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.

The writer as commodity

When I was a young pup, many, many years ago, I wanted to be a writer.  I didn’t particularly want to write in any disciplined way, mind you.  What I was after was the identity of the fierce intellectual, scowling over my Smith-Corona, dimly visible through the clouds of pipe smoke curling around my august head.  I couldn’t pinpoint it, but somewhere along the line I came to the realization that I had not only to pound away at my typewriter to become the man of my dreams, but write well and often enough so that people would want to read my stuff enough to pay money for it.  Crass, but there it was:  I had to work, and I had to sell.

In spite of being a card-carrying old fart, I am reasonably cyber-literate, having worked with and on computers since about 1964 (not a typo).  I have noticed an interesting phenomenon in the blogo-twittersphere: the writer as commodity; it comes with a cute bit of jargon as well: crowdfunding.  Its done sometimes through websites like SellaBand or Kickstarter, but as often as an independent project.  This typically involves a blog page with a link where you can send contributions; almost never is any actual piece of writing offered in exchange.  Throw in a twitter account where you can point to the page, and keep everybody abreast of how the donations are going, and Bob’s your uncle.

I am very skeptical of this development, which strikes me as just this side of holding out a cup on the street corner with a sign saying “Will write, but not for you.”

I am well aware of the long tradition of patronage in the arts.  It usually involved, however, wealthy members of the aristocracy, and was the norm mainly before copywrite laws and royalties.  Indeed, the word “royalties” derives from the practice of royal courts to patronize writers and other artists. But such arrangements almost always involved the commissioning of specific works, which had to meet the criteria of the patron.  If you held such a position, you had better write something pleasing to your angel, or you would soon find yourself on the street:

…writing for a patron typically meant avoiding the expression of ideas that would upset the established political order, on which the patron built his wealth and power.  —Gennady Stolyarov II

Today’s writers would be affronted by the very notion of such limits on their production, but they forget, or never knew, that this commitment to artistic integrity is a very modern thing, dating to the fairly recent phenomenon that writers could actually make money directly from the sale of their work.  You can have patronage, or you can have integrity; you can’t expect to have both.

Of course, it’s possible to get people to donate to your enterprise with no qualifications, on the basis of some romantic notion.  Gullible people are everywhere.  But do you want a living on those terms?  I’m asking; if you’re comfortable with it, none of my business, I suppose.

The long and short of it:  If you want integrity, sell what you write.  Go ahead and advertise online, include a donation link if you like, but give something in return, beyond your mere existence as a writer.

But what does it mean?

A recent discussion I was engaged in, with a blogger I respect but differ with on occasion, has put me in mind of what happens to writing once it’s published.  It is an often stated truism that once you put it out there, it means whatever the reader thinks it means, not what you intended to say.  Ironically, I have to say that while it’s true, it is often misinterpreted.  It does not mean that you shouldn’t care how your writing is interpreted.

After all, while writing can be therapeutic, there’s no point in making it public unless you want to communicate something.  I get that some people will never understand whatever it is that you’re on about; that’s the uncertainty of the enterprise.  You lose control once you fling that child of yours into the wild.  But, up to the point of sending it out, you have total control.  Why wouldn’t you want to make your message as clear as possible?

There are times, of course, when ambiguity is precisely the message.  Then it’s up to you to make the ambiguity as clear as possible.  There’s a big difference between subtlety and obfuscation.  It’s the art of making sure the rock under which you’re hiding the key tells you something about the door it opens.

There are other times when the very thing you think clarifies your meaning forces a detour around it.  The discussion I mentioned above was about the use of profanity in writing.  Profanity calls attention to the point you’re making, which is why people like to use it, but so does an exclamation point, or writing in all caps.  Undeniably, there are situations in which these things are justified, but they are few and far between.  Overuse them, and you become the meaning, instead of the text.  Think of it: what is your reaction when you see something in all caps, with exclamation points at every opportunity?  Is it to consider more carefully the importance of the text, or is it to consider the character of the author, regardless of the text?

To me, certain words are carriers of attitude: fuck, shit, bitch, and the like.  I’m not sure I care about the attitude of the writer as much as what they are trying to say.  More importantly, when you use these words, what do you want me to think about as a reader?  Your attitude or your message?

Writers, unblock!

The good news is, I’ve figured out writer’s block.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been unable to look a blank page in the eye.  Worse, not even the frequent notes to myself, made in feverish wakeful nights, have elicited more than a yawn.  Lost sleep for nothing, dear friends.

In the morning, I read my scrawls, trying vainly to recall what “Res. wh. whump!” could possibly mean.  Or why the revelation that people have two of everything but probisci might be of interest to the bloggerati.  Having failed, I hereby donate both ideas to the writing public; I would love to read something they inspired.

I tried all the usual antidotes, including the oft-prescribed stream of consciousness ramblings.  Sure enough, they proved to be ramblings.  Consciousness, I’m not so sure.  My streams seemed clogged; too often for comfort, in a terrifyingly relentless dwindle, I found myself repeating one or two words over and over.  Drowning in a sea of – well, not even drowning, not even that, which would at least have been tragic.

One wearisome evening, I gave up early and shut my computer down.

“Installing important updates,” it said, “Please do not log off or power down your computer.”

Brilliant, I thought, can’t even give up properly.  Then it hit me.

My brain had been sluggish lately, reluctant to follow my commands.  Just like my computer.  I needed to install important updates.

Forget writing, forget blockage.  Start the shut-down process.  But how to download the necessary updates?

Jump in the car, take a drive.  Read billboards.  Stop for coffee.  Buy some paint at Lowe’s.  Or just look at paint, and decide not to.  Talk to a human, any human, preferably one you wouldn’t normally find interesting.  Go to a public park.  Go to a museum and look at art.  Get out among people, the more, the better.

