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Posts Tagged ‘art’

I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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Why I Need Beauty

Ever since Rahul wrote about beauty and how we don’t have the language to discuss it, I’ve been wanting to write about beauty. But it turns out he’s right, and it’s surprisingly difficult to talk about. For starters, beauty is measured so subjectively, and then I’m not used to saying anything about it except for, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Which does not a blog post make.

But what I can talk about is what beauty means to me personally. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of beauty as it pertains to my home, and how critical it is for my well-being to have some beauty in my surroundings. I felt silly about this too, I think because this is not something we normally talk about. This is not something I feel like I ought to expect or prioritize. Square footage or number and type of outlets or layout, no problem. But beauty? I feel spoiled for even considering it.

But as I thought about it more, I realized every place I’ve lived has had its beautiful aspects that I have loved. Most often, it’s about the trees. Redwoods grew right outside my windows in Santa Cruz, which I loved so much that whenever I’ve had the chance to live near redwoods, I’ve taken it. Another place had a beautiful bay window in the front, as well as this pleasant curving opening between the kitchen and the living room. One place had beautiful cherry flooring that shone in the sunlight. And another had quaint lace curtains that hung in the windows.

So in my recent search, I rejected place after place. They all had many additional problems, but the main problem as far as I was concerned was that they lacked beauty. There were no trees to love. They were dark, grimy, not cared for. They were in neighborhoods with chain link fences around each yard, or they smelled strange and I left with a sore throat, or they were in sterile communities where I wouldn’t feel happy walking Nala. After I left, I wasn’t thinking about this or that piece of beauty that had caught my imagination. Instead I was worrying about crime rates and how much water and garbage would cost and if I could impose enough of my personality on the place in spite of itself that I could be happy there.

Until I found my new place. Its main feature of beauty is a very tall window that pours light throughout the space. I fell in love with the sun, and that was that. I knew I could turn the place into a home.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

Why does beauty matter so much? Whenever I witness beauty, I feel an easing in my chest. When I’m happy, beauty adds to my sense of appreciation, and when I’m sad, beauty reminds me that all is not lost. The world cannot be a truly desolate place for me when I’ve just seen a hummingbird zoom by or watched the clouds being perfectly reflected on a still lake surface or looked at my copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman.” It is why, last year when I was under so much stress, I instinctively went to my study and stared out at the tree outside, the piece of beauty that had persuaded me to choose to live here.

Beauty reminds me that there is more than whatever is going on for me in this moment.

Of course, there’s a lot more to beauty than what I’ve said so far. But this is, at least, a beginning.

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I’ve been somewhat injured the last week or two, so I’ve had some extra time on my hands. So I decided to poke around Kickstarter and see some of the awesome projects artists have in the works.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Kickstarter is a funding platform in which artists put up projects and how much funding they wish to receive, and then their fans and the interested public can pledge money towards those projects, usually for nifty rewards like art, books, tickets to live performances and screenings, etc.

What’s exciting about Kickstarter is it gives artists a viable alternative to get their amazing work out into the world while getting paid for it. Many creative projects require money up front in order to become realities, and Kickstarter allows the artist to get paid directly from their fans instead of finding corporate backing. It definitely works best when an artist already has an established fan base who can both support them financially and spread the word. For writers, a successful Kickstarter mimics the advance system of traditional publishing while allowing the writer to retain complete creative control. Which is all-around awesome sauce.

Here are some of the Kickstarters I decided to back last week:

Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, by Anita Sarkeesian

I’ve been watching all of Anita’s videos ever since she explained to me, complete with relevant examples, what the Bechdel test was. Now she’s taking on the portrayal of women in video games with a lengthy new series. I couldn’t resist backing this project, because this video series NEEDS to exist.

Fireside Magazine Issue Two, by Brian White

This looks like a promising new fiction magazine, with a lot of speculative heavy hitters in the line-up for the next couple of issues. But really I was sold by the opportunity to be drawn by my friend Galen Dara, who is an amazingly talented artist.

Amanda Palmer: the New Record, Art Book, and Tour, by Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is in the process of revolutionizing the way musicians can interact with their fanbase and make a living while doing awesome things. How could I not want to be a part of this? Also, art books are cool.

Crossed Genres Publications, by Bart Lieb

I have a special place in my heart for Crossed Genres. While they weren’t my first sale, they were the first publication who ran one of my stories. Their Kickstarter has been so successful, they are now going to bring the magazine back (it folded recently), and they also have a few very interesting anthologies scheduled for publication in 2013.

