Posts Tagged ‘being an artist’

Sometimes I feel really lucky to be an artist.

Not that there aren’t drawbacks: the constant stream of rejection, the competitiveness, the consequences of being even a little bit in the public eye, the self-doubt, etc.

But I understand myself well enough to realize I need the constant challenges in order to remain enthusiastic and engaged in being alive. Some people don’t need constant challenges. They’ve figured out how to make their lives work, more or less, and they do those things without constantly striving for more, or better, or different. And they are often content.

Trying something new...in Bali.

Trying something new…in Bali.

I would get so bored. I feel like we’re not supposed to admit that, that boredom is a possibility or something we experience. Boredom feels like it belongs in the realm of childhood summers before kids became so over-scheduled. Boredom feels like something we’re no longer supposed to have the time or inclination for.

Well, however untrendy it is to admit this, in certain circumstances I get bored. I get bored when I’m just clocking it in. I get bored when I’m not fully engaged. I get bored when I’m not pushing myself or learning something or trying something new. I get bored when I’m not thinking all that much. I get bored when everything in my life feels very static.

I also get bored at traffic lights, and waiting for people who are late, and talking on the phone to banks and health insurance companies and phone companies.

Anyway, there are a lot of strategies for minimizing boredom, but being an artist is possibly my favorite. Because as an artist, I never feel any urge to settle. I never feel that I can stop pushing to get better or to do something different or innovative or risky. Whenever I’m working on a book, I’m always aware there will be a next book, and then another book after that. And who knows where I will get to go for those books! And I spend a lot of time thinking and brainstorming and problem solving and doing targeted practice.

It really does keep life very exciting.

Also, Margaret Atwood is going to turn seventy-six in November, and she just had a new novel come out. Which makes me feel quite optimistic about a future for me in which I keep writing more and more books and challenge myself in different ways and never have to stop being an artist and keeping myself engaged.

Being an artist actually reminds me to stay interested. You wouldn’t think I’d need any help with that, but it’s so easy to take the path of least resistance, even when that’s not what you really want. But I have this idea that it’s healthy as an artist to keep feeding your brain and your imagination, so I’m always looking for opportunities to do so. Which has the great side effect of keeping me engaged.

But while being an artist is my personal favorite strategy, there are many more. What are some of your strategies for fending off boredom and staying engaged?

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“In the end we always act in the dark.” – Rebecca Solnit

I have always been a big planner.

My parents were also planners. My mom made a to-do list every week, even though she had a weekly schedule that didn’t involve a lot of variation. We rotated through the same dinners on a weekly basis: Monday was spaghetti night, Friday was pizza night. My dad planned road trips precisely by mileage. I started learning how to budget when I was eleven.

I enjoy planning. A well-laid plan skillfully executed gives me joy. I like planning trips and parties and my social calendar and my writing projects. I like analyzing, and I like strategizing. I like the sense of accomplishment I receive from meeting goals and milestones.


I also agree with Rebecca Solnit. There is an uncertainty inherent in being alive, in being human. We don’t know the time of our deaths. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We might have a good guess, we might hope, but we don’t know. Not for sure.

And sometimes life takes a sudden swift turn, and we end up on a train to Transylvania just because it sounds cool. Or we end up spending five days lounging on the couch unable to leave the house because we are so ill, or two years struggling to walk more than a block because we are so injured. We end up breaking hearts or having our hearts broken. We end up having one of those perfect moments that bubble up from time to time, whose very essence lies in their unpredictability.

Some things cannot be planned.

Some things–and I feel like I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this–some things cannot be practical.

And sometimes embracing the reality of the darkness, of not being able to see the hand in front of our faces, of not knowing and sinking into the uncomfortable truth of not knowing–sometimes this is the only way forward.

It is through not being able to see or know that we are able to sink deep within and become aware of those truths that endure through the uncertainty, in spite of or perhaps even because of it.

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Rebecca Solnit discusses the role of uncertainty and darkness in the life of the artist in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” which is in her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me (how could I not read a book with a title like that?) and which also was adapted for the New Yorker.

My discovery of this essay last week was timely. Unpredictable, even. I’m in that gap between novel drafts that I always find uncomfortable, and meanwhile I had a conversation that made me question what it means to me to be a writer.

Being a writer, or really any kind of artist, is filled with a weird kind of uncertainty. The creative process can be planned, it can be quantified, it can be optimized, and yet…. there’s this point, for me, when all of that falls away. The plans, the ambition, the practicality, no longer speak so loudly. It’s not that they’re gone, exactly, and they can sometimes be forced to the fore when necessary, but they are in service to creation, not the other way around. And things click the way they click. Unpredictably. Not not always in the way I planned.

