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.

You can’t control the message

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High summer is usually a difficult time of year for me. The heat, the awareness of diminishing days until school (even though I am not teaching this year I still feel that end-of-summer anxiety), knowing I am nowhere near completing my summer goals…it all combines into a big black morass and I wade right in and get stuck.

Then I commence with feeling sorry for myself, which is combined with a constant, expanding fear that I am lazy, worthless, talentless, and worst of all, always feeling sorry for myself.

Then Robin Williams kills himself and I wonder if there is any hope for anyone, anywhere. If being talented, a hard worker, and surrounded by family and adoring fans means nothing, then nothing means anything, not even that I am in a deep depression, which means that there is no point to trying to get out of it, which I can’t do anyway.

Then my requested copy of Sartre’s Nausea comes in at the library and I am excited to think that there are people in the world, or were once upon a time because the existentialists are all dead now, who see things as I do.

Then I reread all the stories I have posted online and my heart and stomach mix together in one big feeling of sick. Oh. My. God. They suck. My first thought is I have to make that blog private asap before anyone else has a chance to read them. I feel shame.

It is the same shame I feel when I reveal anything that matters about myself to others. The same shame I feel when I’ve been part of a community long enough for people to get to know me a bit. Or when I’ve gone out the night before and had some wine and talked to a total stranger for awhile about something completely innocuous but without carefully evaluating everything that came out of my mouth. It’s what I feel when I am not controlling the message.

The thing is, I know I can never control the message. But oh do I try. And when I can’t anymore, I say goodbye. I end friendships. I stop going to church. I make blogs private. I stay home when I drink wine.

But there was something else when I read my stories. Even though I could see every awkward phrase, every cliche, every bit of unrealistic dialogue, and whoa, the problems with pacing, I still liked them. I read each one through to the end with a certain pleasure, and I was moved. Even though I was crushed realizing how far my work is from what I want it to be (note to self: don’t read any of your own stuff right after reading two amazing stories in the New Yorker), I still liked what I read.

I’m trying to convince myself that matters in some way.

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The shoes in the picture above are twenty-year-old Clarks. They were given to me in Italy by someone special when I was there on a year study abroad. He also gave me the tag from his Clarks, which were tan.

I never wore these much until the last several years. They were never in style and I had money to spend on shoes. Now they are suddenly in style and I have no money, so out they came from the closet. I love them. The other day I went looking in boxes and found my friend’s tag. I took the photo and sent it to him. I don’t know what he thought of it. He responded, but didn’t say anything about the shoes.

I guess I was feeling nostalgic and hoped he would respond in kind. Or would realize how much he meant to me all those years ago and how much the memory means to me now.

But I can’t control the message once it’s out there in the world. And chances are I garbled it in the telling.

Keep going. Keep trying. Let go of the outcome.