I’m Fine, Thanks, by Crank Tank Studios

To make this independent documentary, the filmmakers toured the country and conducted lots of interviews. Their topic? Complacency and the pull to follow a pre-approved script instead of creating your own unique and individual path through life. Can you think of any subject of a documentary that fits in more with the spirit of this blog? Because I can’t. I am so excited a movie like this exists, and I can’t wait to watch it.

I can’t cover all the worthy Kickstarter projects out there in one blog post, so please help me out. What projects have you supported recently? What other cool things are artists out there doing?

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Tell Me If This Is Art

In our discussion about what it means to be an artist, the question of the definition of art came up more than once. This issue–what exactly IS art?–has been the subject of all kinds of learned debate, study, essays and books. So why not tackle it in a single blog post? The things I do for my readers! (Not that I’m complaining–it gives me the perfect excuse to use this image I found the other day.)

Hmm... is this art?

So what are some factors we can consider?

1. Exposure/size of audience: Has nothing to do with whether something is art. Pop/rock musicians and TV shows reach an audience of millions, whereas new classical music works are sometimes lucky to break into the thousands. We can get into an argument about low vs. high art, but let’s not.

2. Opinions of the experts: Have been proven wrong in the past, and are likely to again in the future. Critical acclaim is great, but who among us hasn’t read the rejection letters from expert editors regarding books that later became classics?

3. The Ka-ching! factor: Has nothing to do with whether something is art. Some people make a lot of money from art they create…and some people really don’t. Take Vincent Van Gogh from Tuesday’s post. He made hardly any money from his art, and is anybody really going to argue with me that Starry Night is not art? Anyone?

4. Skill: So maybe most of us agree that Starry Night is art. But what about that novel you trunked? What about your kid’s crayon drawing of the family that she spent several days on, but that consists of stick figures? What about your first musical performance, when you cracked on that high note? What about that song that consists of three chords? Is that song art if it has a catchy melody as well? What if it has especially original lyrics? What if it’s a parody of another popular song? Yeah, this category is tricky.

5. Artistic freedom: How much control over the work of art does the artist have, and does this affect its classification as art or not-art? For example, is graphic design to a client’s specifications art? What about animating someone else’s graphics/story? (Is that any different from a singer or actor interpreting a song or script? If so, how?) What about a tie-in novel with pre-existing characters and a pre-approved plot? How about if an opera company commissions you to compose an opera? That’s definitely art, right? So how is it different from any of the above scenarios? (I’d argue that in this case, the composer retains most of the artistic vision for the project. But what about portraiture?)

6. Intent: The idea that art can be defined by the intent of its creator. So if I put my dog’s paws into paint and let her walk around a blank canvas, she is not an artist. Maybe I am though, if I had the idea of making art based on this plan. If I’m singing in the shower and not thinking about it, that’s not art, but if I’m performing in front of a room of my students, perhaps it is. What about when I’m practicing that performance by myself? This is the broadest definition of art, and the one I resonate with the most, as a teacher as well as an artist. Were my singing and piano students not artists because they hadn’t achieved mastery yet? No, but I’d argue that some of them were perhaps not artists because they didn’t understand or care about what they were doing (and therefore lacked artistic intent).

7. Art is in the eye of the beholder. In which case it is inherently defined by those experiencing it as opposed to those creating it. Although do you experience it while creating it? What about afterwards?

I know, I’m asking a lot more questions than I’m answering. I’m hoping some of you will be moved to comment and tell me your opinions about the questions I’ve raised. So let me leave you with one final question:

A few years ago, in a sublime and slightly insane act, I decided to create a mosaic as part of the decorations for a Greek/Norse Gods & Goddesses party I was throwing. I don’t know anything about mosaics. I’ve seen a few in Portugal, but that’s about it. So I bought some materials and a book telling me how to do it, and I got to work. I spent hours and hours on this piece. In the middle, I got RSI in my hand from squeezing the glue container (I kid you not) so I had to recruit my husband to squeeze the glue while I painstakingly placed each tile. Here is the finished result:

As I said, I know next to nothing about mosaics, and this was my first attempt and therefore most likely a flawed and amateurish effort. The skill wasn’t there, the money certainly wasn’t, and everyone was so involved in other aspects of the party that they hardly noticed the mosaic (ah, party planning 101). I did, however, have complete artistic freedom and an intention to create art. So my question is, is this mosaic art? Or not art?

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

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Sometimes when we are on the road to excellence, we get a little tired. We wish we were already there. We wish the road had a literal signpost saying “You have made it, and you can officially stop worrying and consider yourself to be awesome.” We wonder if we should have chosen something easier to do with our time. And we think that maybe there is a magic bullet, something we can do that will–Bibbidi bobbidi boo!–make us more amazing.