Onto this conversation about my writing career. We spoke about the timescale, and the other person said (paraphrasing) he’d write as much as possible in order to succeed as quickly as possible. And, he said, regardless of questions of money, I wouldn’t want to keep writing forever if I never succeeded in getting books published, would I?

And practically speaking, I’d have to agree with him. But the funny things is, I don’t actually agree with him. Not at all. I’m a writer through and through. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing songs and music. It is so fundamentally folded into who I am, this compulsion to create, I would be bereft without it. It is one of the forces that has shaped who I am, something that feels simultaneously like something I chose and like something that chose me. I’m all in. And success (or at least this definition of success), while it is something I would like, is not the only part of the equation.

Being fully committed to being a writer in this moment feels like another definition of success.

Perhaps this is one of those things that has nothing to do with practicality. Perhaps being a writer is like swimming in the dark. You never know what you will find. In spite of your best efforts to chart your course, you never know exactly where you’re going.

I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I write.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” So wrote Virginia Woolf.

Yes. The future is dark. It defies even the most perfect plans.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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This weekend I went to a party that was basically a room full of Buddhists…and me.

Does that sound like the set-up for a joke?

Anyway, I really enjoyed hanging out with these people because they were all kind and authentic and heartfelt, and also there was a lot less small talk than usual at a party where I don’t know anyone, and as we’ve already kind of touched upon, small talk tends to bore the crap out of me, especially in large doses. (And as an aside, I haven’t gotten to ask anyone yet about the coolest thing they’ve ever done, but I am SO looking forward to it.)

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

I also had to speak in front of the group, in impromptu fashion, and I mentioned in passing that I had found my own way to work towards wholeheartedness. Afterwards, more than one person was very interested in hearing about my “practice,” and I found myself struggling to put it into words. I didn’t have a convenient sticker like “Buddhism” to slap onto myself and how I move through life.

And yet, it didn’t seem like an odd question, because I do have a practice. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time probably know a lot about it because I tend to write a lot about it, but it doesn’t have a specific label. It is a combination of many different parts, some of which would be very familiar to a Buddhist: mindfulness, introspection, and compassion, as well as a focus on priorities and strategies and investigations into how the world works and how I work.

But what I found myself saying more than once was this: I am an artist. That is my practice.

I am an artist. That is my community.

Music has always been my foundation and solace. It reminds me how joy feels. And writing, well, writing changes me. There was that moment when I realized I couldn’t separate myself from my writing. I was in my writing, whether it was in these essays or in my fiction, and therefore I wanted to strive to be the person I wished to see in my work.

And art is a practice. It’s all about practice, whether you’re repeating vocal exercises or the difficult end passage of that aria, or whether you’re memorizing music, or whether you’re writing two essays a week and a thousand words a day. Art is trying new things and challenging yourself, pushing yourself to your limits and then coming back tomorrow and finding your new limit and pushing yourself again. Art is in the way you see the world, and it becomes entangled in the way you interact with the world.

For me, there came the point where I saw my entire life as one long continuous work of art. It’s a fun way to live.

In thinking about all this, I also realized how important community is to any practice. Because yes, writing changed and continues to change me, but I don’t know that I would have had the courage to let it without the writing community by my side, helping me and educating me and supporting me and cheering me on. It is hard enough to transform without doing it in isolation. It is easier to challenge yourself when you are surrounded by people who understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Aside from a renewed sense of gratitude for my own community, I left the Buddhist party with the following awareness: that there are so many ways to travel in the same direction and so many ways to reach the same, or a similar, destination. There are so many ways to have and cultivate a practice. There are so many ways to embrace change. There are so many ways to strive and grow and learn.

There is no one right way.

The Buddhists and I, we’re really not all that different. In that room, we each of us had a practice, parts of which were different and parts of which were the same.

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I want to write about solitude today, and finding myself uncertain as to how to begin, I looked up some famous quotations on solitude.

From these, I ascertained that people are very divided about the idea of solitude. Some people love solitude, finding it absolutely essential to their well-being, while other people wouldn’t choose solitude if they had another choice. Solitude is simultaneously viewed as exalting and painful, beautiful and tragic.

I found a reference to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I located my copy, given to me when I was a young artist myself, and started flipping through it, and now I want to read the whole thing again. He references solitude several times in its pages. I particularly like this passage:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you.”

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

There is this common idea that solitude is helpful and perhaps even necessary for artists to develop their own voices (and visions) and do the work required of them. Certainly writers have to sit and be focused inside their own heads while writing, even if they are physically surrounded by people. For some other types of artists, solitude is perhaps less critical.

