The artist’s obligation (and we’re all artists)

I Have Something To Say

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…and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves, 
asking “How can I reach the sea?” 
And I will pass to them, saying nothing, 
the starry echoes of the wave, 
a breaking up of foam and quicksand, 
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself, 
the grey cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea 
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Pablo Neruda, from “The Poet’s Obligation”; trans. A. Reid)

Every day every one of us enjoys, consciously or not, some form of art, “high” or “low” – something that emerged from the creative mind of another person. Music, TV shows, paintings or pictures on the walls of our places of work, even news articles are acts of creation, a type of art. In fact, when you think about it, much of the stuff of our daily lives has its origin in human inspiration.

That’s amazing, don’t you think? We are literally surrounded by the legacy of the labor of creativity.

And creativity is labor, if you want anything to come of it. Ideas are easy – manifesting them in reality rarely is. This is true of any kind of art, but I often think that writers are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to sharing their work with the world. Writing in any form – poetry, fiction, blogging – requires a significant time investment by the consumer. And in today’s world, even five minutes can seem significant.

Why don’t I read poetry? Because it takes too much effort – which translates into time. I’m lazy and want the instant gratification of prose, not the slow unfolding in my mind of the meaning of a series of words I’ve had to read a few times over to absorb and understand.

I realized today, reading the above poem by Neruda, what I am losing by not giving my time to poetry. It’s not what you would think. Sure, I’m missing out on the beauty of it. But that’s not what struck me when I looked up from my iPad and thought, “Ah, I get it. I understand what he’s saying.” Reading poetry is both a discipline and a devotion. You have to focus your mind, as in mediation, and you must read the poem several times at least. And through so doing, you honor the poet and his/her work. You are expressing a kind of love for the poet.

This is the real reason reading poetry is so difficult for me. Because it requires that I open my heart up to the poet’s soul, in a sense. Poetry is meaning distilled. It is intimate and immediate. There is no hiding from the words and their meaning. Poems – at least the modern kind that tend to be short – must be read in one go; there is no escape from their meter.

Poetry can be hard work to read, intellectually and emotionally. Not many people read it. Few buy it.

And yet, poets continue to write. Just as I have continued to write (my fiction but also this blog and my dissertation), though I have no audience or publications. And I often ask why I bother. Because writing, like reading, can be painful work. As novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently wrote about being a writer, “I cry every day.”

I think, though, that Neruda provides an answer. I have an obligation to share my words and the perspective they emerge from. Not for any specific reason. Not to get published, or even for more altruistic reasons like helping others. Simply because all of us, each one, has an obligation to share ourselves as best we can. I do this through words. Others do so through service, or parenthood, or activism. This is what being human is, and how we collectively create a world worth living in despite all the ugliness we see every day.

I don’t have any high purpose such as Neruda expresses in his poem, but his words have touched me. They brought back the beach vacation when I took the above photo – one of the last truly happy times I spent with my ex bf. Neruda’s obligation has been fulfilled through me. But his poem also made me cognizant of my own obligation. My writing matters, even if few people read it. Because it’s my way of sharing who and what I am in the best way I can.

Making bad assumptions

 Sad Bird

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“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)

Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.

I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.

I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.

As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.

And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.

Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.

I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.

The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.

When there is no payoff

DSC_0825Why keep doing something if there is no payoff?

As a writer, I ask myself this a lot.  Writing doesn’t pay off. You keep doing it, and no one really cares. You get better, and the only celebrant is you.

Our society only values something if there is a progressive outward sign of success. Society would deem me successful if I had publications. This is the question people ask the most when I say I’m a writer. Am I published? No? The conversation generally goes dead after that response. Because they think it means I am not successful, or not a “real” writer yet, or maybe they think it means I must not be very good.

But I’ve stopped seeking publication because being published has nothing to do with my worth as a writer. If I did get something published, what would that mean? Nothing much beyond the fact that someone else likes what I write and my story would reach a small audience. (Not many people read literary journals.)

I don’t want to base my feeling of self-worth on someone else’s judgement. And if I want to reach readers, I can just put my stuff up online. Which I’ve done.

