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
Ago

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

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Naiku

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