Wednesday, August 01, 2012

On the idea of being an artist...

Several things have happened lately that have had me thinking about the nature of writing, of creating art and of thinking about how we interpret our experiences. In brief, my mother wrote me a beautiful piece that was a response to an earlier post that I'm going to type in this week as its own post, I talked to a friend who despite my own misgivings sees me as a writer worth investing time and resources in (it makes me both proud and shy...) and I listened to a bunch of Tom Waits songs on YouTube, recorded in 1977 -- the year I was born.

Waits was 27. He was more handsome than I had thought was possible, having only seen him after his years of... whatever it was he did that made him earn the face his voice always owned. I watched these videos with this youthful, smooth face, with this voice that carried the weight of the fallen angels... fingers dancing over the piano keys like fairies flitting among the fireflies... It was youth and delicacy that found its gravity in this soulful, earth-raking voice. It was the voice of the continental drift. The oldest of stones, grating against each other. But his words. His words have always, since I was 16 and Nancy first gave me a mix tape, his words can still make me pause and listen to their poetry. 

I am a dismal poet, but I know what I like. 

Tom Waits has a gift I will never have for lyrics, for poetry. For creating melodic music that takes a raw machete and slings it through your unsuspecting chest, leaving you with the feeling that you too were there on that barstool, unrequited. 

And they all pretend they're orphans
And the memory's like a train
You can feel it getting smaller as it moves away....

Watching the 27-year-old Waits sing made me both question and falter as I contemplate my own position in the world as an artist. 

I have these two ideas of myself -- the writer, musician, photographer, artist... and the me that's a logical, mathematical, overachieving worker who thinks of success in traditional, money-making ways. So, I want to be both the writer and the achiever, so I try to find successful editing jobs. 

I think watching Waits was a... 

I think of Keats, younger than me, writing his Odes. 

I wait for what, exactly? 

Am I waiting to feel I've earned a wisdom that allows me to profess, assert, to create? 

Or am I afraid? Afraid that what I offer is trite? Done? Shit? 

Maybe that shit is the thing that keeps me in this state of paralysis. 

I want to ask Patti Smith how she so easily seems to have embraced the idea that she was an artist despite all of the other roads she walked to make money, to make ends meet, to make sense of things. That is the thing I have the most trouble embracing. She starved, she struggled, but she always believed in her poetry, in her art.  I have always made sure I was comfortable, yet I have always struggled with the idea that what I wanted to make was art. It never seemed "important" enough, on one level. And on the other it was always the only thing that mattered. 

I could always draw. I could sculpt. I could paint, when I tried. I loved photography. I studied it. I practiced it. I write every day. In some way. But I need to get back to being more like Joan Didion. Making lessons of my own days. Writing the world I see. 

I know the Brooklyn I inhabit is the playground of thousands of wanna-be writers. It's almost a cliche of a setting. Maybe I'll imagine something different... 

I think the biggest obstacles to writing those things I've always talked about writing are the contentment one finds growing out of the 20-something angst, and the lack of urgency to "get it out"... And the need to process how that change then changes what you thought was your "thing to say"... 

I no longer feel unique. I no longer feel like what I experienced was a one and only. True, my life is only ever my own, but... But what really is it that I want to say? Maybe the lack of uniqueness is what will make it a tell-able story. It's no longer a horror story. It's just real. 

But for me, therein lies the rub.

I've recently had my first adult injury. A sprain. Ankle. I lived 35 years without ever thinking my "actual body" would ever really let me down. Last December I fell down some Subway stairs in the rain and had a strain, and my foot hurt for a long time... But this was, this was debilitating. I was broken. And not just skin-broken, which was how I think about all my childhood injuries. In a lot of ways, I always prided myself on my body's structural integrity. I may have lost my scalp, but motherfuckers, my skeleton was a force to be reckoned with.

So, I have a sprained ankle and after a whole week, I am still limping. I am still broken. Whatever a "sprain" is -- it is no joke.

It makes me feel my age, when I think about my now-damaged body, my hesitancy to be creative, and the line-free face of Tom Waits, singing Waltzing Matilda...

For so many years, my excuse was that I wasn't old enough to be a real writer. Toni Morrison wasn't... She was 39 when she wrote The Bluest Eye. I still have time, right?

My crisis is a crisis of confidence. Confessing that is hopefully part of rendering it powerless. I know somehow that writing is my gift, the ability to tell you the story that happens in my head, but that that story happens to be... as it is. I told my cousin the trick to writing a paper is to tell the story on paper as you would explain in to me right now...

That is storytelling. Which is most of the battle.

To make it a craft, that takes more. Unless the story is best told plain. But that's the kind of story I aim to tell. 

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