Let me make this part of the road simpler for you.

There are no short cuts. There are no magic bullets. There are no sure things. There are no easy paths. So if you want something quick and easy, excellence isn’t the end goal for you.

Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Sure, there are activities beyond diligent practice you can do that will help you progress. In writing, these include attending workshops, reading slush, seeking out critique experiences, reading craft books like The 10% Solution, etc. In singing, these include participating in master classes and workshops, auditioning, obtaining performance opportunities (however humble), studying with different teachers, etc. But none of these methods are foolproof, and not all of them will pan out.

Take the various Clarion workshops, for example. Working professional writers often cite their Clarion experience as being pivotal in their development as writers. These are the stories about Clarion that we hear most often. But then there are the writers like Alexandra MacKenzie, who took ten years after the workshop to be ready to learn from one of her instructors. Because you can’t always control the timing of these sorts of things. And there are also the Clarion attendees who stopped writing altogether; these are the ones we hear about the least, and yet they assuredly exist. Why? Because no way of leveling up is foolproof. No way of advancing works for every single person.

The path to excellence doesn’t often go flat like a plateau only to suddenly rocket steeply upwards into awesomeness. It is a gradual process, a long slow incline upwards. As Seth Godin says, it is a series of hills, one after another. Those who continue to improve keep choosing new hills to climb that are just on the edge of their abilities.

Sometimes the path feels like a flat-line that suddenly springs up, but this is an illusion. I saw it all the time with my students in voice lessons. They would work steadily and gradually improve, so gradually that they didn’t even notice it happening. They would struggle with a concept and it wouldn’t quite be clicking, and they’d get frustrated and discouraged. At this stage in the process, it was my job as the teacher to keep pushing them, keep encouraging them, keep them singing even if they were ready to throw in the towel. And then inevitably, they’d finally understand. Their bodies would finally coordinate correctly, the muscle memory would finally develop, the ideas we were talking about would finally make actual instead of theoretical sense. And they’d experience a leap in ability. A leap that was really a slow mounting of ability all along.

That leap in ability is just around the corner for all of us. If we practice diligently and intelligently (directed practice as opposed to blind repetition), we are pushing ourselves forward along the path. The leap may come next week or it may come next year. It may come after we take a month-long break or it may come after a few weeks of intense practice. We don’t know when it will come. Excellence requires us to have the faith to sustain us while we work.

We must believe the leap will come. But it won’t come because of magic. It will come because of our own hard work.

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I’m writing this up in my hotel room at the SCBWI conference. I just heard an amazing keynote speech by Bruce Coville, who was in part saying what I said in my blog post last week about influence and never knowing how your actions will affect others. Only he said it in a more articulate and developed way and threw in several musical theater references for good measure.

He also gave many tips for writers, and something he said jarred a useful insight loose in my brain. He talked about the importance of art, craft, and business sense. All in one speech. I’ve been thinking about each of these subjects a great deal, and you’ve seen some of the results of that thinking here on this blog. But the speech gave me some much needed cohesion.

Sometimes I feel like art has become something of a dirty word among many writers. If we’re serious about writing (and oh, are we ever serious), then we discuss craft a great deal. Sometimes we even bite the bullet and talk about business and the industry in ways that are more thoughtful than reactionary and more intelligent than just following the herd. (Sometimes we freak out instead.) We can be inspirational within certain boundaries. But art. Yes, art is a loaded word.

When we hear others speak about art, perhaps we imagine the dilettante artist who never actually writes anything. Or perhaps we think about those who start with a message and try to slap their audience in the face with it. Or perhaps we think of something inaccessible, like the serialist movement in music that I was talking about on Tuesday. The starving artist comes to mind, the irresponsible flake who needs to be talked down from the ledge by the long-suffering editor, the tortured soul who has a room filled with crumpled pieces of paper (see the recent movie Limitless, in which the writer portrayed has nothing to do with reality whatsoever).

And yet, this is not how art needs to be, and this is not how we must define ourselves as artists. Art doesn’t have to mean any of these things. Instead, it is an essential leg in the tripod of the writer.

Here’s how the system works: A good grasp of craft means that we produce sellable and marketable works, which helps our business. It also means that we have the tools at our disposable to create art that works, that really does evoke emotion and help us see the world differently. Craft is essential.

A good grasp of business means that we can get our work out into the world. This facilitates its purpose as art to communicate. It’s also always nice to avoid being screwed and to get paid for our work, which helps us continue both our craft and our art.

An acceptance of our work as art keeps us inspired. It encourages us to keep improving our craft so that we can achieve more through our words, and it challenges us to learn the business side so that we can achieve greater impact.

