What’s your favorite book? Yes, of all time. No, you have to pick one. That’s a terrible book. The characters are flat, the plot is unbelievable, and I care more about Aunt Jemima’s struggles as a slave to Mrs. Butterworth.
So, did that change your opinion? Odds are there’s something more to your favorite book. Something you can’t put into words that just feels right. It’s the book that inspires you, redirects you, and lets you know you’re not alone in what you do and who you are. And that’s just the thing with art. Not everyone who sees Picasso’s Guernica is going to react…even I have trouble believing that, but it’s probably true.
Let us consider the writers who “make” it. What do the majority have in common? It’s the same thing that’s true with all great painters and songwriters. Though the occasional outlier strikes gold early on, most every other noteworthy artist has done so by doing what they do more than anyone else.
A lot more.
They live and breathe their art. This doesn’t mean a painter is always painting, but everything the painter does will connect back to their work at some point in their lives. This is my goal as a writer.
I remember vividly a night where I sat at a bench overlooking Geneva Lake in Wisconsin. Between a rustling maple and a gnarly hickory, I stared out to a white crescent moon owning the horizon. It’s reflection shot narrow over the lake and caught the tip of ripples to create an ever-moving field of silver wheat.
I sat for ten minutes, trying to think about how I’d describe the scene in a novel. Only after I concluded satisfaction was I able to appreciate the beauty of it all. It was those later feelings I then connected to my simple discovery that it looked like a field of long grasses.
People watching is another thing I do, but it’s very conscious. I take in the person and think about what sets them apart from everyone else on the street. If it’s a physical feature, how has it defined their character? If it’s what they wear, then who are they underneath? Does a yellow sundress mean the person is happy and jubilant? Perhaps, but maybe they sulk about. Such a contrast surely tells a story worthwhile. The answer is not clear, but that’s what good writing is. I don’t want everything I write to have the same impact on everyone, but I do want that impact to hit hard.
This is where writing more than anyone else comes into play. I occasionally write something that just seems to connect with everyone who reads it, but it’s not the majority of my work. I imagine myself banging my head against a wall until it breaks; I then look for another wall . Of course, the analogy isn’t perfect, as sometimes it’s best to walk away.
Now consider that all the time taken to write, rewrite, and explore new facets of writing is not enough when it comes to recognition. As victim as we are to the times, we must never shy away from what the present holds and what it can teach. Some of the most beautiful works of art will lay hidden forever because they were not paying attention to the world around them. A painter who knows how to paint and has mastered all technicalities of the art cannot rely on skill alone. Imagine painting biblical masterpieces and scenes of seduction and mythology at the height of the French Revolution. It just doesn’t fit.
This is something all writers must face. Where do I fit? It may often seem like avoiding this question will help you focus on your writing, and that may be true. In the long run, this is the question others will ask of us. More often than not, the masses will say, “You don’t fit.” And, more often than not, the masses are right. Though true that an undercurrent can guide society with more strength and purpose, the surface, the pop culture and loud voices, are both a mirror and a beacon for who we are and where we’re going.
I fear writing the conclusion for this post, but I feel it necessary to bring to light that many are driven to only find their ten minutes then fade away. This path can be lucrative, and people will eat it up. Unfortunately, this pop art only sells society their vanity…our vanity. The paradox is that most writers cannot tell when they are writing outside of it. Everyone thinks they’re individuals, but where is the true individual thought? Does it emerge from acceptance of circumstances coupled with a deep understanding of history and culture?
Your writing, just as your favorite book, inspires, redirects, and relates. Someone out there will like it, and they won’t need a good reason to explain why. It really doesn’t matter when you’re living like an artist. Connect the world, the layers of society, past and present cultures, and your vanity to your work. There will be thousands of writers who add to the river’s surface, but that’s where we all start. Learn to dive deep, and when you come up for air try to dive even deeper next time. I believe we as artists have a duty to examine life critically and report back through the means we’ve mastered. Make the tens of thousands of hours you’ve poured into perfecting your abilities something worthy of the times.