Bad Seed, Good Art, & a Russian Doll Situation
There’s a much longer story here that I’ll save for another day, but for now I’m just excited to share this invitation with my Kansas City friends and readers. The next First Friday art walk in the Crossroads is just ten days away and I hope you’ll come to Bad Seed at 1919 McGee and learn more about what I’m up to in that space this summer. My pal and painter John Raux will be showing some of his recent work, and my recent printing collaboration with sculptor Elaine Buss will also be on display. Stop by the Bad Seed, have a drink, see our work, buy a print, and say hi!
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I no longer teach in the classroom, and I rarely get the chance to work with a group of writers in a workshop or classroom setting, but I always enjoy speaking with writer groups about my work and hearing the interesting questions that come up. Last month I welcomed a group of high school creative writing students to my studio and we had a really wonderful visit. I received some follow up questions via email, and the question below was one that I particularly enjoyed thinking about and attempting to answer, so I thought you might also enjoy reading the exchange.
The student wrote:
I wanted to know more about finding the balance I assume a working writer has to find when writing what speaks to them, and what speaks to their audience. Is there a balance you can find? Can you be successful being 100% authentic? How do you find an audience that appreciates you?
Hi! That's such an interesting question. In fact, that question is really a Russian Doll situation of questions-within-questions, so I'll answer in some kind of Russian Doll fashion:
First and foremost, I write for myself. In early drafts especially, it's essential that I get rid of any voices in my head related to an ultimate "audience.” I don't want to be worrying about what an imagined audience might think of my writing before I even write it! Even worse than an imagined audience, I don't want very real, specific, truly awful peoples' voices getting in my head as I'm writing, telling me what I can or can't say before I've even said it. Get out of my head, man! I write because I get some shape or idea in mind, or I’m caught off guard by a word or phrase, or because I experienced something that I want to remember in a particular way, and I use language as the tool to capture what I’m after. I don’t do that for an audience. I do that because I’m compelled to do it, because I’m drawn to it, because I want to, because no one else is going to do it for me, and because no one is stopping me. (I'm tempted to shout, “Huzzah!” I’m tempted to get . . . that . . . dirt off my shoulder.)
Shakespeare, paraphrased: "Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say."
That said, sometimes you ARE writing for a specific audience, and even though you don't want their perceived judgments or needs to get in the way of the main thing YOU need to say, sometimes you need to say something because you need to say something specifically to THEM -- whoever "THEMS" might be. Oftentimes having a very specific audience (compared to a general faceless nameless void) can help channel the right words and attitude. Kind of like writing a letter to someone. If you're writing a love letter to a specific person, and then turn around and write a raging tirade to a different specific person, your unique voice is still likely to come through in both instances, but they're going to sound very different, not only because of the emotion and content of the writing, but also because of the WHOM you are addressing. You're still writing for yourself because there's something YOU need to say to THEM. That's very different from writing to please an audience.
Which brings me to communication. Even if I write first and foremost for myself, and even though I focus as much as I can on getting the clutter of criticism out of my mind as I am writing, and even though I want to be “authentic” in my writing (more on that later), I still ultimately want other people to read what I write and have some sort of meaningful encounter with it. That means writing for clarity. Ambiguity can be a very powerful force in writing, especially poetry or lyrical prose or music. But ambiguity is different from vagueness. William Zinsser has a great book, On Writing Well, which is worth owning copies plural to keep in multiple locations alongside Strunk & White and your thesaurus and dictionary and copies of Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet and Emily Dickinson . . . but anyway, in Zinsser the chapters on clarity and clutter are essential. Basically, get good practice at revising for clarity, first and foremost for yourself (“Does that make sense to me? Does that say what I meant to say? Does that contain the energy that I first felt when wanting to write this? Do I like this?”), but also to get solid on how someone who isn't you (doesn't know what you know, doesn't feel what you feel) still reads and receives enough detail in your work that it has the impact that you're after. It helps to find a few trusted friends who can read your draft (after you've revised it and are ready to share it) and can give you feedback (not judgment, not advice)) on what's working, what is not clear, and what questions they might have for you. Writing is expression first, communication second.
I used to believe in the "one authentic voice" argument, the notion that each one of us has some sort of pure inner being that is a unified solitary essence, and that, as a writer, I had to pursue this unity in my style so that everything I wrote sounded like "me.” There is truth to the unique "thing" that is only in you, and I’m tempted to take a deep dive into whatever this “soul” thing is that I’m convinced we’ve all got tucked away within us, but I won’t do that. I know that, at times, I've allowed this pursuit of the "ONE authentic me" to get in the way of my freedom of discovery and expression. I think it matters that you read enough and write enough to find the aesthetics that you are most drawn to and most want to channel into the work you put into the world. BUT, as Walt Whitman said, we all contain multitudes. I actually have MANY voices and styles inside of me. So the style in my body of work gets to be as eclectic and weird as I want it to be. Maybe someday I”ll settle into some sort of unity, but not yet, not now. That's the freedom of art. No one is telling me I can't write a funny story in a Kermit voice on Monday morning, and then turn around and write a contemplative lyric essay on Tuesday afternoon, followed by an angry letter to the editor Wednesday night, followed by a love poem at dawn.
Is there a balance you can find? A balance between what I most need to write and what an audience might like to read? I wish. I know balance in general sounds nice, and that it’s a word we all use as shorthand for the things we want to optimize in our busy modern lives . . . but I’ve learned the hard way that there’s likely no balance that acts as a final, static state—unless, of course, you’re dead. You can seek and constantly find some internal state of balance—I’m writing for ME and it’s connecting with OTHERS—but there will always be wobbles, disruptions, setbacks, failures, achievements, seasons of stability, wobbles, ad infinitum. Just keep going. Keep going and pay close attention as you go to the sensation of those wobbles and how you narrate them to yourself. If you are quick to call yourself a failure, why? If you immediately put all hope in one basket, what makes you do that? If you think regularly that you’ll finally be content when you achieve X, why do you think that’s so? The idea here is to allow those wobbles, your reactions to them, and the ways you narrate them to continue to happen without always throwing you off course. Let them happen, let them pass, learn from them, and keep moving and doing your work. You will create a story or poem or song or painting or dance or sculpture, and you might recognize that you just accomplished something new. Savor that recognition. Your own deep knowledge of what you’re capable of and who you are becoming is more important than external praise. Then you'll still likely turn around and make something that feels like it's not as good. But that's just how it goes. If you keep moving, keep reading, keep revising, keep learning how to be present and use language to pin down to the page your inklings and urges and epiphanies and absurdities, then something like balance will likely make itself more known and possible, and you learn how to live with the wobbles.
Can you be successful being 100% authentic? I don't know! Over the course of his career, Bob Dylan has worn dozens of disguises. Every song is a disguise and his public persona has been a series of disguises for more than half a century. Is his music authentic? Maybe, maybe not. But is it among the most vital music of the century? YEP! If in 1963 Bob Dylan decided that he only had his "one authentic voice", or that pleasing his audience at the time was the most important thing, or that wearing disguises somehow made his music weaker, he might have never written some of his greatest songs. He angered and alienated his biggest fans right at the moment that he could have chosen an easier path of success. Anyway, now I'm talking about Bob Dylan, which is possibly the best way to end this, with our final little Russian Doll in the image of Bob Dylan, possibly in his phase where he wore that wide-brimmed hat with the feather in it and grew that thin mustache that looked like someone drew on his face with a Sharpie while he was sleeping. Anyway. There you go.
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