In this area of life and others, I try to structure a personal payoff that is independent of what the wider world might give me.

But you know what? It’s human nature to seek approval and validation from outside the self. And even though I know it’s ultimately unhealthy to do so, I still feel that something is missing from my life.

I have a growing suspicion, though, that this is just how it is. In most things we endeavor and struggle and there will never be any kind of acclaim. This should be something that we understand and accept from a young age, but our culture tells us that there should be more. Fame, fortune, admiration. Success. Accumulation. How else are we to tell if we’ve “made it”?

And so in my secret heart I keep waiting for the payoff.

I hate that I do this.

Don’t write every day. Or do, if it works for you

cropped-kayaks.jpgThere are so many ways to feel like you’re not doing it right. We all feel the pressure to conform.

Many of us try to find our own way, set our own standards, and this can be difficult and lonely. I don’t necessarily think it’s any more laudable to rebel than conform. All I know is that when I was a kid and teachers asked us if we were a leader or a follower, I was truly stumped. Weren’t there any other choices?

You’d think writers would be immune to the pressure to conform – or the desire to convince others that there is a right way and a wrong way. I mean, writers are creative and free thinkers, right? To write about society you have to be able to observe it with a critical eye. Feelings of alienation go with the territory.

The truth is, writers can be just as conform-y as anyone else. And worse, they can develop grandiose beliefs that “their way” is the right way. Writers love to tell other writers how to do it.

There are a lot of things you should or should not do as a writer. Demand your family leave you alone for five hours a day. Better yet, rent a cabin. Never use adverbs with dialogue tags. But the most commonly-repeated dictum is this: write every day.

Writing is a muscle, it’s said. Don’t use it and it atrophies. Inspiration is a capricious adulterer. You must be at your desk every day at the same time, so it knows where and when to find you.

There’s truth there. But unless you’re one of the people able to write every day, there’s a lot to feel bad about there, too.

You’ll hear, “If you want to be successful you have to be disciplined.”

If success is getting multiple and consistent publications, then yeah, at the very least you have to have a high production rate.

But I believe success is embodied in action rather than result. Writing itself is the success. And if this is so, then production rate does not matter. Writing every day does not matter unless it is something that works for you.

It does not work for me. I know this after over ten years of writing. What works for me is writing between three and five days out of the week, for an hour or two each session, and taking weeks off between fertile periods for internalizing the new developments of my story and regenerating creative energy. This is a writing schedule that keeps me happy. What’s that I’m hearing from all the self-serious writers? That it’s not important to be happy, only do good work? (Or maybe nobody is saying this.) Well, being happy is one of my priorities. At the end of my life I want to say I enjoyed it as much as I could, not that I wrote however may novels and stories that will molder forever in some rarely-visited, aging corner of the internet.

You know what else I want to say? That I kept on writing through the years. That I sat down and wrote words even when I didn’t feel like it, which is nearly every time I write (I’m not saying I lie around eating grapes and cheese, waiting for inspiration to strike, y’all). But that I wrote every day? Not something I care about being able to say in that hopefully far-off hour when my past comes home to roost for the final time.

So when I see yet another writer extol the virtue of writing every day, while at the same time bemoaning the fact that he/she is too lazy to get it done (or conversely, showing off his/her own dedication to the craft), I get pissed off. I want to say, “Not this shit again. Aren’t writers who don’t write every day allowed to feel good about their method?” And I kind of feel angry at the writer who is regurgitating this “should” bullet point.

I get it, though. I’ve been known to beat myself up for not being productive enough. And when I’m writing a lot I sometimes imagine myself giving sanctimonious advice to less productive scribblers. An inferiority/superiority complex is a common writer neurosis.

If you can write every day, I say great, do it. But I will never, ever say that you have to write every day to be a writer, or a “serious” writer, or a “successful” writer.

Being slow in a southern summer

TiOne of my favorite aspects of Florida living is that it is indoor-outdoor nearly year round. I have a front and back porch, and spend much of my time on one or the other depending on season and hour of the day.

