On the Vulnerability of the Artist

A few days ago, I read an article discussing how once a book is released into the world, it is no longer the author’s. It becomes subject to critics and readers, who make their own judgments and assumptions about the text. And while this is often remarkably exciting for the author, it is also often destructive and painful when that response is not all that we hope it will be.

With an upcoming book release looming in the back of my mind, this has been often in the forefront of my thoughts. Because writing is quite frequently one (or the only) thing I feel confident about in my life (don’t worry, this post will not turn into a therapy session discussing the ins and outs and all-arounds of that Pandora’s box), it’s a remarkably vulnerable and naked feeling to be preparing to send my work out into the world and hope people see in it the same beauty and pain and excitement that I do.

Letting other people read my writing always makes me feel a bit like this.

But such is the artist’s life, right? As badly as I want to share these worlds I have created with other people, because I want other people to love them as much as I do, I also know that in opening up myself and my self-created worlds, I open them to all readers and all comments: good, negative, indifferent, and even cruel. This is nothing new in the history of the world I’m facing, I’m well aware, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s terrifying to be that vulnerable– with complete strangers you may never meet as much as with your own family members.

Because as much as I want to share these amazing characters that I have gotten to know and love as I’ve been writing them, there’s also a part of me that wants so badly to protect them from any kind of negative reception (no one can please everybody, or so I’ve heard). And let’s be honest, I’m also quite interested in protecting myself from hurtful comments, especially when it seems increasingly easy to bash someone’s life work in a review from behind a computer screen without a second thought.

The other twist in Signs: Joaquin Phoenix is a writer who just read a scathing review of his latest novel.

But then, right on time, I read this quote from Madeleine L’Engle: “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” To which I can only say:

The Rock needs no explanation.

Wise woman, that. It’s worth the risk to share and be vulnerable with another human being. It has to be, or else what’s the point of all this anyway?

Blurred Lines between Inspiration and Infringement

It’s a bad day for artistic creativity and expression.

A jury has found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke guilty of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” in their song “Blurred Lines.” I find this not only appalling, but frightening as well. Copyright is important, let’s not have any confusion about that, but what I would argue is even more important is creativity.

An artwork of any medium (musical, lyrical, visual, written, etc) is utterly interdependent on other artwork. If we take even the briefest of looks at history, it doesn’t take long to figure out that artistic movements occur in reaction to each other. One poetic movement grows out of a previous one, another poetic movement arises as a response to and a reaction against that previous one. The same is true for music and sculpture and visual art.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say there is some similarity between these two songs; whether you want to say that similarity is a bass line, the beat, a mood/tone, whatever, is up to you. Is “Blurred Lines” so similar to “Got to Give it Up” that it should be accused of plagiarism rather than simply artistic inspiration? And it’s not about the money that Williams and Thicke will have to pay up for this supposed infringement; it’s about the bloody principle of the thing. What is the line between inspiration and infringement? Or between sharing and stealing creativity? Of course sometimes people outright steal creative works from other people, and that is beyond terrible. But I think what happens far more– and what should be allowed to continue to happen– is that artists are inspired by other artists. They “take something [they] love and build on it.” That quote is from a TED Radio Hour excerpt, which you can listen to here:

http://www.npr.org/2014/06/27/322721353/why-would-more-than-500-artists-sample-the-same-song 

This is the short version of the TED Radio Hour with Mark Ronson, on “What is Original?” and is pretty much all the proof you need. To put it briefly, Ronson explains how Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” is a foundational song, from which a number of artists took inspiration, including: Beastie Boys, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, Kanye West, and plenty of others. In other words, to quote Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Velazquez’s Las Meninas

And a Picasso version of Las Meninas, inspired by Velazquez’s work

There are no original ideas. I feel like that’s a pretty well-established fact. There are unique spins, new combinations, etc, but no one’s going to reinvent the wheel. The wheel exists, and we just put our own spins on it (see what I did there?). So when you have a musician like Taylor Swift try to copyright some phrases from her lyrics including “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989,” we run into a real problem.

Manet’s Olympia….

…. Inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino

There are many great things about the primacy of the individual in our society. This court finding, however, is an example of its dark side. We are so concerned with our individual thoughts and ideas and work that first off, we fail to acknowledge how dependent we are on the artists and thinkers who came before us, and how we couldn’t have come up with any of the thoughts and creative works that we have without those who paved the way, and they could not have come up with anything without the work of those generations before them, and so on and on. And secondly, we fail to share in the community of creativity where others can inspire us, and where we can inspire others to pass on this deeply human drive and desire to create.

Wait up, let me just grab my confidence heels

Wait up, let me just grab my confidence heels

So if you follow me on Twitter @BronwenCarlyle, you’ll probably have already read this story more times than you care to, but I promise I’ll say something about it more than “ermigerd I met a celebrity.” Yesterday when I was flying home to visit my family, I ran into the hockey player Robert Bortuzzo, formerly a Pittsburgh Penguin who just got traded away to St. Louis, which in my opinion is a great loss and a terrible decision for Pittsburgh. But anyway, I happened to share a brief plane ride with him and also managed to snag a picture as proof, since otherwise no one would ever have believed me.

me and bortuzzo

But rather than me gushing on like a giddy schoolgirl (which let’s face it, is how I acted because I was so starstruck), I want to instead talk about confidence and personal appearance and Murphy’s bloody Law.

Very rarely do I leave the house with no makeup on. There are many reasons for that. One, I just like makeup. I enjoy putting it on and I enjoy the way it makes me look and feel. Two, I always feel much more confident when wearing makeup. If I have on a pair of heels and some red lipstick, there is nothing I can’t do. And finally number three, it never fails that if I leave the house without makeup on or just wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt (which I almost never wear out because in the same way that I love lipstick and heels, I also love dresses and jewelry), I will inevitably run into someone I know and someone before whom I would prefer not to be wearing ratty old sweatpants.

So of course when I ran into the NHL hockey player in the airport, I was wearing “airport clothes” or “I’m-tired-and-dehydrated-and-just-want-to-get-home-clothes” and had no makeup on. Which I’ll be honest is why it’s me it took me an entire flight plus ten minutes of deboarding the plane to work up my courage to run up to him and tell him how much I love him and think he is an amazing player and I’m a huge fan and would he take a picture with me. I have a feeling that if I had been wearing lipstick and heels per usual, it would’ve taken me about two minutes to work up my nerve to do all this.

The point of all this is to say that while I love being dressed up, I certainly should not have to be all dressed up to have confidence. When I was relating this story to my best friend, she was quick to point out that even when I’m not wearing my confidence heels, I basically always am. I guess it’s just hard to remember that all the time.

How I generally feel when I’m wearing heels and lipstick

How I generally feel without my makeup armor

The point of all this is to say-well, many things- but thinking especially in terms of my writing, I find myself often wanting to be more like (some) of the characters I create. Thinking of my female characters alone, they are all wearing confidence heels even when they’re not. Even when they’re terrified or insecure or overwhelmed, they have the ability (even if they don’t always use it) to tap into some deep power. Now I don’t want to go all “I am woman hear me roar” but: Rawr.

My female characters are by far my most powerful. And it doesn’t matter if they are wearing sweatshirts or ballgowns or tiaras or sneakers, they are powerful simply because they are powerful. Sometimes it takes a while for them to realize this power but even then, that doesn’t mean they have to change their appearance in any way to look more traditionally feminine (whatever that means, that’s so culturally loaded).

the ever-wise Dita Von Teese again

They are powerful because they believe they are powerful. Here’s to hoping I can learn something from my own creations.