Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.
-Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Last week, we discussed the audacity that it takes to create and distribute art. We decided there is something in us that wants to be connected to other people–we hope we can make them smile or give them something to enjoy. The connection takes the shape of stories or music or jewelry. Of course, the goal of all art is not a smile, but I don’t think that making other people happy for a moment is the only emotion we elicit when we connect with them. The emotional/ human connectivity goals of my novel, for example, are more tied up in grief at times than happiness, but that doesn’t mean the connection doesn’t exist.
So yes, it takes an audacity to create and distribute. You must be willing to face ridicule and failure in the hope that you can still meet some personal goal–which is rarely, I find, anything financial.
But what of those people who want to create? The people who want to be artists but never put their asses in the seat to make anything.
If you are a practicing writer, musician, etc., I’m sure you hear it all the time.
You: I am a <insert artist type here>.
Person: Oh! I’ve always wanted to do that! But I <insert excuse here>.
Now, I know without doubt that there are excuses out the wazoo to not do something. I essentially take 8-9 months off from writing long-form fiction a year. But even if I’m taking a breather on the long projects, I am still working on short fiction or poetry or, hell, this blog (which can also be pretty mentally taxing). The thing is, the people I know who are artists are always artists. They are creating or doing the work needed to prepare to create or revising or something.
And I want to believe those people who say they want to create because I believe anybody can create art. If art is, as I believe it is, a completely personal and subjective experience–both for the creator and the person who experiences it–then anybody can make something if they want to. So what keeps these people from parking it in the chair and getting it done? It won’t write or paint or compose or sculpt itself, after all.
The quote that opens this post is one of my favorites from Hemingway, who I love and all of us young wannabe writers want to be–drinking whiskey, going on safaris, and traveling the world. This short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, is about a writer who has contracted bad gangrene while on a safari in Africa.
Can we say “semi-autobiographical?” Most critics would argue that this short story was Hemingway working his way through his own anxieties as a writer–something I think I’m doing in my current manuscript.
At any rate, the protagonist and author-in-question, named Harry, is having a bit of an existential meltdown during this portion of the story. He put off writing all of these stories that could have been great, and now–faced with his impending death–he will never have the opportunity to write them. It’s a concern that only an artist would express in his closing moments–something I worry about but we will save that for another time, maybe. But the way I read Harry, I think his excuse is one that is all too common among “almost-artists.” He’s afraid. He’s afraid he doesn’t know enough, or that it won’t be good, or that no one will like it, or that people will judge him.
And that’s bullshit. Art is personal. Write or paint or compose your shit and make it the best way you know how to. Everything else will shake out in its own way.
And yes–calling it shit is not just a lazy curse. I call it that because that’s what it will be–shit. When you or I first write or make anything, it will 100% not be what you want it to be. Learn to have fun with what Anne Lamott would call a “shitty first draft.” And I swear to whatever god or non-god you worship–if you don’t write because you think it will be bad, you don’t understand how it works. It all starts bad.
What gets in your way when you want to create? What excuses do people give you when they say they want to be creative but can’t? What advice do you have for those people?
Next week, I am thrilled to be trekking into the Appalachian Mountains on a writing retreat. I won an artist’s residency in Hot Spring, NC, and I will have no other obligations for the week beyond survival and creation. Look for a full report on the other side!