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?

Decision Time

Well, I’ve made my decision. In case it has not been abundantly clear thus far in my blog, I have decided to leave the world of academia and pursue being a writer. It’s been a decision a long time in the making, but I finally said it out loud to someone within the department at my university, and it suddenly became very real.

After I announced my decision to leave academia to this person in my department, I was surprised to find that on that same day– wholly unrelated and unprompted– a number of people asked me about what I was doing in the upcoming academic year. While I told each person who asked, it solidified more and more for me that I am switching careers, cities, states, and a whole lot of other terrifying things.

Retrieved from photobucket.com

Retrieved from photobucket.com

So, the plan is to move back to the South, get a job doing something to pay the bills, and work on writing and getting published. A vague plan, I realize (and also obviously so, given the brevity of this post), but I figure the only way to keep myself from going crazy is to take things one step at a time. I am both excited and terrified, but I also feel remarkably (and rather surprisingly) at peace with my decision. The only thing I’m not sure about is how to get through this next month of hellish work with anything close to motivation since I know I will be leaving. However, I like to finish strong and finish well, and my Victorian class is my delight, so that at least will be no trouble. The rest of it, day by day. I’ll get there, and then– forward!

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Of Dying Gauls and Creativity

Last weekend, I went to Washington, D.C., to view a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Art: The Dying Gaul, a sculpture on loan from Italy. It is a marble sculpture from the 1st or 2nd century of a warrior who has been fatally wounded and is experiencing his last moments of life. The sculpture has only been out of Italy once before since its creation some two thousand years ago, and that was when Napoleon borrowed it for a bit. In D.C., it was displayed in the rotunda of the National Gallery, right behind the Mercury fountain and between two massive columns– fitting for a Roman sculpture, I think. When I went, the fountain was surrounded by sculpted azaleas, like pastel bonsais, right behind which rested The Dying Gaul.

Azaleas in the Rotunda

Azaleas in the Rotunda

This post will get to a point soon– but I have to describe my awe at this sculpture before any of the rest of this will make sense. The sculpture is actually believed to be a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original even older than itself. The Roman copy was somehow lost or buried centuries ago, and was only rediscovered in an excavation sometime around the 1600s. So, knowing all that, here it is:

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul

As far as the actual sculpture goes, I have very little to say. I think it speaks for itself (in volumes) regarding nobility, bravery, war, loss, resignation, and defiance– so I won’t presume to speak for it. What I do want to talk about is the notion of originality and art.

image

What makes something art? What constitutes an original idea? People always say “there is no such thing as an original idea,” like it’s a terrible thing, like every idea in the world is just a recycled version of something older, that nothing is ever new and genuine– like this is a bad shameful thing due to people lacking creativity. And maybe there is “nothing new under the sun”; things do seem to come in cycles, repeating history and stories in seemingly endless ways. There are, however, two ways I disagree with that. One, if it is impossible to create anything new, that certainly does not negate the value or goodness or art which is created. Two, the idea that there are no more original ideas implies that there was (once upon a time) an original Idea from which all others sprung.

It’s about to get real serious.

So, first off, we have The Dying Gaul. This incredible sculpture– far too beautiful and exquisitely painful even to attempt to put into words– is a copy. Not an original. A copy. Is every copy of an ‘original’ so beautiful? Certainly not, but The Dying Gaul in its turn inspired countless artists who painted or sculpted figures in similar positions because they found the lines– not to mention the emotions– of the Roman sculpture so inspiring. Just because something has been done before, just because a love story has happened at some point in the past, just because a tale of bravery in battle has been told– none of this means that we should stop telling stories, stop creating art, because someone somewhere at some time has done something similar. A new war story does not detract from an old one. A new sculpture does not negate the value of an older one. Can you ever have too many tales of goodness, truth, courage, resilience, redemption? Maybe plot points are similar (like myths of so many cultures, not to mention other stories told and written down over the centuries). Maybe lines of sculptures and paintings are inspired by others. Maybe one dance step is remarkably like another, one swell of music reminds you of another string of notes.

