Musings on Artistic Integrity

Another one from July 2008. Still importing the old posts into this newer bloggy blog.

largeThis morning, I read this quote on writer friend Linda’s blog:

“You practice an art to make your soul grow, not to make money or to become famous. And this would include singing in the shower or dancing to the radio or also drawing a caricature of your best friend, or whatever—all this makes your soul grow. And you meet a person who’s done that, whether successfully or not, and you sense a larger soul.” —Vonnegut

Linda and I have been discussing the importance of artistic integrity in recent emails, as we both go through the process of pursuing publication for our book manuscripts. So this quote, about how the deeper purpose is to make your soul grow, just absolutely hit the spot.

I think that writers, possibly more than other types of artists, are confronted with a lot of other people’s opinions before, during and after working on any piece of writing. Critique groups, workshops, classes, readers (as in those who read first drafts and offer commentary), feedback from contests, agents and editors making editorial suggestions, and so on. It seems endless.

And a lot of the time, this is good. You get a different perspective, are shown things you might be blind to, gain insight and new, sometimes ingenious ideas.

But it also can be overwhelming. For one thing, I think it’s important to choose readers/critiquers/etc wisely when possible, people who will help you realize your vision of the piece, rather than those who want to impose their own. And it’s important to discern which suggestions feel right and which don’t.

And that can be a lot harder than it seems. Especially when there’s all this input coming from everywhere. And so many rules, whether in these groups and workshops, classes, or in writing books and magazines. You might read this or that is harder to sell (whether it’s which point of view the story’s in, a stylistic thing, word count, chapter length, subject matter that is or is not a hot topic). It can be daunting. It can be like trying to follow ever-changing fashion rules (which personally has always disgusted me to an extent). It can also steamroll right over that individual spark that fuels creativity in the first place. And when it comes from “authority figures” such as agents or editors, it can be even harder to sort out.

But I think ultimately, the artist or the writer has to be their own authority. I think sometimes compromise is the kiss of death. Yeah, that sounds a little drastic and probably is, but life is short, and it’s way, way too easy to get caught up in what others will think, and I think that doing that is a sort of soul-denial on some level.

I’ve definitely fallen prey to it myself. Who hasn’t? I find myself re-thinking some changes I made to my memoir. Some I absolutely think were right on, insightful suggestions. I think there were things I originally sort of skirted around, that got deeper with each revision. And more clearly and succinctly described. Strangely, with editing, some parts got more raw, and I like that. There were a lot of non-essentials and extraneous bits in the first version, almost fluff, and I’m glad I axed it out. On the other hand, there are some things I’m not satisfied with, some things I took out that I loved, that I feel the story isn’t complete without. It’s been awhile too, so if I add them back in now, and re-read it over, I might have a clearer take on what truly adds to the story, and what doesn’t.

I guess what I’m saying is I want to make my book the absolute best I can make it, in my vision, what intuitively in my guts feels like the truest and deepest expression of the story I most want to tell, not necessarily the story someone else wants to hear. I think THAT is where the soul growth comes from, a dedication to the real inner truth.

It got me thinking about who we write for. A writing teacher I love used to say, “We write to be read,” which I think is true. For two amazing years I was part of the best writing group. Oh I could write volumes on how funny and deep and awesome those times were, some of my best memories ever, and something that I think changed everyone who was part of it, in a beautiful way. I was so prolific during those years, writing two hours every day, and I was definitely partly writing for them, which was great because this group welcomed everything real. It helped me get over a fear of being truthful about difficult things. It helped me get over a fear of reading difficult things. In that group, we laughed and cried and shared. That group was a great big permission slip to be as candid as humanly possible. It was sort of like unconditional artistic love, that group. And so yeah, I wrote for them. There was one woman who had the hugest, heartiest, loudest laugh. And I often felt like I wrote with her laugh in the back of my mind. Which was great – and that was great, because I let my humor come through, dark or otherwise and sort of helped that blossom in my writing, and helped me find irony and humor in lots of things, and be free to express.

I think we do write (or create) to be read or seen or heard or understood, so in a sense we write for others, but I also do think that we have to write for ourselves first. So I really liked that Vonnegut quote, the whole soul growth thing, I think that is possibly the only important rule to follow as a writer. I also like that the quote pays attention to small, daily acts of art and creativity as well. The playful things. The things that aren’t for any serious project or pursuit, like singing in the shower. I think I’d say that anything done with passion falls into that soul growth category, and is a good thing to remember.

So, those are some thoughts for this Friday morning, all relevant to figuring out my next move in life…more on that in later blogs.

Currently Listening:
“Haven’t You Heard?” – Jeff Buckley. Funny, this song always reminds me of a great moment in that writing group I mentioned. This song, which I love, during probably the most poignant, passionately heartbroken, difficult and rich summer of my life, started a fight between my sister and I, and later the next day, a huge fight with my mom. I wrote about that summer, this song and the fight and read it to said group, and one of the other writers told me that I had inspired her to feel great heights of lust and then rage in a matter of paragraphs, and that was exactly the sort of thing that made me write with those ladies in mind, that inspired me to write most passionately from the core of the soul.

