The Ways of Being an Artist

This afternoon, I was having a discussion with another fellow writer friend. I had recently edited an autobiographical essay for her, and she asked me how my novel was going. I mentioned that I was having writers’ revision block, that I either had to kill my darlings, or change my darlings, so to speak. She asked how my other artistic pursuit, opera singing, was going and I said on that front there had been quite a lot of progress, quite a lot of development, and how I felt that with my arts I am always like a pendulum swinging between two poles.

For me, opera singing is much more visceral, auditory, right-brained. Though there is a high degree of verbal and cerebral work due to the languages, it is a much more physical and aural and oral art. I liken it more to being an athlete: you understand the concept and you are trying to get your body to do what you want it to do. Your body is your instrument; you are constantly figuring out ways to create a sound. There are different areas of the body you are aware of–lower abdomen, mouth, and what is called the “mask,” an area of the face where one might wear a decorative mask that produces resonance. Your sound is based on feeling, and always has to be, given that the spaces in which you will sing will constantly vary, from practice room to bedroom to concert hall. Opera is always communal. One must always be thinking about the other characters, even when singing a solo aria, have an awareness of the audience, how one is conveying emotion. Certainly the words are important. The words are in a number of different languages, seldom English, and not only is the pronunciation important but also the meaning, the clarity of one’s diction. How an opera singer pronounces words while song in a foreign language will differ from how the words will be spoken in a foreign language. There are often sounds that do not exist in one’s native tongue(s). Ultimately, there is really nothing quite so powerful as the feeling of making music with one’s body, and it always feels happy, even when there are numerous challenges.

Writing is very introverted, more intellectual, but also visual for me. I always feel as though I am painting a picture with words, I am describing what I’m seeing in my head in words. There are some writers who are extremely language-oriented, master prose stylists or very literal, cerebral types. But I am seeing things in my head, and most all of the time, dictating the words via a dictation software program. Therefore, I am also hearing and speaking my text in addition to seeing it on the page. I do love writing by hand, but I have by and large stopped this when writing fiction or this blog, given the necessity for efficient revisions. My first drafts are most always right brained: I am telling the story I want to tell, upon my first impulse, how I feel it without analyzing it–what I jokingly called the “vomit draft,” whatever spills out on the page. I attended a workshop where the writer-teacher (I believe Sarah Gerkensmeyer) encouraged us to do this, and then to go back and revise draft in a more analytical manner. Revision takes quite a long time, yet it can often be “easier” than generating completely new material. At other times, it is harder because one must kill one’s darlings (= tear up what one holds dear on the page, sometimes deleting it completely), one must re-see the ideas in a completely different way, rethink so many things. Writing is endlessly complex, for there are so many elements to think about: the architecture and structure, the plot, the characters, variation of sentences, and so much more. It is a very solitary pursuit in the end, even though it is imperative one have trusted readers for feedback and eventually an audience. One must always remember that there will be an audience, and different people will interpret one’s work in radically different ways. But ultimately, no matter how much feedback one receives, it is up to the writer to digest it and employ it how she chooses. Revision can take quite a while, for the writer has to figure out how to revise it and amend the flaws that she sees, and also the flaws that others see. It is funny, however, because sometimes one will have a tremendous flash of insight at the most random times about how to rework something–in the shower, at the grocery store, while talking with a friend who may or may not be a writer, or while sitting and journaling.

The these are my two poles, my two hands, my two halves. I could not choose one over the other, for it would be like choosing one’s favorite child. I could not exist without either of these, though sometimes one drives me crazy and I must swing to the other pole. But then I will feel such a void for not having the other art in my life, and naturally the pendulum will swing back. Sometimes, the pendulum is in the middle, where both arts are being pursued equally. At other times, the pendulum is at rest, with no motion at all.

And I now realize that this is going to be the case for the rest of my life.

Play: It’s Not Just for Children

As children, our imaginations run freely. Our cognitive development depends on our ability to create ideas and synthesize all of the new ideas we are learning. It is no sillier for us to imagine a house made of lollipops than it is to learn our ABCs. For many of us, our favorite TV friends were furry monsters on Sesame Street. We liked to take our dolls or Legos and create things; everything with our mind was an open door.

And then what happened?

We grow up and enter a very left-brained world that values order, logic, and rationality. Careers that involve organizing data are very lucrative. Even the arts acquire an ethos of predictability: if that movie doesn’t make X number of dollars over its opening weekend, its leading actor or actress can expect a dip in his or her career. And why even take a risk on making an odd/unusual/original movie, when a predictable formula is a crowd-pleaser, guaranteed to make millions of dollars back? And if you live in a particular geographical area, like the Midwest, it’s best to conform, to look/dress/act like everybody else, with boringly banal tastes. And let’s not forget the Internet – it has homogenized everything down to the font.

But what if you want to swim upstream, to be an artist in this particular world? If you want to be a performing artist, such as an actor or an opera singer? Be a part of these professions where creativity and play are highly valued – no, rather, necessary?

It involves a process of letting go. Of letting go of the rational mind, and diving into the irrational. Of diving into a sense of the imagination, the fantasy, and the spontaneous. Of trusting one’s intuition and deep impulses – we all have them, but we have been educated out of them. It involves taking risks, sometimes not doing what everyone else is doing, and enjoying the process, doing what’s right for yourself. But sometimes it’s not doing what’s right for yourself, but for the character: a mild-mannered man might play the role of a sociopath, or a country girl might adopt a perfect Brooklyn accent.

Highly accomplished people in many fields talk of this as a state of flow (the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is all about this.) Great discoveries in the sciences have been made when scientists were enjoying experimenting. Athletes are literally in a state of play when they are in their games. It is especially evident in music – simply listen to Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” and the playfulness of the band is so evident in the song.

We have to remember periodically to return to a state of play, do things that encourage this. We don’t have to know the result, how things will turn out. We just have to have fun.