Tag Archives: art

I Write for Me: A Manifesto Of My Self-Importance

I write a lot, but not for other people.

I write mostly to and for myself: journals, poems, notes, etc. I enjoy being engaged in the writing process, and I want to write about what I want to write about, and these aren’t always things that I think other people would care about.

I write these blog posts to be read by others, whoever you are. I mostly write these for myself as well, but I want to let you know, Readers, that at least I’m thinking of you. The thought is what counts.

For years, I’ve wanted to turn the things I wrote into things that others would want to read. But that hasn’t been going so well. I mean, unless I’m writing to a specific person, I don’t know who I’m writing to. I suspect that I’m writing to others like myself, which could suggest that what I’m already doing is pretty great! I needn’t change a word! But do others who are like me need to hear what I’m saying, or do they already know it?

So, I’m considering changing my approach and just embracing whatever the hell it is that I do. I mean, if there are no standards — and in creative work, why would there be? — then I can do whatever I like.

I have, over recent days, been reading some emails I wrote 5 and 6 years ago to a friend, and while I was conscious of writing to him, I was also just writing to air my own thoughts, explore my own ideas. And I remarked, in an email, upon that tendency of mine. And as I read that remark today, I thought, hell, why not?

Why not come out and embrace what I have been doing, but not acknowledging to myself, all these years? For years, I’ve been thinking that I had to be something other than what I was: I still expected myself to one day write things that would be for other people, wonderful, witty texts that would impress, entertain, and instruct my readers, and that would establish my reputation as a Writer Worth Reading.

But I’m not sure I need that kind of validation anymore. Or, let’s say, I’m not sure that I want to work for that validation (but I’d take it if it came!). I’m coming to terms with who I am: a self-centered writer. I love to write about my own ideas and experiences. I want to write whatever I want to write and not worry (as I so often have) about whether a text is good enough or not to share.

Some of this worrying has prompted me to write merely charming or clever texts, and some of this worrying has prompted me to overedit the texts that I share. I’m not sure these are what I want to be doing.

I will accept that I may never sell a book, or even write one, and that such a lifestyle is gonna be OK with me. I don’t have to achieve Authorhood. I am already a writer. I don’t gotta sell nothin’. I’m willing to be subversive, as described in a recent New Yorker article by Andrew Marantz: “In our data-obsessed moment, it is subversive to assert that the value of a product is not reducible to its salability.”

My books won’t be salable, because I won’t sell them — or, let’s say, I’m not sure why I myself would care about sales, since publishing is not a creative act but is a business act, an ego-act, and it’s also a business that seems terrible for a lot of writers now. I’ll give away on this blog whatever I feel like giving away. If I feel like it, I’ll make single copies of books.

I don’t need to sell products to strangers in order to feel good about myself (or so I’m still trying to convince myself — maybe I’m not quite there yet, and maybe this mini-manifesto is pushing me to get there). How wonderful that we live in a time where we do have this Internet available for instant, world-wide distribution! I’m not gonna fret about getting paid — I’m an Artist, dammit!

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Water Tower

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Well, this isn’t really the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude (or if it is, they’re keeping pretty quiet about it), but there is a fabric-covered cylinder where my town’s water tower used to be. There was some hissing noise coming from the direction of the tower once the curtain went up — the tower was taking a shower, perhaps?

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Also, the fabric itself does present some aesthetic enjoyment as it rippled in the wind and as it was partially highlighted by the sun.

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My suspicion is that this fabric was put up merely for practical reasons, but I like to find art wherever I can find it. (See other Ogle County unintentional art here.)

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.

Link: 5 things art is not

Dr. Daniel A. Siedell wrote an interesting piece here called “5 Things Art is Not.” Here are my favorite parts:

Art is not a visual illustration of the artist’s worldview. We often presume that a work of art represents the “worldview” of the artist. This is simply untrue. No human being possesses a unified “worldview” that is manifest in and through each of her intentional acts or artifacts she produces. We don’t need art critics to tell us this. We can read the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “the heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it” (Jer 17: 9)? Why then do we presume that every work of art is the product of a particular, distinctive set of “ideas” or a “philosophy” that the artist consciously possesses and that we as viewers can discern? An artist does not paint a picture to express what she already knows or believes. She paints to learn something about herself and the world—something she doesn’t already know. Oscar Wilde wrote that the work of art “has an independent life of its own, and may deliver a message far other than what which was put into its lips to say.” A work of art does not point back to its maker, but looks out to you the viewer. It’s not concerned with beliefs or thoughts of its maker. It’s addressing you and your heart.

and

Art always pushes against the pragmatism, moralism, and utilitarianism that shapes life inside as well as outside the church. It starts with our weakness, desperation, and brokenness in its search for hope and beauty and stakes its existence and relevance on the belief that all appearances deceive. Art is not a megaphone. It is a dog whistle. And only those who suffer and hope can hear it.

