The Human Condition:

On Being an Artist – July 7, 2013

Artist’s Palette

Photo by Chris Rose

I don’t actually consider myself an artist. Nothing so grand. I’m just a person who fell in love with words and language. My greatest satisfaction is to knit them together into a solid structure of logical transitions, or a scene of tight action, or a back-and-forth dialogue among clever and purposeful characters. If at the end of the day I’ve produced 1,000 words of durable prose, I’ve done my job. I also enjoy producing something that never before existed—people, actions, events, and situations—that readers far off in time and place can see in their minds and, if I’m good enough, they care about.

Being an artist, creating something out of nothing from your own imagination and the skills you’ve learned for manipulating it, is a tricky thing. Unlike almost anything else you can do with your time, from auto repair to carpentry, tax accounting, or planting a garden, the end result of creating art—fiction, painting, music, or whatever draws from your insight and imagination—is not always under your control.

It’s easy to be a writer or poet, painter, sculptor, or composer if your mind flexes that way. But making a living—or even any money at all—through writing or another art form is hard, because so much is beyond your control. You can control, to some extent, the nature of the book or painting or song you produce.1 But you cannot control how others will perceive it, how closely it will match to the zeitgeist, or even how many people will find it—on bookstore shelves, at the art gallery, in the album you’re handing out at street fairs—and then whether they will like it and tell their friends about it. So much of that discovery and liking is a matter of luck that finishing a book-length manuscript in the hopes of fame and fortune resembles spending a year of your life to buy a single lottery ticket.

Given the chanciness of the market,2 it’s easy to fall into the trap of credentialing. You attend writing or painting classes. You go for a Master of Fine Arts degree. You look for workshops to attend. You congregate with other writers, artists, or musicians and hope to create a name for yourself by association with them. But no amount of dissertation and theory makes you an artist. No names you can drop into everyday conversation will confirm you in your trade. No amount of scholarship will touch people’s hearts in the way a novel, painting, or song can.

The only way to be an artist—writer, poet, painter, sculptor, composer—is to do it. You can’t talk about it. There are no tests for it. You can’t claim a potential that you don’t prove by doing. You have to do it, persist in doing it, push and struggle and work through all the twists and turns of learning how to do it for long after family and friends grow tired of smiling and after agents and publishers grow tired of saying no. You have to do it when to continue doing it seems like obsession, or stupidity, or vanity, or madness. And if you do, then maybe one day it will mean something—or maybe not. But if you don’t do it, then it doesn’t happen, you will never be it, and you’ll fade away like every other hopeless bastard who lived obscurely and died quietly. But maybe, maybe, one day long after you’re dead, you’ll become immortal and a bit of what you’ve seen and known and thought and believed and loved will live on after you’ve become smoke and dust. And that’s why you do it.

And when you’re done, you still won’t own it. The value of your work will be in the perception of your readers, viewers, or listeners—your receivers. But they will never know exactly what you intended your words to say, see the grand or shadowed vision behind what your hand drew, or hear the music as you heard it. You’ve gone through those first, second, and third thoughts and attempts, seen the work grow and change, seen the pieces come together. Your reader, viewer, or listener only sees the last attempt.

The trap of being an artist is that you do the work from the inside. You see the inside of the mask, the bony structure of the story. You remember the pieces that fit into the grand design and—tragically—the pieces that never quite worked and you had to discard along the way. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you see every stitch and suture that holds your monster together. Like a mason building a wall or assembling the arch of a bridge, you know which stones didn’t quite fit, and so you had to cheat by cutting an odd-shaped angle or using a bit more mortar. You know the parts of the story, or the corner of the painting, or the transition in the song that—for anyone who has lived as deeply with the work as you have—doesn’t quite work and sticks out by a mile as an embarrassingly bad job. Finding those places and fixing them is an endless task, a kind of artistic whack-a-mole, where the moles get ever smaller and more precise, the holes get farther and farther apart, but—Damn it!—there’s another one.3

No one can see the work the way you do: as something left over when you tried to create your dream and think you succeeded or failed, or when you stumbled onto a good idea and could only take it so far, but not where you thought. And, seeing the work from the inside, knowing it could have been so much more, you are plagued by doubt. Positive reviews, awards, and soaring sales are one thing, but still there is doubt. Do they really understand what you were trying to do? Did you achieve anything real and meaningful? Was your effort good enough?

Right now, I’m tender on this subject. I’ve started the next novel. I know what I want it to be, although the grand vision and full sweep are still a bit sketchy. Details are waiting to be discovered. But I now have about 60,000 words of the opening section,4 and they feel solid, a good start, a firm abutment for extending the bridge over the river, toward whatever’s on the other shore. But, as with any story, I still wonder: will these scenes, these actions, these characters make sense to anyone else? Are they strange and wonderful? Or banal and stupid, dull as ditch water? And always: is there some gaping hole, some big soft spot, a blind area that I don’t know about but that I’m unconsciously writing around or gliding over? Will the bridge stand? Or will the mortar crack and the stones come tumbling down?

Being an artist—even on the workaday level of a writer of stories, commercial illustrator, or composer of movie scores—is a life full of doubt. You must move forward into the unknown. You have your skills and experience, but those are from the places you’ve been, and you’re not going there again. This time, you’re going someplace new that you’ve never visited and perhaps can barely see. That takes a kind of courage. But nothing else you could do with your time and effort would make any sense at all.

1. However, as anyone who’s tackled a novel knows, the wonderful idea you start out with is almost never the book text you end up with. Your first thoughts prove to lack depth and crumble into banalities; they seldom survive the first or second twists in the plot needed to carry the story forward. The characters grow in your mind and acquire what some would say are their own natures, but I prefer to think of as the logical extension of their previous thoughts and actions; as a writer you get to know them, and you understand the responses that your characters will, or will not, make to the hazards you throw at them. The original time and setting prove too small for the action you planned—or too big and amorphous—and so you must restage and re-imagine. Writing is a process of discovery, and you cannot plan the details in advance.

2. The good news, in these days of the internet, is that every artist has more chances to be read, seen, and heard. Your book does not have to pass the commercial judgment of a handful of agents and editors serving the major publishing houses but instead can go on sale electronically under your own imprint. Your drawing or painting doesn’t languish inside the four walls of a gallery, limited to the few people who can visit during business hours. Your song travels farther than the dozen or hundred or thousand people who might hear it at a gig. They can see and hear your work in China. The bad news these days is that the internet is crowded with suddenly unleashed talent. You need extraordinary luck to rise above the mass of people who are merely good at their art.

3. My mother always said it takes two to create a work of art: one person to do the painting or sculpture or whatever, and someone standing behind him with a two-by-four to hit him over the head when he’s done.

4. It’s going to be a long book, and perhaps I’ll have to sell it in sections. That’s another thing the internet gives you—freedom to plan your own marketing, with the knowledge that no editor can cut short your series because the sales figures on the last book didn’t meet expectations. It’s your dime. It’s your lonely freedom.