Lose touch with the business aspect and we cannot support ourselves or get our work out into the world. Lose touch with the craft aspect and we cannot write well enough to be effective. Lose touch with our work as art and we flirt with a sense of futility and forget to take risks.

I tend to neglect the art aspect that reminds me of my purpose and pour all my energy into craft and business. This choice, I tell myself, makes me a serious writer.

But I am wrong. My best work doesn’t happen when I only have two of my cornerstones. It takes place when I remember all three and dare to write bigger. It takes place when I accept that I am a businesswoman, a craftsperson, AND an artist.

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about art: how art can be defined, what its possible purposes are, what I am trying to accomplish personally as an artist. This exploration began many years ago when I was a student musician: a singer, a songwriter, and a composer.

In my music program, we spent a year on music theory that looks beyond the standard Western tonal palette. Our curriculum began with late 19th century composers like Wagner and Debussy, which I very much enjoyed studying, and then progressed to atonalism, serialism, and other 20th century classical music (including John Cage, Philip Glass, etc.). We also spent a quarter studying 20th century music history.

After I finished this course of study, I went on to take a few composition classes and seminars and began to consider more seriously the question of why. Why do so many cultures include music as an integral component? Why do so many of us like to listen to and/or produce music? What was I trying to achieve with the music I was writing?

The answer, I decided at the time (and it still holds true for me), is communication. Music is a way of communicating to others; of evoking a response, often emotional; of taking something we’re familiar with and translating it into something new, or of exposing us to something new that is outside our own frame of reference. Music can tell a story, something that happens especially frequently in vocal music (my other focus at school) but can also happen in purely instrumental music (listen to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique for an excellent example of programme music). Music can make us feel a certain way: when I’m watching a suspenseful TV show, it’s often the music that makes me jumpy before anything has even happened on-screen. Music can share universal experiences or distill unique experiences in a way that are more relatable. One of the reasons I adore musical theater as much as I do is because it combines the dramatic potentials of theater with the emotional resonance of music, while remaining accessible to a more general audience than opera often does.

Unfortunately a lot of the music composed in academia, the new Classical music of the 20th century, didn’t seem to me to be very accessible at all. In fact, at the time it baffled me because the goal of communication often seemed very absent from it. Indeed, serialism in particular seemed like a game played with numbers that had very little to do with actual sounds at all. I realize now that I wasn’t seeing the complete picture; I believe even the most experimental pieces were trying to communicate. The problem, for me, was that they were communicating with only a select group of people who were educated enough in music to be able to understand them. I was in that group, yes, but what about everyone else? Imagine the equivalent of throwing out an old common language and writing in a new language; you will only be able to communicate with the select group also versed in the new language. So what we are talking about then is the question of audience. If art is communication, then considering a given piece of art’s intended audience becomes very important.

I also approach writing as art, and therefore as an act of communication. But in pursuing that line of thinking, I realized there are many forms that written art can take. We have the obvious: novels, short stories, plays, poems. But we also have the slightly less obvious (at least to me): letters, blogs, Google+/Twitter/Facebook. Am I saying everyone’s Facebook account is art? I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far (although feel free to make a case for it in the comments). I’m saying it can be art; it has the potential to be art. I’ve certainly created art through letters/emails, in which I create an idea, a vision of who I am and what my life story is. And then on the flip side there are the banal and mundane emails that are just a recital of facts or a quick way to make plans.

I’m in love with this great art project, in which a photographer traveled around the country taking photos of people’s refrigerators. I think about this project all the time because I am just blown away by the coolness of it, showing the stories of these random people through one photo. To me, this is art—it turns my assumptions around, it evokes emotion in me, it causes me to see the world around me in a different way.

So then is this blog art? It certainly tries to do those same things. Some of you will think I’m being pretentious by labeling my blog as art, but isn’t it interesting to think about? I like to think of each essay being a small piece of a greater mosaic—I wonder what it will look like when it is complete. I wonder what picture I will have created. I get excited just thinking about it.

What is art? Is it in the eye of the beholder, the creator, or both? Is it about intention or execution? What does art mean to you?

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I’ve been feeling all organized because last weekend I made a list of topics for my next several posts. And then this morning I read a blog post offering some misguided writing advice. (No, I’m not going to link to it. I’m sure way too many writers read it as is.) Cue complete topic derailment.

I’ve already written about writing advice in the past, but the more I think about it, the more I think this issue isn’t confined to advice about writing. It isn’t even confined to advice about artistic pursuits. Over the years I have certainly received a great deal of advice about basic life topics, some of which has thrown me for a loop and later proven to be completely wrong. (My favorite? “Oh, Amy, you just have delusions of grandeur” in response to me having big artistic dreams. Way to try to ensure they’ll never happen.)

