Do I have what it takes to be a writer? This question has been plaguing me since I started putting my own words on paper. Do I have what it takes to move people with what I write? Do I have what it takes to be successful? Or even the more existential “do I have what it takes?” that gives me license to write at all. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland, supplied the answers.
Nearly every other page of my copy of this text has highlights. These nuggets of truth guided me along a non-linear path through areas of my psyche that have harbored unspoken fears. Now that light has been shed on them, they show themselves for what they are, like the boogeyman. The creepy noise that came from under my bed was terrifying to me as a child, until the day I had the courage to shine the flash light under there and find cockroaches stuck to the tape on the back of posters that lie on the floor. It was a scary enough image. But cockroaches are something I can manage. Boogeymen aren’t. Finding reality in my fears is comforting.
One fear has to do with how my work is received. I do not write for myself alone. There must be an audience to complete the circuit. It is the same with much of my art, as a singer and with theater work. Audience does more than justify the work. Audience completes it. Without someone to receive the work, there is no point in beginning. However, I am reminded by this book of several points regarding the audience. First of all, “there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work.” Much, if not all, of my work will be devoted to improving my work. The only way to improve as a writer is to write, to see what works, and to write some more. The authors speak of learning to distill from one’s work the true voice . This comes from recognizing and developing habits that are helpful to the process.
The second point about fears that this book reminds me of is that it is helpful to give my work time to breath before showing it to someone else. I recently finished the first draft of the first short story I’ve written since the eighth grade. I eagerly showed it to my husband five minutes after I finished, giving him the reminder that I hadn’t written one since the eighth grade. I won’t go into detail about his response. It was, in many ways, helpful. But this experience was such a complete confirmation that “what is sometimes needed is simply an insulating period, a gap of pure time between the making of your art and the time when you share it with outsiders.” If I had given myself time to breath afterwards, and worked more on it, I would have noticed many of the things he mentioned. If I had given myself that insulating period, I would have gone in with a much more receptive and productive attitude then with my needy, eager-to-please approach.
There is a corollary to this fear of “how my work is received” that can be addressed in another way suggested by Bayles and Orland. In several different contexts, they mention that artists quit after graduating from college because of the lack of support and feedback. I recognize the urgent need for me to find or create a writer’s group as I approach graduation. This has become a higher priority to me as I have come to recognize that my husband, while very supportive, should not be among my first readers. I also recognize that most of my family and friends aren’t right for the job either. However, there are a few, some who are involved in writing, some who aren’t, that l will begin to call on for that role. But even beyond that, I need real-time discussion with people who are engaged in the craft, who can help me see my blind spots, and help me process what I’ve written in the safe environment of a workshop of mutual respect and support.
Another fear I have is about being “good enough”. This fear has to do with two things: first of all, the fear of not having good ideas; and secondly, the fear of not being able to execute well the good ideas I do have. Bayles and Orland write, “vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue.” What a relief! It is that gap between what we envision and what comes out through the filter of our limited language that drives us forward. We constantly strive to reveal the truth more truthfully. And it always comes back to the guidance of “write what you know”. When I deeply engage with the experiences and knowledge of my life, I find those truths. When I want to, or pretend to know something, I only find myself floundering for words. But again, the gap between what we want to know and what we know is what can lead us to explore new areas in life.
What I come away with after reading Art & Fear is the resounding sense that, yes, I do have what it takes. As the authors say, my job is to learn to work on my work . That I can do joyfully and forever. I can and must share my work. But Bayles and Orland have reminded me of the context of that sharing, both within history and society, and within the context of my self-concept. Perhaps our society has forgotten that writing is not only about self-expression but more importantly about offering an important service to the world – the service of presenting the truth from a new perspective. More importantly, I recognize now that writing is not just a self-indulgent practice of expression. I am not being selfish by throwing myself wholeheartedly into my calling.
On a final note, I was curious about the authors’ refusal to discuss these ideas in terms of creativity. Perhaps this stems from the oft repeated fear that people don’t “feel creative.” I understand their point, that perhaps creativity is mistaken for a rare commodity. However, in my understanding of art-making (in life-making, actually), creativity is a virtue we all posses, and is expressed in an infinite variety of ways. When we engage with the creative aspect of ourselves we are engaging with the ability to make something entirely new, giving something of ourselves in the process. Just like any virtue, creativity needs to be cultivated through recognition and practice. We recognize the places where creativity is required, then we practice our creativity in order to develop the virtue.
Overall, I find that Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking is written in a style that is appropriate to its purpose. It does not seek to be a manual. It seeks to uncover the deep questions that artists face as they begin and struggle with their craft. It also explores those questions with a great deal of honesty and compassion, providing answers that come not only from the authors, but, as with any good art, from the audience’s engagement with it.