However, that doesn’t mean none of them are “originals.” They were inspired by each other– a reaction against, a move in support of, or something else. Isn’t that what links us together as humans? Isn’t that why art so often transcends nationality, race, class, age, time period? It speaks to something deeper, some thing that makes us human, that makes us interdependent as I think we were always meant to be. Which leads me to point #2.

image

So let’s say there are no “original ideas” anymore. If that’s the case, there still was once an original Idea, which all subsequent ideas are imitations or copies of, inspired by in some way. Which leads me back to the question: why do so many myths share so much? Because I believe there is an original Truth, from which all other truths derive. There is good and there is evil, and I believe the battle between them is what has driven the world for longer than we can imagine.

Told you it was getting real serious.

So if we say there are no original ideas but only copies of something from the long long ago, aren’t we all original individuals? I know there are those who would disagree, but I believe there has never been– in the history of the universe (that’s right, I said it)– an individual exactly like you (or me). We are each uniquely made, uniquely gifted, and I think that this uniqueness– this originality– is what makes our work, our art, our creations, our stories, our selves, original. Maybe the idea is “recycled” but what we bring to it as individuals is not; our genuine selves (see my last post for more on that) are what make what we do, new.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

-John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Gothic Fiction and Zombies and Other Stuff

I started writing this post in the airport on my way to an academic conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, sleep deprivation and thinking better of it, made me wait until after the conference to write this, as what actually happened is likely to be much more interesting than my own anxieties leading up to the conference. I’ve never attended an academic conference before– I’ve attended plenty of lectures but never a weekend devoted to furthering literature in academia. And not only was I attending one, but I was to be a presenting panelist at my first.

For those of you who don’t know, academic conferences consist of students and professors from multiple universities who gather in one location to read papers they have written on a particular subject. (I know that description makes you all want to drop everything and run off to attend such excitement.) Conferences are often organized by theme or literary time period– or even genre– and papers presented follow suit. This particular conference followed the theme of Mardi Gras (most appropriately, given that it is the weekend before said event). More specifically, this conference followed the idea of masks and disguises in literature throughout history. My own paper dealt with how the ideals– and adherents– of the French Revolution crept into England in disguise in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the literary reaction to that. My paper was more specifically concerned with gothic fiction and its use of disguise and subterfuge, particularly as found in this little obscure gothic novel by Isabella Kelly, entitled The Ruins of Avondale Priory, for anyone who might be interested.

Image

“The Cemetery Entrance” by Caspar David Friedrich

I was anxious going into this conference that it would all be theoretical and a bunch of people living and speaking in their heads. There was some of that, to be sure, but there was also a refreshing amount of papers involving the real and concrete. The first panel I attended dealt with literature in Bangladesh and Libya, and how writers in both countries have been forced at times to conceal or censor their own works due to the political climate. In Libya, before Qaddafi fell from power, any criticism of the regime or its ideology had to be masked and disguised because it meant death for the writer otherwise. Similarly, many poets in Bangladesh who publish their poetry through traditional publishers must censor themselves, but they have more freedom with what they write when they self-publish their poems. I was both awed and impressed by the candor of these presentations and by how much they encouraged grounding oneself in reality and making oneself aware of what is happening in the rest of the world.

Whether in academics or just life in general, it is remarkably dangerous to be so disconnected from the reality most people live in, that you make broad generalizations about people, about politics, about religion, etc. In class the other evening, a peer mentioned how Christianity mattered nothing to her– and she barely caught herself when she initially said that it no longer mattered to anyone in the modern world. Though universities may be brimming with people who claim neither Christianity nor any other religion, that is a small slice of society. Even if it were not a fact that a majority of the world still believes in a god of some kind, to disregard the past– and persistent– influence of Christianity on literature (let alone on any other aspect of culture) would be a mistake. It has guided the development of literature over the past few millennia; whether that literature has arisen in support or defense of it, or against it, is not important. It is– whether one likes it or not– foundational to the way literature and culture has evolved. Even modernists must understand why texts they study say what they do about religion– it is in many ways reactionary to all that has come prior, and if we do not understand our links to the past, how can we understand the present or hope to move into the future?

Image

“The Ancient of Days” by William Blake

I think my tangent may have just become the main point of this post.