Add to this the undeniable fact that I sometimes give what could be construed as advice right here on this blog, and I feel almost obligated to write the following.

Read, learn, listen to other people’s point of view and feedback. Think about what people say, try out various ideas. Don’t automatically assume you know the one true way to doing anything. But ultimately, DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Do what you need to do (assuming that what you need to do doesn’t involve anything blatantly illegal, of course). And more than that, do what works. Advice, even the more strongly worded variety, is merely a suggestion that we can take or leave according to our own inclination. Even if it’s good advice, we might not be ready to implement it. And if it’s bad advice, we might accidentally harm ourselves or take the plunge into regret that I talked about last week.

That’s one of the really wonderful things about life. We get to choose our own adventure. Sure, we can’t control everything or even most things, but within our small scope of decision, we act as our own kings and queens.

It’s not such a leap to believe that creative types need to follow their muses and express their personal integrity and vision of the world in their art. But what if we take a step farther and consider ourselves to be art and our lifetimes to be our canvas of expression? The expressions “Follow your heart” and “Follow your gut” are close but incomplete representations of this kind of life. Follow who you are, and even more, follow who you wish to become.

Choosing to live this way can mean leaving a lot of the advice behind. The Backbone Project has really opened my eyes to this. Why do people care whether I drink alcohol or not? Why do they care (especially women!) if I self-identify as a feminist? Why do people want to change my writing process? Often I think the answer is that they don’t actually care about me personally at all. Instead they are seeking to validate their own way of life and their own choices. Instead of following who they are and finding a sense of rightness in that, they need reflection from the outside world to reassure them. Instead of deep and subtle thinking, they allow themselves to fall into the black and white thinking trap: I’m right and you’re wrong. Because this doesn’t work for me, obviously it won’t work for anybody. Something needs to be fixed; you need to be fixed. If I have a big bad problem, that means you must not have any problems at all or else you’re trying to compete with me, but it doesn’t matter because my problem must be the worst. (Or flip it around: if you have a big bad problem, that must mean my own problems aren’t important at all.)

Don’t take my advice about this, though. Think about it, and make up your own mind. Choose your own adventure. Turn your life into art with every choice you make.

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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When I was a teenager, I enjoyed dreaming big. I wanted to be a novelist, I wanted to work on animated features at Disney, I wanted to write games at Sierra (this was back when they were still doing cool stuff like Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, and the King’s Quest series). I wanted to be a singer and actress and perform in musicals, I wanted to write musicals, I wanted to direct musicals. I knew that many of these aspirations were unrealistic and difficult, but I wanted them all anyway.

However, a family member who shall remain nameless said something to me one day, perhaps just an offhand remark, that became fully lodged in my young impressionable brain. “Amy,” the person said, “you have delusions of grandeur.” They might as well have said, “Why try, because the only possible outcome is failure.” Even today, half my lifetime later, whenever I think of trying something daring or risky or simply ambitious, those words go through my mind. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to my husband, “because so-and-so said.” And then he has to go through the work of convincing me to do whatever it is anyway.

Photo by Tony Fischer

 

I was reminded of this when I read Christie Yant’s recent essay, Lessons from the Slushpile: Good vs. Great. She discusses what distinguishes the great stories (and incidentally, the ones that are bought) from the rest, and one of the distinctions she’s made is that truly great stories have something to say. They say something that matters, that makes us as readers think or question or feel. They are ambitious, meant to illuminate as well as entertain.In my limited experience, these kinds of ambitious stories are rare, but it was by finding them that I first learned to appreciate, and later to love, short stories as a form.So why are these stories thin on the ground? Perhaps for one or more of these reasons (and there might well be others):

1. It’s difficult to come up with something to say in the first place.
2. Even if you’ve got something to say, it’s difficult to express it in a clear and original fashion.
3. Writing such a story means that on some level, you’ve got to have delusions of grandeur.

I think I had it right as a teenager. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to strive, to push ourselves beyond our perceived capabilities, to dive into projects of vast scope. They give us permission to take risks, do things that make us uncomfortable, and ignore those who don’t believe we can do it. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to become great.

So right now, I’m going to finish up this essay, and then I’m going to sit down and work on a short story that scares the pants off me. It makes me uncomfortable, it kind of makes me want to cry, I’m not quite sure I know where it’s going, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to follow it there. All I can do is believe in its potential, as I believe in my own.

Delusions of grandeur are the necessary caterpillars if we want our words to fly.

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