Saturday, January 26, 2013

What Makes A Better Artist

I thought I would post my response to the following two questions that I was recently asked.  A better response would probably have been to say nothing and just keep working.

What do you believe it takes to be a better artist? What steps have you taken to become a better artist?

            Curiosity.  Discipline.  A willingness to fail repeatedly.  Persistence.  A willingness, even an eagerness, to learn.  Empathy.  A long view combined with a steady work ethic.
            Although as I write these, I realize that they don’t address the “better” part of the question, so I guess I should emphasize an ability and willingness to cultivate these.  Curiosity, for example, takes time.  You have to be willing to take the time to pursue interests and ideas even if you’re not sure how they relate or their relevance.  Curiosity involves the unknown.  You don’t know where a particular path or interest will lead.  It’s a process of discovery and the pleasure of discovery, and its “usefulness” will probably not be readily apparent.  I think often of Benjamin Franklin who was in France during one of the first flights of a hot air balloon. Some said, “What good is it?” and he replied, “What good is a new born baby?” 
The most interesting pieces and productions for me are those that develop in unexpected ways.  You might start with a certain idea, but it will evolve.  The poet Ted Kooser says, “you must serve the poem.”  In other words, you find out where the poem is going, not the point you want to make or the persona you want to push.
Curiosity takes time, but time is a zero-sum game.  We only have so much of it.  So, you have to be willing to not do certain things, so that you can spend the time on other things.  TV watching.  Facebooking.  Dish washing.  Figuring out how to do this makes a better artist.  And, the other problem is, curiosity often looks like goofing off.
The assumption with “better artist” is that you already have the skills and tools to be an artist (whether it’s drawing, dancing, editing, etc.), and you need know how to use them more effectively or how to learn other ones.
As for what steps I’ve taken?  A great question.  A scary question because it requires me to admit whether or not I’ve taken action, or I'm just a talker. Most of the steps I’ve taken involve the management and conservation of time.  More and more, I say “no” to certain commitments and projects.  I leave my family sometimes so that I can write when I would rather be with them.  For example, most Saturday and Sunday mornings, when I want to be making breakfast with my kids and hanging out, I’m in a coffee shop somewhere writing.
            I try not to repeat work I’ve done both as a writer and a teacher.  You develop certain ticks and techniques as an artist and these can be “go-tos” in a way.  I think you have to be careful because then they become mannerisms and the style starts to confine.  I admire those artists who continue to experiment and change their styles radically.
To become a better artist, you need to know what you need emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and then you have to figure out how to get what you need. It's a difficult multi-step process.  I need, for example, a certain amount of solitude.  With a family and job, it’s not always easy to get this, so it has to be pushed for and staked out.
So, there’s my initial response, and I’m sure that as soon as I click send, I’ll think “oh, I should have said. . .”  Or, I probably should have just stopped with the first paragraph and left it at that.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Runaways (Bunnies and Children and Parents)

          I have hated The Runaway Bunny from the first time I read it which was soon after the arrival of my daughter.  Margaret Wise Brown’s other famous book, Good Night Moon, has wonderful surreal moments like its blank page saying “Goodnight nobody,” but The Runaway Bunny always has seemed like a threat.
            Here’s a baby bunny who dreams of traveling, and the mother says that she will pursue him wherever he goes and bring him back.  He tries to imagine various ways to escape, including becoming a flower, a boat, a tree, and a circus performer, but the mother insists that whatever ingenious form he takes, she can find one that is more controlling and domineering.  If he's a flower, she'll be a gardener. If he's a boat, she'll be the wind "and blow you where I want you to go." Eventually, the bunny decides "I might just as well stay where I am," and the mother rewards him with a carrot.
            You can't run, you can't hide, you can't get away from mommy, so don't even try.
            I refused to read this story to my children.
            Then, at a party full of parents (because that’s the kind of parties I go to now), someone mentions the book, and I start to go off on it as an authoritarian, ideological, fascist, tract.  As I’m revving up about this tale of a smothering mother, a friend announces her fear of crystal meth.  I’m struck by this seeming non-sequitur, and shut up to listen.  She had read a New York Times article about meth’s horrific effects when her daughter was young, and she had developed a fear of her child getting addicted to drugs.  She explains, “I decided whatever my daughter would do, I was determined that I would go get her.”  As she’s speaking, I suddenly remember various movie scenes like Traffic where the father gets the daughter who has ended up in terrible circumstances.
            Would I go and get my children?  I hope so.
            Is the rescuing of a child from drugs, prostitution, destitution, homelessness, different than blowing them back home when they’re a boat trying to sail away?  Of course.  And yet . . .
            I also begin to recognize the other side of the story.  I ran from my family.  Again and again.   And sometimes I ended up where I wanted to be rescued, and sometimes I needed to be.  Throughout the years, there have been offers from my father of emergency loans, a place to stay, and calming advice.  He never insisted that I come home or forced me to, but that was always an option.  My father has always been there, and he has always made me feel safe.
            I want my children to feel this way.  When my daughter calls out in the middle of the night, “Are you there?”  We answer, “Yes, go back to sleep.”  My son stomps off down the block, yet he keeps looking over his shoulder to make sure we’re watching and will follow if he gets too far away.  We will.  We’re here.  For now.
            And yet we can make no promises.  We know too much about what can happen.
            Most of us have moments and stories that haunt us. In 2011, a mentally disabled  homeless man was beaten to death by police.  As they struck him, he begged them to stop, and, at the end, he began calling “Dad. Dad. Dad” over and over.  I cannot think of this – I cannot write this – without crying.
            The Runaway Bunny tries to insist I will be there for you.  I will protect you.  I will.  I will.  I will.
         I should have recognized earlier the over-insistence.  The mother is attempting to convince herself, but she knows it’s not true.   It’s a promise that can’t always be fulfilled, a fantasy, one that stems from fear, from our knowledge of inevitable aging and life’s vicissitudes.  At some point, one of us will not be here.  Yet we may want and need to believe we will be, both parents and children.
            Do I wish I had read the book to my daughter and son?  Not really.  I’m still uneasy about it.
            But I won’t run away from it any more.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Who You Sacrifice