We each have our own capacity for solitude, and that capacity can change over time and in different circumstances. It can be deliberately expanded (meditation retreats, anyone?) and it can be deliberately contracted. Within limits, of course.

I have been craving more solitude recently. I hit the point far more quickly than usual when I must take time for myself. It’s not simply laziness or fatigue, although I am tired; it’s a strong need for the space to introspect and just be. There is so much going on inside of my head right now, and it’s not that it’s so very private in nature but rather that it feels like the kind of thing I need to sort out for myself, with the occasional helping hand along the way.

Perhaps solitude is important not just for creative work but also for personal change. It’s almost as if I need some time to get to know myself again.

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On Tuesday night Jonathan Carroll had a quotation on his Facebook that resonated with me:

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

There are different kinds of events that call for courage. There is the desire to make change, of course, which I’ve talked about a fair amount in the past. There is the question of how we face and handle adversity. There is the desire to try something new. And there is the willingness to go back and do the same scary thing again and again, even if it doesn’t get all that much easier.

I think when we choose to be artists–whatever that means to you–we are, in a sense, choosing to face fear again and again. There might be times when we aren’t seeking change, when we’ve got the adversity of life under control, when we’re living in a comfortable groove of existence. But if we’re actively working as artists, we’re constantly pushing, striving, experimenting, and revealing ourselves to others.

I can see it getting easier with time and practice, but I can’t imagine it ever being easy.

I have three main projects I’m working on right now: I’m querying my completed novel to agents, I’m in the middle of writing a novel rough draft, and I’m planning a future project that involves experimental elements. Each of these projects involve artistic courage.

-Querying puts me straight in the path of the rejection of my work, and while most of the time I shrug it off fairly easily, occasionally a rejection will sting.

-The rough draft is not coming together like I’d hoped it would, so writing it has become quite the struggle. I also deliberately chose to work on a concept that I knew depended on a writing ability in which I lack confidence and feel fairly weak.

-The new project is something new and experimental, and I’m not sure if I’m going to do it yet. But if I do, I’ll be trying all kinds of new things, and because of this, the entire project has a higher likelihood than many of tanking. It takes courage even to consider doing it.

reaching for origami cranes

Photo Credit: Βethan via Compfight cc

And then there’s the drive as an artist to go deeper, to explore dark corners, to shine a light on truths that are hard and uncomfortable and scary. There is the call to show vulnerability in our work. All of this requires so much courage.

So I would say not only do our own lives expand or contract in relation to the courage we can bring to bear, but our artistic work does the same.

What do you have the courage to see? What do you have the courage to feel? What do you have the courage to communicate?

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“I think it takes a great deal of courage to be one of the people who tries to change the world in some way — I’ve heard too many people say that they’re not trying to change the world, that they’re just trying to entertain (particularly in their writing). But that’s the point of that? If you’re not trying to change the world, what are you doing, and why? I mean, doesn’t the world need changing?”

-Theodora Goss, Magical Women

We are taught to believe that changing the world is difficult, if not impossible. Changing the world, we are led to understand, is something people wish to do in their youths, and at some magical point, we will grow up, realize it’s impossible to create change, and give up our childish idealism.

But we artists, we’re all about changing the world. (And all of us have the capability for being artists inside of us, whether or not we’re creating art professionally.) In fact, art is so much about creating change, about communication, about shedding a different light on a subject, that it seems disingenuous to insist that the only purpose of any given piece of art is entertainment. This is simply not the case the vast majority of the time.

Take the wildly popular Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, for example. It’s by and large a fluffy, crowd-pleasing musical with fairly unexceptional music and a big sense of humor. It pokes fun at the Mormon church with practically every lyric. At first glance it isn’t obviously world-changing. And yet. By the end, the audience is given the impression that while those Mormons are funny folks with lots of hilarious traditions and a bit of hypocrisy thrown in for good measure, they’re basically just like everyone else, good people trying to do good in the world. And I’m sure some audience members have left at the end of the night of theater with a different opinion of the Church of Latter Day Saints than when they walked in.

Photo Credit: an untrained eye via Compfight cc

Now, it might be true that we do not intend change or anything deeper in our work than a romping adventure yarn. We might be unaware of some of the messages we are sending with our stories, our characters, and our imagery. But so many of the choices involved in artistic work either support the status quo or disrupt it. We are changing the way people see the world, even if it’s unconscious on all sides. If we write a series of novels with all active men characters and all passive women characters, then we’re helping to shape our readers’ ideas about gender. If we write and perform songs that glorify hate crimes, then we’re helping our listeners form ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

We are taught that we don’t have power, and sometimes it’s easier to believe that and thus avoid taking responsibility. But the truth is, so many of us have the power to change minds and hearts. And sometimes the most important minds and hearts to change are our own.

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