But back to the idea of people living in their heads in academia– the presentations grounded in reality, I enjoyed very much. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on the poetry of Kabir Humayun, as the presenter discussed his pleasure at being able to combine his own creative work with his scholarship (which is generally discouraged, unfortunately). This is not to say theoretical work isn’t useful and important– of course it is– but at some point, I believe it should be connected to reality. Perhaps this is just the pragmatist in me. Every time I found myself swimming in theory in one of the presentations, my mind harkened back to the other conferences/conventions I’ve been to in the past for science fiction and fantasy. Such conventions included panels on the messiest ways to kill zombies, and debunking myths concerning possible apocalypse triggers (as well as which such triggers are nearer to possibility than we might like to think).

Not that all panels should be fun and games, obviously; there are also real, serious issues that literature deals with as well. The same is true– I argue– of genre fiction. Just as genre fiction can be read for for pure pleasure, enjoyment, and as romping good tales, so too can traditionally canonical literature– “classics,” if you will. They can also both address serious issues, though the way in which they address them may vary. For that is what constitutes good fiction– stories remembered and enjoyed long after the pages close. Whether that memory is simply of a bloody good time and/or of truths we will carry with us as we move through our own lives and into other books we read (which, after all, we will always judge by what we have read in the past that has stuck with us– for good or ill): things that have stuck with us, things we have carried, as individuals and as a society.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe

That may be a bit dramatic for an entry title, but it does rather reflect my state of mind on Wednesdays this semester. The title is taken from a nursery rhyme of sorts about the days of the week, which is largely irrelevant to this post but which you can read here if you’re interested (http://www.rhymes.org.uk/mondays_child.htm). The weekday of your birth certainly doesn’t determine your character, of course, but this line from the rhyme always gets stuck in my head on Wednesdays because it’s the day of the week where I do feel somewhat full of woe– or at least full of conflicting emotions.

So, to explain my current attitude on Wednesdays: Tuesday nights, I have a class on Victorian literature, which happens to be one of my very favorite eras to study. So every Tuesday night, I get incredibly excited to talk about what I’ve read for the week; last night, it happened to be Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which is– in my exalted opinion– the greatest, most beautiful elegy about grief ever written. Even though it is a three-hour class, we scarcely touched on even one-quarter of what I wanted to talk about purely because there is so much to discuss that it’s impossible to compress it all into three hours, try as we might. So every Tuesday night, I’m left a bit befuddled by how the passion I have in class for this type of literature, impacts (or should impact) my career goals.

On the other side of Wednesday, however, lurks my Thursday evening class, which I feel is representative of the very worst of academia. We’re studying a particular literary/cultural critic– Slavoj Žižek– who seems to make it his goal to take the apparent meaning of any work of art (books, films, paintings, etc.) and turn it on its head, saying it actually means the complete opposite– that is, if it means anything at all. Although I love dissecting artifacts to get at the heart of what they say to me, I can’t get behind a critic whose only goal from what I’ve read so far is to destroy and tear down supposed ideas of truth embedded in all these artifacts. Of course, this is just one critic and one class, but it is symptomatic of what I see as a larger problem within academia: do we study literature to enjoy and share it, to seek its truths that surpass era and genre? Or do we study literature to break it down into so many pieces that our own intelligence is thereby somehow elevated by destroying someone else’s work, and by evacuating all artistic control and intent of the work’s creator? You can clearly guess which side of academia I fall on.

So today I’m torn, as I’m always torn on Wednesdays, between my passion for a particular era of literature and my desire to create stories of my own. Neither teaching nor storytelling are less important than the other. In a society that is increasingly cynical– though that’s a whole other post– we desperately need both professions to show that there still is truth, as there still is goodness in the world, which I struggle with myself at times to believe. The question isn’t which profession is more noble or better or more realistic that I will obtain a job in– the odds of finding a good tenure-track job with a Ph.D. in English seem remarkably similar to the odds of getting oneself published– but the question is, which I feel more called to do.

the-decameron-john-william-waterhouse

“The Decameron” by John William Waterhouse

I know, I know– why can’t I do both? I don’t like doing anything halfway; I tend to throw myself into things deep-end first, which hasn’t always worked out so well in certain aspects of my life, but I don’t like to do it any other way. There are plenty of people who can divide their attention in this way and do it all, and beautifully. Whenever I try to do that, I feel like I’m cheating; it’s all or nothing for me (for good or ill). So there’s no lovely and stirring conclusion to today’s post– just some meandering thoughts on storytelling and academia and what my own place is within all of that.