           As I pull out of the drive, my ten year old daughter is crying and saying, “Daddy, I don’t want you to go.”  I could say that I don’t want to go either, and, in part, that’s true, but it would confuse her.  I’m making a choice to leave for a writing weekend.  As much as I love my family and try to arrange a schedule to get work done, sometimes I need uninterrupted time.
            There is the cliché of the struggling artist, and the idea that an artist makes sacrifices.  These are true, but the nature of the struggle and sacrifices are sometimes misunderstood.
            For me, these have nothing to do with money.  I’m primarily a poet, and although I might sell a few books at readings, it's rarely enough to cover the gas and coffee costs to get there.  But, I don’t write poetry expecting to be paid.  Nor do I believe that I'm "paying my dues" and one day I will hit it big like Billy Collins or Mary Oliver (who I'm sure are rolling in it with Rolex watches, champagne readings, custom-designed poetmobiles, etc.).  As long as I have enough to buy a morning pastry, I'm satisfied, and, because my local bakery -- Camino -- is owned by a friend, I suspect that she'll slip me a free muffin or two if things get rough.
            Time, however, is a different matter.
            To do almost any kind of writing takes concentration, and time is a zero sum quantity. There is only so much of it.  Time devoted to writing means less available for something else – my teaching job, my family, my falling apart old house, my other interests.  
           So, the “sacrifice” an artist makes is often being with other people, and the price is paid by them.  If I wasn’t a writer, my children might spend more time with me, and, when I am with them, I might be less distracted.  Right now, their memories of Saturday and Sunday mornings won’t be of making pancakes with Daddy, but of Daddy going off to the coffeeshop for a few hours.  Right now, they suspect, for good reason, that sometimes even when I'm there, I'm not actually there.
            And we sacrifice people in other ways.  The writer, Julie Suk, says, “If you’re acquainted with a poet, you’re going to have your life exposed.”  Or, as Joan Didion puts it, “Writers are always selling someone out.”  My family’s lives are my material.  I will sacrifice their privacy and often their feelings to explore it.
            Occasionally people say how wonderful it must be to be a writer, and often it is, except for those times that you’re driving away from your crying daughter.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Letter to an Author After Yet Another Event Where the Story Problem of How Many Poems Can Be Read in Fifteen Minutes Is Answered Wildly Incorrectly

Dear Author,

            Thank you for your thought-provoking reading.  It was nice of you to take time from your busy schedule.  I know you must be swamped because even though this event had been advertised for weeks, you hadn’t had a chance to pick out and mark what you were going to read.
            I’m sorry the person who introduced you mispronounced your name and book.  That clearly was annoying, or maybe you were grimacing about something else.  Although she was trying to do her best, I understand that you’re important enough she should have gotten it right.  I would have been irritated as well if I was someone like you.
            I’d also like to apologize for the cell phone that went off, although it wasn’t mine.  This seems to happen at every event nowadays, so you would think it wouldn’t be so surprising and upsetting, but I guess it still is.  Hopefully that man learned his lesson when you stopped and stared – or should I say glared! You showed him what you thought! Well done!  -- and then you rightly started over.
            I’m glad that one person said yes when you asked if you could read one more piece.  Was that your spouse or a friend?  It was sweet.  I know that a lot of people wanted to go at that point since the event was supposed to have been over long before, but it’s good to know that there are still some of us willing to be polite and wait for the end.  And, how nice of you to ask rather than just going ahead and reading another one.  It made it feel like you were giving us the chance to urge you on if we had wanted to.  In fact, thank you for making sure that we got our money’s worth – even though we didn’t pay anything – by reading for twice as long as we thought you were going to.  You so generously gave us so much of your work that we didn’t feel like we had to buy the book afterwards.  After all, we had just heard the audio version, done by the author.
            Thank you also for explaining some of your pieces before hand so that we “got” them, particularly the ones that you said wouldn’t make sense otherwise.  It would have been embarrassing to sit there and not understand what you had decided to read because it wasn’t something we could “get” just by hearing it.
            I also appreciate the way you pointed out your awards, prizes, and accomplishments.  I wouldn’t have known to be as impressed with those pieces if you hadn’t told me how good other people had already found them.  I enjoy being “tipped off.”
            I’m enclosing an article. Don’t worry; it’s not one I wrote. You made it clear how much that annoys you by being so abrupt to that young girl who had been waiting to speak to you.  No, it’s just advice on public speaking that I cut out of a magazine.  I thought you would find it funny since it’s so wrong-headed; you don’t do almost any of what it says to do.  That must be one of the great things about being a writer.  You get to do what you want rather than worrying about what an audience wants.
            I am definitely going to recommend your book the next time I find a person who is interested in the kind of thing you do.


A Listener