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Posts Tagged ‘being an artist’

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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I’d been wanting to write that post on forgiveness I published last week for a long time. But I kept punting it for other ideas because I was afraid to write about it. I was convinced the ENTIRE WORLD would disagree with me and be horribly upset that I didn’t think of forgiveness as something that can be forced, and somehow this would be an awful thing for me.

The longer I write for this blog, though, the more I realize that really, the world doesn’t care. Most people will never read my essay on forgiveness. And most of the people who did read my essay recognized something in it that resonated with them. So when I think the entire world will disagree, that is some bizarre thought process I am better off ignoring.

My friend Ferrett wrote some excellent blogging advice, where one of his main points was: “No, Seriously. Haters Are Going to Hate.” As a blogger or someone who is interested in maintaining a public example, this will inevitably be an issue at some point. Ferrett says that once you become sufficiently popular, there will always be people who hate you, and he’s completely right. It is amazingly hard to be sufficiently wishy washy to keep everyone happy. I don’t even know if it’s possible, although I suspect it isn’t. There will always be people out there disagreeing loudly, people looking for an argument, or people wanting to tear other people down.

Photo Credit: HeyThereSpaceman. via Compfight cc

For example, it is always amazing to me how angry people have gotten over my essay about intelligent women. They are upset because they don’t think women can possibly be as intelligent as men (seriously, what century are we living in?) or because they don’t think smart women ever encounter anything I mention so therefore I must be old and bitter (because only old and bitter people can engage with ideas about sexism?) or because of course all intelligent people must make loads of money because that’s the way intelligence should be measured in our society (I guess most artists and academics are just pretty stupid since they don’t prioritize making large amounts of money). But what is more interesting to me than the actual arguments is the amount of anger expressed because there are different opinions in the world. Opinions, it seems, can be very scary things.

But as strange as it seems to me that people can get so worked up over my six hundred word essays, this doesn’t change the fact that the world is largely indifferent. And in fact, as a writer, if my words cause anyone to feel angry or scared or hopeful or inspired or any emotion at all, then that means I’ve done my job. In the grand scheme of things, obscurity is more an artist’s enemy than controversy, however safe the obscurity might feel and however challenging the controversy might be. (And of course, how challenging the controversy feels will vary wildly from person to person.)

I think part of becoming an artist is learning to be comfortable with controversy. Not because it is bound to be necessary, but because part of an artist’s job is to express their perception of the truth. And if you are afraid of what the world is going to think about your truth, then maybe you won’t dig as deep as you can and maybe you won’t take the risks you need to take and maybe you’ll choose the easy way instead of the raw way. Creating art is a commitment to your own vision of reality.

So I wrote that essay on forgiveness anyway, even though it scared me. I was scared to write The Academy of Forgetting. I’m about to start a new novel, and even though I’m excited about it, I occasionally feel sudden spasms of anxiety when I think about sitting down and typing “Chapter 1.” I feel a tightness in my stomach and a sudden strong desire to do anything else.

But I’m glad I feel the fear. It’s like a compass, letting me know I’m going the right direction. It means I’m not taking the easy way. It means I’m challenging myself, and my writing is better because of it.

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