I have a button that says, “Writing is revolutionary.” I wear it to remind myself of this truth. Art is a very difficult thing to believe in these days. Even though I insist on writing, I often wonder, given the state of the world and particularly the country I live in, am I just hiding behind my art? Am I, as artists have so often been accused of being, simply egotistical, self-serving, and shallow for wanting to continue what I started when I was in fourth grade?
Of course, in all that time there were years that I didn’t write. There were many years during which I berated myself for not having “discipline.” Also years during which I stabbed at it, and looked at my work and thought, “But it’s not real writing.” It was as difficult then as it is now to believe that art matters.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Art always has be clawed out of some sort of life. The messages don’t change, or they haven’t changed in my life time.
A few of the messages I have heard during the span of my writing life:
Don’t quit your day job.
You simply must read Proust.
You must subscribe to the New Yorker
You must get an MFA
You must teach in a college
You must travel
You must have a platform
You must have a brand
You must have something important to say
And so on.
There is a tremendous amount of advice on how to be an artist. Some of it actually comes from artists, which blows my mind.
It isn’t until an artist reaches some sort of national recognition that he or she is given carte blanche permission to simply be an artist. Then the artist is granted that she might have known what she was doing all along. This too is a blow against art, because we usually don’t know what we’re doing. We just do it anyway.
I honestly don’t know if any of this is a bad thing or a good thing. It doesn’t hurt to have to work against the grain, against all that society tells you you must do. It doesn’t hurt to insist on creating something that is, to others’ eyes, frivolous and selfish. It makes you stronger. It makes you fiercer. It can make your art deeper. It can certainly deepen your relationship to it. And it can serve you well in times like these, when America seems to be one big street brawl, from the presidency on down.
It’s helpful to wear my Writing is Revolutionary button, simply to remind myself that there was a time when even just the act of taking time for myself, and clearing the psychic space for writing was a huge revolution. It may have been a personal revolution, but as Gloria Steinem has said, “The personal is political.”
It has never been easy to say to certain people and certain things, “No, I will not serve you.” And then to say to my writing and my characters, “Yes, I will serve you.” Not everyone, including writing and characters, has always been completely cooperative with me and my goals and needs. I still have to make these same decisions. I still have to turn away from some things in order to turn toward my work as a writer. My work might not matter to the larger world, and I have to live with that. Every day, with every word put on paper, there is the possibility of obscurity. I have to make peace with that.
Art is a gamble. Art is a crap shoot. Art is betting on the horse with the lame leg ridden by the 300 pound jockey. Always has been, always will be.