Link: Knowing what’s good about your art

An article at AVClub talks about bands that were once good and then not so good, but Buzz Osborne makes a point that I think applies to artists generally:

You don’t have to keep doing [art about teen angst]. You just have to realize that what you were doing was good. I got the feeling that they didn’t think that it was any good. There’s no more of that anymore. Even with Metallica, their albums still sound like there’s some sort of edge to them; it’s not just bad R.E.M. again, you know what I mean? To me, R.E.M. sounds like a metal band compared to where The Replacements ended up. They gutted everything that was good about them.

Take Tom Waits. His newest album is one of his best albums ever. He hasn’t forgotten what was good about him; he’s just improved upon it. You can tell he’s Tom Waits, because it sounds like Tom Waits and everything he ever did. But it’s an improvement, it’s a step forward, and he managed to do that.

That’s up to them to do that. If you want to gut your sound in order to sell millions of records, good luck with that. Hopefully it’ll work out for you and if it doesn’t work out, then that’s the saddest story of all. There’s nothing sadder than a band selling out and having it not work.

 

Beyond genres, writing as a way to live

I earned twelve dollars and fifty cents this week for explicating Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” when I substituted in a high school colleague’s literature class for 25 minutes. I made my money by discussing the ornate crassness of lines such as “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity.” I wondered aloud to the students why anyone would attempt to argue, to logically reason, someone into bed — has such a thing ever worked?

The next morning, the poem came back to mind, and I wondered if perhaps Marvell had been playing a joke — if the whole poem were some clever attempt to state in high style what is essentially a pick-up line.

Lately I’ve been wondering if all writings, maybe even all artworks, that are made intentionally for unknown others to read (as opposed, say, to writings done in a journal or letters written to a particular friend) are, in some sense, made to impress others, to show off, to build the writer’s reputation.

An assertion: All writings that are created in order to be published are written self-consciously; that is, these texts are written with the author’s own reputation in mind. Even as I write this blog post, I’m aware that it will give readers a sense of who I am as a writer, how competent, how interesting I am.  (Yes, I suppose that I sometimes write poems without intending to publish them, and if they turn out well, then I’ll publish — but before I decide to publish, I think about how the poem will make me look — pedantic? loony? genius?) So writers are always “on” in their published works in the way that actors or politicians or other professionals are “on” whenever they’re in public.

But being aware of, and wanting to build and protect, our reputations can make it hard to be honest, hard to be our most-authentic selves. When writers only publish their final drafts, they seem unapproachably perfect to novice writers. Perhaps writers want to seem perfectly brilliant and not like the flawed and/or boringly normal people we are. Certainly, not every thought that comes into my mind is worth telling others. (I’ve had to block certain Facebook friends who commit this artistic and anti-social sin.) But when we can let go of our self-control as writers and be spontaneous, we may also write things that are beautiful and that are wiser than we normally are.

I’m reminded of a st0ry Natalie Goldberg told in one of her books (I’m not sure which, perhaps “Wild Mind”) about giving a public reading of a text that she had written just a few hours earlier, a text that was basically a first draft, a freewrite.

Now, I don’t mean to say that all writings should be first drafts, either. This is a concept I struggle with, though. If I write for publication only things I already know, I risk lecturing others/being pedantic, or just as bad, being merely clever in an attempt to entertain. As amusing as The Onion is (and this story gets a little too close to my truth), it also strikes me as the mental-nourishment equivalent of eating frosting. And while the idea of writing Onion stories seems fun at first, it later comes to seem like some level of hell where everything one writes must be snarky. (My own Onion story suggestion: “Onion writer would just honestly like to be taken seriously.”)

Of course, I’ve set up yet another distinction — writing for oneself vs. writing for others — and most distinctions are arbitrary, temporary — are tools for thinking, left behind when no longer needed.

And so I write. I don’t want to write to meet a publishing purpose, so many of which seem needlessly restrictive. It may help marketers to establish genres and categories of art, and it may even help some readers to orient themselves, but dividing up the magazine rack by topics, and the bookshelves by genre, suggests limits on what counts as “real writing” that I accepted for many years.

I thought that what I wrote was valuable only as long as others would find it interesting — that is, I thought I had to carve out of my writings only those short bits that would fit into established, marketable categories. It has taken many years for me to see the arbitrariness of these things, and to understand that an artist is free to (and maybe ought to) challenge the common ideas of categories, of purposes, of value. Realizing that the standards against which so many things are judged are also arbitrary helps in that when we are creating something new, there can be no standard against which to judge a new thing, so there’s no wrong way to do it. Standards, forms, and genres melt as the confections that they are when exposed to the cleansing rain of creativity — to use an overwrought image, but eh, why not? Part of the fun of writing is the chance to use language fancifully sometimes.

