What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

The bloggings will continue until morale improves

Is it possible that blogging hurts your chances of getting published elsewhere?  That depends.

The ordinary opinion piece, like this one you’re reading now, can only help, always assuming you write well.  Even if you only have 30 followers, that’s 30 more than would ordinarily see your ideas expressed so fully otherwise, and potential publishers can get a very good overview of your writing skill with a click of a mouse.  Since opinion pieces tend to be transient, there’s little danger of “using up” good ideas, so you’re not competing with yourself.

For more imaginative writing, however, it’s a different story.  That’s because most publishers consider your work, whether it’s fiction or poetry, to have already been published if you’ve posted it on your blog, and almost none are open to work that’s already published elsewhere.  Most writers would like to be published by someone else, if only to validate their work.  Although it’s true that self-publication has lost some of its stigma these days, there still remains the issue of whether anyone else whose opinion you might value thinks your work is worthwhile.

So, if a blog is considered a publication by the majority of editors, who want only unpublished material, where does that leave the poet or short story writer? You could simply consider your blog just another publication to which you submit your work. That’s fine, but you know it will get accepted there, because the editor is…um…you. As a result, you will tend to send what you consider your best work elsewhere, either by design or unconsciously. Your blog becomes a repository for second-rate work, stuff you have low confidence in, or that has been rejected elsewhere. In the best case, it will have experimental material that you feel will have little chance of exposure elsewhere. In this blog, I often post pieces which blur the boundary between fiction and essay, or which I think are simply too short to be considered by magazines and journals, although I have to admit, that seems to be all I write in the way of fiction anyway. Still, I don’t feel I’m competing with myself.

For me, the problem is with poetry, which I post on my other blog, Exile’s Child.  Lately, I find myself neglecting Exile’s Child, because if I write a poem I think very highly of, I tend to send it off to a journal.  Rather than posting just leavings on the blog, I have to sit down and write specifically for it, which leaves me questioning the wisdom of not sending the result elsewhere, or, if I don’t think it’s good enough, of posting it on the blog.  I like to think I have enough sense not to post second-rate material, but we are all very good at self-deception when it’s required, aren’t we?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject, especially if you happen to be an editor.

What’s the point?

I’ve been reading a lot of complicated, obscure poetry lately.  The ultimate goal of poetry must be to communicate, not just clearly, but as directly as possible.  The trouble is that the urge to communicate often clashes with the urge to be clever.  How does this happen?

Poetry aims for the most effective, impactful communication by evoking a sensation or emotion directly in the reader, rather than through simple assertion.  For example, one could say, “We certainly have a difficult relationship!”  Or, as Emily Dickinson said,

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

The objective is gained through unusual language, and deft juxtapositioning.  So what often happens is that the technique is mistaken for the message.  It’s like looking at a Chagall painting and getting all caught up in the pretty colors.

It’s there, no doubt about it, but it’s a vehicle.  If it’s not carrying anything, or if the blinding technique obscures the message to the point of invisibility, what’s the point?

Is “Jeez, you’re clever,” all there is to art?

It is possible, of course, that the message is so complex, or so sublime, that it absolutely requires obscurity.  Or that the very act of cracking open a difficult poem evokes that which is meant by it.  In my experience, however, that happens much more rarely than pointless obscurantism.

What do you think?

With regard to veils

A little cross-blog fertilization. My thoughts on opacity in poetry, and what the function of a poem really is. Is it to obscure or to illuminate, and are the two always different? And do these comments even pass their own test?

exiles child

It’s time for a brief holiday from the unscrubbed mirror.

So, I see all this stuff
About life and love
And dying
And how the stars echo
Some frail eternal now

And, yes, it’s hard
And though our hands be held
Entwined but ever separate
That skin that marks the boundary
Also holds the keys
And all that

And all that loss
Was dross
And some plain spun funk
Reminds of deathless agony
So far,
So long

Okay, I get that,
But just what is my job here, anyway?

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Harris leaned over the little sculpture and scrutinized it carefully, looking at it from every angle.  It was a rather crude representation of a bald fat man, scowling as he wielded an oddly balanced sword.

“Eastern in what sense?” he said.

“Well, you know, martial arts, zen, that kind of stuff.”

Ah,” he said, straightening up.  “Eastern in the sense of anything but.”

