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.

Rarer than Platinum: The Minority Artist

America is a very business- and professional-minded society. It is also the land of tremendous opportunities for immigrants, the place to pursue the proverbial “American Dream.” The country is not one to rest on its laurels in terms of history, arts, culture, or anything else that is not pragmatic and geared towards professional success, STEM advances, or money. Even our language is very efficient and to the point: compare American English with the more flowery nature of British English. These are not bad things in and of themselves.

But what about those who are more right-brained, more creative-minded outside of STEM fields, those who like to create works of art that are political or art for art’s sake or crafts? It is not easy to be an artist in American society, period. And what of those who are artists, but come from a minority group, some sector of society that is socioeconomically disadvantaged or from an immigrant background whose primary motivation is to stay alive and establish themselves in American society, or whose members prefer other professions and values?

Being a minority who is an artist is probably one of the most difficult pursuits anyone in this society can undertake. Understandably, many minority groups, especially immigrants, place a high value on professional careers that are stable, solid, provide benefits, and socially recognized. Art is already seen as a luxury in American society: add to it the stresses of immigration, and it becomes almost frivolous. Many minority artists are not understood by their own communities, for if they are not seen as frivolous, they are perhaps simply not appreciated. “Art” for many immigrant groups can often be formulaic, such as blockbuster movies, soap operas, or community/cultural/folk traditions. There may not be any desire for individual creative output, for it can challenge the norms of what is understood to be art. Those who strike out on their own are often not emotionally or financially supported. At the worst, they might be ostracized in their own communities for making obscure films, odd paintings, or music that is unfamiliar.

This is all the more reason that minority artists need to be supported. What is an artist after all? Someone who has a unique vision that they want to bring out to the world. Whatever medium they work in, there is something that is so intrinsically and personally beautiful to this artist, it is the best language they how to express themselves in. Part of the difficulty that arises with supporting minority artists is that minorities often get lumped into certain groups and there are certain expectations. If one is a non-white writer, they must write “trauma fiction.” If one is a minority pop singer, she might have to fit into a “cute” mold that is like an ethnic Barbie doll instead of an ethnic Patti Smith. If one is an ethnic painter, they may be discouraged from bringing influences from their own culture into their work.

Ultimately, any artist, minority or not, must be allowed to create what is uniquely their vision, in a way that nobody else can see it or do it. And society must allow for that to happen. Here’s to all the minority artists that dare to do what they love.