Do this for a while; it can take days to download these updates.  Just don’t think about writing.  Eventually, just as you’re heading out the door to go grocery shopping, you’ll realize you need to write something down first.  It will end up taking much longer than you thought, and you’ll have to eat out, since you will have forgotten all about the groceries.

Update successfully installed.

The bad news, of course, is that none of this is any different from what you’ve been doing all along.

"Ainava," Konrads Ubans

“Ainava,” Konrads Ubans

The stamp man’s complaint

Janos was a good and dutiful man. He had a small house with a neat little garden plot overlooking the railway station.  He kept his petite wife well supplied with money for groceries, flowers, and other necessities.  And every morning without fail, he boarded the 7:10 into the center of the city, to report for work at the Bureau for Auxilliary Affairs, precisely at 8:00 AM.  His record was unblemished, save for the time he choked on a digestive biscuit and had to be taken to the clinic for treatment. He was 2 hours late that morning; it is possibly the reason he was passed over for promotion yet again.

Which is a damn shame, really. His job was to approve paperwork as it passed through his station. He was a stamp man, and possibly the best in his section, the Department of Supplemental Approval. The official rate of passage of forms to be approved through his station was 30/hr; he himself estimated it at more than 100. Theeoretically, he could mark any given paper with the bright red Returned fo Further Evaluation stamp, rather than the bright green A, but that slowed things down considerably, as he would have to fill out the proper form, and hand carry it along with the Returned paper down the hall to the Department of Approval Appeals. Janos considered this a waste of valuable time, as there was no one ever there. One dropped the papers ino a slot marked IN, and they disappeared. Meanwhile, paper at one’s own station was piling up relentlessly. Over the years, he had gradually come to simply approve everything that came through. That had been an immense relief, for it meant he no longer had to read the papers as they came through; indeed, truth be told, he had forgotten the criteria for approval, or even the nature of the forms themselves. Perhaps that accounted for his legendary efficiency. Janos’ days passed smoothly and inevitably. He was happy, and his superiors were happy. Though not so happy as to promote him.

And so, in the course of events, came this particular day, which to all appearances differed not one whit from any other day.  It was also a day Janos would regret for the rest of his life.  For it was the day he glaanced down at a form before stamping it.  He read,

1 ib butter (unsalted)
tea (Elina’s favorite)

It was, truthfully, not what he expected. True, he was no longer sure what the paperwork was about, but this seemed unlikely. With a hint of a tremor, he reached over to the top of the pile to his left, the already approved pile, and nervously looked at the top, most recently approved paper.

Dearest Sylvia,
I can no longer be responsible for the fire in my heart. I dream constantly of your warm white breasts, the razor-like nipples piercing…

He had read enough. A cold hand gripped his heart. It must have been a quarter hour before he slowly returned his attention to the pile. With each paper, each word, his heart sank further into his shoes.


Hello, my name is Mike, and I am terminally literate.

It’s hard to pinpoint when it started.  I have vague early memories of writing things on scraps of paper, great variable-font sagas on backs of matchbooks, quickly hidden away as a parent or sibling drew near.  Waves of Palmer Method paisley receding into book bindings.  A poem for a third grade valentine:

I love you,
What to do?
I have an idee!
Why don’t you love me!

Matchless.  The urge to scribble grew uncontrollable.  In our house was a great hulking Smith-Corona, a black altar begging for literary sacrifices.  I was drawn to it like a flea to a Persian cat.  I composed great works of art, and left them lying about, hoping for words of encouragement from my superiors, basically everyone else in the house.  An epic called Ragnar of the Blue Clouds, which disability was incurred when an atom bomb was accidentally dropped in his ear; a political thriller, in which the hero’s promising career was destroyed when it developed that he was an octopus; a sci-fi fable of a world of opposites, paved completely over except for the occasional farmstead.  The latter had perhaps the greatest opening line in all of literature: “Ho, Thims Cam!  You are how?”

The only response to these gems was intense ridicule by my older brothers, for which I am eternally grateful.  That humiliation, that sense of misunderstood creativity, was exactly what I needed.  The Holy Rejection had been conferred.  I was a true artiste.

Years passed.  Great piles of poems and short stories exist in bits and pieces scattered about my personal archives (a couple of boxes in the attic).  Excellent fodder for some earnest grad student of the future, in search of something suitably obscure to condemn to even further oblivion by studying it.  Assuming, of course, that after a suitably ironic death, I will be discovered as a literary genius by an astonished world.

I minored in Creative Writing in college.  Don’t ask.  Eventually, I became an archaeologist, and misspent my calling writing reports on recently uncovered examples of The Same Old Stuff.  I must say I was unappreciated.  On one report of an excavation of a nineteenth-century pioneer farmstead in Illinois, I received the following comment:  “Great!  Just delete the part about the students at the one-room schoolhouse holding the teacher hostage for whiskey, and we’re good to go!”  Philistine.

Well, you know, it is a kind of sickness, writing.  I thought I should start a support group for those of us who suffer from it.  But, what to call it?

I thought about the obvious, Writers Anonymous, but that seemed inherently redundant.  Writanon?  But “little dogies” kept tagging itself onto that.  Writers Union?  Too political, although “WU” does mean “no” in Chinese, which is intriguing.  Writers Organization, okay, a bit stodgy, but a dandy acronym, WOE, if I were English.  For us Americans, it could be WOA, Writers Organization of America.  But then, my internal spellcheck wants the H in there.  Writers and … Hoteliers Organization of America?  Stodgy, and I doubt the hoteliers would go along with it.  Then it hit me.

Writers and Other Obsessed Persons Society.