I’m also aware that this is the second reference in this blog post to a sugary substance — this was not intended, but when these images (of the frosting, the confection) came to mind, I went with them. Perhaps this reveals something about my mind — but maybe all writing that is not intentionally-and-arbitrarily limited does reveal the writer’s mind.

But it takes a mind to tell stories — things and events do not tell their own stories. Every written thing is the product of someone’s mind, someone’s consciousness, someone’s mental voice (however one wishes to conceive of this). I had an experience of seeing students moving down a hallway yesterday, and my interpretation of their walk was that it was more of a shamble, almost as if they were cattle being herded ahead of the cowherd-teacher driving them. Of course, all of what I’ve just described was a mental phenomenon — I’m not lying, but I’m telling a story that exists only because I’m telling it. Nothing in the world outside my mind compared these students to cattle. But perhaps my description communicates to readers and perhaps interests and/or amuses them — and the reader can’t share my experience, but only my words.

And my words, too, must be interpreted by readers before they’ve communicated anything — and I hope my words and ideas could benefit others. But I know that I write to benefit myself. I write because thinking and writing are how my mind operates in my life. Some people craft furniture, some dance, and some of us write. Some of us see students walking like cattle and feel a need to say that, and then we are amused by the description alone.

Whether or not anything I write ever becomes widely known doesn’t really matter to me. But I write what I want to write, when I want to write it, and somehow this satisfies my mind’s need.

I write for myself (mostly)

In an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”, Tim Kreider explains his frustration with being asked to do artwork for free:

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

I also like this point:

The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.

I don’t write to make a profit (though I also don’t write to help others make a profit, excepting whatever WordPress might make from the wonderfully few ads on this blog). I write because I want and need to write. I write journals each morning to clear from my mind the recent memories and ideas and reactions that accumulate there, and I write at this blog out of a need to tell, to share, to teach, to entertain. I struggled for a few years with feeling that I ought to be sharing the ideas that I came up with in my journal writing, and then I realized that the journals need to be kept secret. I’ve gotta have a private place where I can write without the fear of what a reader might think of me.

But I also want to share some writing, and so, two years ago, I started this blog and have since been figuring out what of my writings I want to share with others. That’s an ongoing question–I don’t want to repeat myself, and I want to test conceptual boundaries.

But I don’t always make my blog posts easy to read, and while I appreciate readers who appreciate (some of) what I’m trying to do, I don’t necessarily need readers. My writings might at times be described as “self-indulgent,” but this hardly feels like a criticism, since, yeah, it is exactly my self that I am indulging by doing all of my writing. As a younger writer, I wondered what parts of my writing I had that would interest other people; now I’m more interested in writing whatever interests me, and if that interests others, cool, but if not, eh.

In the transition phase between these two positions, I recall reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” and thinking that King was lucky in that, somehow, what he wanted to write was also something that would sell. Maybe my perception isn’t what King would say; maybe he intended to write commercial works, and at any rate, his memoir clearly points out that his life was not without stress even once he began publishing.

But for me, the best things in my life — my relationships, my jobs, my abilities, and even my ideas — have come to me without me trying to force them. When I’ve tried to force things in my life, things haven’t gone so well. So now, too, I’m letting my writing come out and see what arrives.

And lately I’m understanding my writings as the written, shared interpretations of my experience, of my mind’s voice chatting. The texts I write can be seen as entities separate from my mind, but I’m looking at the connection between the two. I’m taking the perspective that my writings are how I react to and explain the experiences I have subjectively, and which can’t be shared directly with others. (I feel like there may be more to post on this at a later time.)

I know that some people do want to get paid for what they write, and I know that that’s a different purpose for writing than the one I’ve just described. It took me years to learn about myself that I would not be satisfied with writing only or mainly for commercial reasons. I make my money as a teacher, which itself is a satisfying, rewarding profession (and also gives me things to write about), and which allows me the freedom to write whatever I want. This freedom is more important to me than making money from my writing is.

So, perhaps Kreider is correct when he writes that “content” is devalued at this historical moment. (By the way, no one is a “slave,” to use Kreider’s term, if one has the choice not to do work.) But to see one’s art merely as for sale also seems a limited way to think of what art does for us.

UPDATE/SUMMARY (now that I’ve written all this, my point becomes clear to me): Writing for other people, like doing any work for them, means that one gives other what the others want. I want to write what I want, what I’m interested in, and for that freedom, I don’t need to be paid. Perhaps some writers do only what they themselves want to do, and some readers respond to that, but as a writer, I’m gonna do what I want to do whether others care or not — I see Emily Dickenson’s life of not-publishing as a legitimate life for a writer.