We all fear death and question our place in the universe. The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.
~Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein in “Midnight in Paris”, a Woody Allen film.
What makes someone an artist? Intent? Talent? By what is that talent measured and delineated? Who declares it to be valid? Is it drive that makes an artist? Work? Is it a self-proclamation? Is it only established when money has passed hands?
Is it the enduring nature of the person’s work; its ability to surpass time and carry relevance forward? Its value in the light of posterity? Its ability to reach people, to have an impact? Is it the distillation of humanity in its essence?
Whether it is the beautiful that brings to our hearts the love of truth and justice, or whether it is truth that teaches us how to find the beautiful in nature and how to love it, in either case art does a noble work. It drags out the soul from its everyday shell, and brings it under the spell of its own mysterious and wonderful power, so that a memory of this experience stays with the people, sustains them in their daily labors, and refines their minds.
~Helena Modjeska, “Women and the Stage,” The World’s Congress of Representative Women
Art causes us to step outside of our selves; it causes us to transcend our own borders and boundaries, the limitations of our own perspective, but it also causes us to see deeper into our selves.
Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.
~Leo Tostoy, an excerpt from his Diary
I don’t know at what point a person can be called an artist, but I know that one can always strive to make art, in whatever form. I think it’s that straining for something beyond one’s self that’s important. Robert Browning said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” No one can know what they are capable of until they have pursued something, not knowing whether it was impossible or merely difficult.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep myself encouraged, to keep pursuing the dream or the inspiration that started me on a given trajectory. I think artists do what they do because they must. There is something in them that compels them to work, to create, to re-imagine life and interpret their experiences and thoughts, channeling them into tangible objects, or words on a page, or images that harness a deeper meaning.
For me, a lot of that drive to create is channeled into writing. I love words and stories and language. Books are my safe haven, my adventure, my great source of joy. I can’t imagine what would be better than having a book filled with my thoughts published and read. Of course, that’s also daunting, intimidating and incredibly scary.
I try to keep myself writing any way that I can. Sometimes I am driven to write, but there are times when I have to find ways of drawing myself out. I keep journals, more like commonplace books, filled with thoughts, ideas, records of events, mementos, poems, quotes, and anything that my magpie brain finds shiny and worth holding on to. This last year I started a line-a-day 5-year journal that I hope will cause me to faithfully write something every day. I carry small notebooks in my purse. I use a note-taking app on my smartphone. I stuff scribbled-upon scraps of paper in my pockets. I use Google docs. Whatever I can find that I think might help or inspire, I utilize.
I write letters, as often as I can. I love mail and I love to send a little bit of myself to people I care about. There’s something intimate and personal about handwritten correspondence. I think I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I’m still trying to improve. There’s a lot of anticipation with letters. It’s not instant, like so many other kinds of communication available, but it feels more tangible.
I’m kind of old-school: I prefer pen and paper and writing longhand to get my thoughts flowing, to keep up with the rhythms and shifts of mood. One of my friends suggested using brightly colored ink pens and switching colors whenever my writing started to lose momentum. It works. I think everyone comes up with tricks and techniques that aid in keeping them going.
I think it’s very important to keep searching out inspiration. I love this quote:
Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words.
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You never know what will inspire you. Keep your eyes (and ears) open.
Here’s a few thoughts about writing that I try to remember. Strive to take whatever it is you have and make the very best of it, not just for yourself, but to try and impart something to the world. Keep writing. Sandra Cisneros has a line in one of her poems that reads “She must write poems.” I understand that. I’m not properly myself unless I’m writing- something, anything. Work toward a breakthrough. Keep at it. Enjoy the process. Don’t let plausible outcomes overshadow what you are doing today. Work toward a goal, even if it’s only a paragraph, a sentence, a line. Use what you have. Find people who encourage you and build you up. Don’t discount them. Believe in yourself. Write it out, write it down, let it happen. Just keep writing.
That’s what my good friends tell me, and that’s what I try to remember.