A thing ain’t haiku
Necessarily because
Of the right numbers

How to write a poem

Sit down.  Write the whole damn thing.  Look at it.  Sit back in your chair and read it from there.  Get up and pace.  Sit down and read it again.  Think: Shit, this is brilliant!  Print it up.  Go get some coffee/beer/wine.  Tell everybody you’ve written your best poem yet.  Go get it from your desk and read it.  Realize it’s actually the most god-awful pretentious crap ever committed to paper.  Crumple it up and throw it away.  Erase the file.  Sit and feel humiliated and stupid.  Decide that no one has ever written a really good poem about feeling humiliated and stupid.  Write a stupid couplet about what a schlumph you are.  Realize nothing rhymes with schlumph.  Go get some more coffee/beer/wine.  Get mad at your stupid self for being such a sissy.  Start another poem.  Have absolutely no inspiration whatsoever.  Decide, what the hell, Hemingway couldn’t write worth a damn, and look how far he got.  Start writing one-syllable words.  Remember a couple of lines from that sorry excuse of an ink-waster that you wrote earlier that actually weren’t so bad and look for the file.  Remember you erased it.  Curse loudly, alarming your spouse and spilling the dregs of your coffee/beer/wine.  Go reassure your spouse by lying that you had just stubbed your toe.  Go back and clean up the mess, discovering the crumpled paper with the poem containing the not-so-bad couple of lines.  Start reading it and realize that, actually, with a little work, it could be a pretty good poem after all.  Go to bed about midnight, feeling tired but great.

How to be a critic – or not

When I write, I occasionally think in terms of mechanics like structure.  Generally, though, I’m sort of a gut writer, meaning that an idea pops into my head from god knows where, and I sit down and start writing.  I write until I can’t.  Then I mope about until more ideas from the ether inject themselves.  I write some more, stop some more, and so it goes until the thing resolves itself.  Those of you who have read my posts on this blog are probably not terribly surprised at this revelation.

I do revise, of course, and over the years of reading and writing I’ve internalized the rules of style and structure to the point where they function at the same level as the rules of grammar.  This is a nice way to operate, as it leaves me free to flit about like a butterfly and not think about rules until I’m ready to break them.  Which, come to think of it, is rather a lot, like right now.  On the other hand, thinking about them tends to send me off on a tangent, like right now. I have a friend who delights in finding obscure, forgotten poetry and reviving it.  This usually involves precise meter and line counts, cryptic messages, and rhyme schemes that blow right through the alphabet.  She whips up these delectable tiered confections as easily as if they were Aunt Jemima’s Buttermilk Pancakes, with absolutely no apparent sacrifice of spontaneity or evocative power.  I love what she does, but I’m afraid I’m better at granola, myself.

Anyway, I’m telling you about my writing habit to explain why I’m a lousy critic:  because the art of criticism involves re-externalizing all that stuff I’ve spent a lifetime internalizing.  Worse yet, it makes you read through all that scaffolding out where you can see it.  From a lit-crit point of view, I’m a terrible reader.  I take characters at face value.  I don’t care what Achilles symbolizes, he’s a jerk.  In short, I cheerfully fall for all the author’s tricks and traps.  I squirm and get crabby when people start talking about the true meanings of things in literature.  I want that stuff to soak in slowly, naturally, the way a gentle rain permeates the soil after a dry spell.  If I fancied a swill I’d get Cliff’s Notes.

I used to have an on-going argument with a friend, no longer with us, whose specialty was lengthy exposition of all the bits and pieces and hidden meanings of films.  Our disagreement concerned jokes.  I maintained that while you could get some pleasure from a joke that had to be explained to you, it could never match the pleasure of “getting” it spontaneously.  He insisted just as adamantly that it could, and that I was a heartless elitist, and probably a fascist swine to boot, to insist otherwise.  I put  poetry, mythology, and most other literature in the same category as jokes in that regard.  It’s fine, of course, to re-read, re-hear, and take as long as you like to reach that moment of enlightenment, but, to me, explanation diminishes it.

The upshot is, I can’t be counted on for clever comments, as a rule.  If you see something along the lines of, “The lyric keeps an outward appearance of spontaneity, but it is inevitably inflected with an awareness of its impermanence,” you’ll know it ain’t me.  My comment is more likely to be something like “That was grand!  You’re so good at that.” or some other such insightful remark.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s vital to my craft to know how to put the erector set together, and I even enjoy reading critical essays about literature in general, that is, about some aspect of it, rather than some particular work of it.  Then I find room internally for that information, and move on.

You know how you spend a week in some hotel, and unpack everything from your suitcase?  I’m pretty sure that if I ever objectified writing to the point that I could do an adequate job of criticism, I could never get it all crammed back into the suitcase.  At least that’s my fear.