I love being able to have my windows always open. True, this means I must constantly deal with the fine black dust that coats everything. And this year, the laurel oak pollen gave my furniture a nearly nuclear yellow-green glow. I’m often sneezing from allergies. But it’s worth it.

Except it gets a bit hot here in the summer, which is everything from April to October. Yesterday it was 88 degrees inside my house by 3 in the afternoon and stayed that way until 8 p.m., when it went down to 87 degrees (oh, the relief!).

I refuse to use the air conditioner for as long as I possibly can in the summers. I’m getting better, year by year, with how well I tolerate heat and humidity down here. I love my slow, sultry Southern summers.

The magnolias are just beginning to open.

There are many hours in which it is too hot to do anything but porch sitting.

And I am contemplating in my hours of slowness what it means to be strong in myself, and not chase after a behavioral or psychological ideal. For many years I have believed that there is something wrong with me because according to psychologists I have “disorders.” (Anxiety and depression.) I fail to live up to the happy, healthy, self-actualized individual that we should all try our darnedest to become.

Only recently have I begun to accept that in fact, much of what I “suffer” from is simply my personality. I was born the way I am, and while I do believe nurture has an influence, I also think nature in large part determines who we are.

I was born highly sensitive, intuitive, introverted, thoughtful, creative, and with a strong awareness of the melancholic: an inherent existential angst.

In another kind of society, or perhaps in eras long past, there might be a role I could inhabit that valued what I am. Mystic, future-seer, wise woman, hermit philosopher, truth teller, storyteller (one supported by society! If only!). Or maybe not. But what I do know is that the society I live in now classifies me as damaged, disordered, imperfect. American society, in particular, does not value introverted, thoughtful, quiet people. I found some acceptance of who I am during my years in Asia, and that’s when I began to realize that maybe how I am is okay.

I think my anxiety and depression are a reaction to my inability to fit. That is to say, although I was born prone to feeling nervous and melancholy (as many writers are, and these can be good things for creative people), the severity of these in my life is due to my failure to deal with the way our society is set up.

So I work on creating a life for myself that suits me. And the hot, slow Southern summers suit me, because something opens up inside and I begin to breathe a little easier, and who can find the energy to fret when it’s 88 degrees inside the house?

Just say no! (to publication)

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I’ve written fiction all my life, but only in the last ten years or so have I done it “seriously,” with the goal of publication in mind.

Except I realized a year ago that I had badly misunderstood what “seriously” means. Publication should not be my goal. The writing itself should be. My abrupt change of perspective occurred when I read a quote posted on facebook by a filmmaker friend of mine (the same one who posted something I hated about addiction): “What the audience thinks never matters.”

It was a eureka moment. I was so exhausted and disenchanted by the publishing world. I had wasted years feeling bad about myself because of the submission process. It takes time to research venues, emotional energy to submit, and rejection is nearly guaranteed. And there is no progress. I got back a positive rejection on one story – “we liked this, please submit more stuff” – only to get an impersonal form rejection from the same editor on the next. A fellow writer whose blog I regularly read around that time had a list of ten publications and was still struggling as much as I was.

When I read my friend’s facebook post it was as if I could see clearly for the first time. It did not matter what editors thought about my work, whether they liked it a little or a lot or thought it was crap. And if it didn’t matter, why should I bother to submit? If I wanted my work to reach an audience, I could put it online myself.

I had somehow thought that having my work published meant something significant. In truth, it was a false idol. What matters is that I am a writer and that I write. And you know what? I really like what I write. I do. I think it’s good. Not in the sense of being good enough or better than that other person’s stuff. I just plain think it’s good work because I worked hard on it and it’s meaningful to me.

Sour grapes, one might say. I failed at getting published and so naturally I would reject the publishing world. Fair enough. I will never deny that being rejected hurt and I have feelings of anger. This is normal and human, and not embarrassing or shameful. I recognize and acknowledge those feelings. I also recognize and acknowledge that I’m proud of my decision to not seek publication (for the time being, at least), and focus on writing solely for myself. My writing has improved, my confidence and happiness have increased, and for the first time I feel I’m creating work that is true to who I am.