexuality, or to the challenges they faced as they clung to the work that gave them life. At the halfway point of the book, the actress Blair Brown encounters the prejudice against older women in casting rooms, and d’Erasmo shares a short section on finding herself attracted to men in midlife after decades of living as a lesbian. But by this point, I had caught on. D’Erasmo brings in quotes from another interview she did with the author Samuel R. Delaney, as well as considerations of work by Patti Smith, the poet Mark Doty, and the visual artist Roni Horn. Her lifetime of curiosity and reading make The Long Run more akin to a commonplace book than a stuffy intertextual treatise.

The penny truly dropped and sank into my consciousness while reading the chapter about composer Tania Léon. It opens with mention of an essay by Roberto Bolano about the role of exile in a creative life. I perked up, since I have written some about exile as it relates to Old English poetry. This was a different way of approaching exile, and I had many questions. Can exile be voluntary, or is it always imposed? How did the Old English idea of exile as a kind of hell on earth intersect with Bolano’s idea of exile as necessary for art? I made a note to look up the essay. Then I read that Léon was the pianist that choreographer Arthur Mitchell happened to overhear improvising. He hired her to compose music for his ballets. I was also reading The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby at the time and had just encountered that scene. This one chapter touched on several of my wide-ranging interests, and introduced me to new artists, like the sculptor Ruth Asawa.

This, I think, is what keeps us creating over the long run, and what d’Erasmo is showing the reader rather than telling them. D’Erasmo, along with every person she interviews, has filled the well repeatedly over a lifetime, and she draws from it as often as she refills it. Creative people in any discipline connect the dots, pick up the threads, find new puzzle pieces, chase down the mysteries—whichever metaphor works. We also learn, sometimes against our will— like when d’Erasmo endured a years-long stretch without writing—when to let things be. Cap the well, but don’t bolt down the cover. We’ll return to it.

Readers who have been at this over the long run already will see their years of scraping and cobbling and hustling for a living that would support their art reflected back at them. Our major and minor successes and failures, our personal and professional breakthroughs and losses—they’re all there. You don’t make it to the long run without passing through Dante’s dark forest of midlife.

D’Erasmo doesn’t offer many pithy, Wilde-esque, meme-able summaries of her ideas for sustaining creativity. But she does say it’s “not a will, but willingness” that makes a long run possible. That seems like a better guiding light than any how-to or advice book you could find.

(There is also a helpful chapter-by-chapter list of sources for further reading at the back of the book.)

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