4 thoughts on “Musings on Artistic Integrity

  1. Hey there. :) A number of things you say here ring true with me not only in the context of writing, but in other artistic and soul celebrating aspects of my life. You and I for the most part write in VERY different genres, but at the core of our writing it sees like we have a lot of common purpose. Your comment “I think we do write (or create) to be read or seen or heard or understood, so in a sense we write for others, but I also do think that we have to write for ourselves first” and exploration of who we really write for really made me think about my own writing goals and practices. Would I still write if somehow I knew that no one would ever read anything that passed from my fingers to paper or keyboard for the rest of my life? I don’t know. Part of me feels like just being able to take what’s inside, and giving it a tangible form is worth it in itself, but on the other hand there’s a part of me that feels like it’s a waste to put so much energy into a pursuit that will never be appreciated by others. There’s a powerful drive to make them see, feel, and know what it’s like to have shared these emotions and experiences yet at the same time, often find myself a bit resentful of poorly reasoned peer editing comments, or people who read and then make efforts to impose their own vision on my own. Don’t get me wrong, a person who gives good honest feedback with suggestions to help writer and project grow is a WONDERFUL thing; it’s when a session or two into the editing that I feel like I’m no longer even writing the same story, world, or character that tends to rub me the wrong way. Perhaps I’m being a bit unrealistic here, but in an ideal situation marketing and artistic creation should never be likened to one another. Yes yes, I know people have bills and obligations to SELL and meet deadlines but since when have either of THOSE things ever been a qualifier for beauty? In the end, it feels like whether writing a memoir, a game, or a work of fantasy fiction it’s best to write for life. If you’re not capturing some aspect of it, what is the point? Write for you, because you are the creator. Within every writer is an ocean of infinite untold stories; if they were not meant to be shared we would never pick up that pen or sit down at that keyboard. I believe that writing should be done for the world because stories are meant to be celebrated and appreciated. The best editors are going to be those who do cherish your story, are eager to see it flourish and will help you reach the depths of your ocean for others to see and touch. They are going to give you to feedback you need to bring your vision into perfect clarity for all to behold and leave them feeling as if they have lived part of another person’s life. I’m dividing this response up into two parts for the sake of organization.

  2. Oddly, although it doesn’t have any direct link to creative writing, this post resonates a bit with my own recent experiences with dancing. Back in London I had decided to go out to a club (not a common thing for me at all) so I could experience the local people and music. In the beginning I was out on the dance floor and I barely moved. I was bound by what I thought I shouldn’t do. No one looked at me. Later I moved with the song, but it was awkward and lacking passion because I danced how I thought I was supposed to. A few people looked my way recognizing an effort, but quickly moved on. Eventually I closed my eyes, embraced the sound, saw spirit moving freely and passionately with the song, and I began to move my body how I wanted to, and people responded. Mind you, over the years I’d become insecure about my appearance and if anyone smiled at me – man or woman – I was more likely to assume they were laughing AT me, or mocking. When I began to notice some of the women’s (and a few men’s) lips turning upward in the club while watching me, I assumed that they were snickering at me for my crazy little dance, but I was having fun. I gave a mental shout of “Stuff them! This feels really bloody good, and I am more alive right now that I have been in YEARS!” closed my eyes, and dove deeper into the song. Minutes later I was forcefully interrupted (well OK not forcefully… more someone took my hand but it hit me like a semi- truck), by a woman I didn’t know pulling me into a dance with her. That sort of thing has never happened to me before so I was like “Holy shit!” but I maintained the “soul motion” with the music and we fell into step with each other twisting, spinning, turning, and whatever else came to mind. After her there was another stranger… and another… and another… and then one person grabbed my hand and (quite literally) dragged me off the dance floor to ask me if I was in London to meet someone. It didn’t quite completely hit me that these people were impressed by me, and were flirting with me until that point. Other people would have no doubt picked up on it sooner, but it just… wasn’t within my frame work of the reality. The experience of having people vying for my attention had been tucked away in a cardboard box within my mind labeled “technically possible, but not in your lifetime.” So it took moment to comprehend. I was free. I was expressive. I was celebrating my SOUL through the act of dancing for me and no one else. People responded, and wanted to share in it. Writing really isn’t so different. The first person you should write for is YOU, because it’s your spirit that’s on the paper just as it was mine burning on the dance floor – the more bindings your place on it the less it will be revealed – the less it will be appreciated. Creative writing, like any form of unfettered expression, is a language of souls and it’s the writer’s ability to connect with their own and articulate their vision that defines the not only the process of creating your art but the audience and who will be moved by it. Money and “Hot topics” are not a factor in this. I’d have been like me forcing myself to do the Macarena that night. Mind you, people might not know you exist prior to exposing themselves to your craft, but once they have I tend to believe that this is what is most important. Still, popularity is not synonymous with the power of expression. I believe that a masterfully written story written on ANY TOPIC will be able to move your audience if you are fluent in the language of souls. Sadly, sometimes you have to curtail ‘fluency’ to open others up to listening in the first place. Sure, with this dancing example, it might SEEM like my goal was adoration and popularity, but it wasn’t. I only focus on the fact that people were paying attention to me, because it was the dance that moved them to do so. IT would not have happened without the dance, and writing (for me) is all about moving people though revealing parts of the soul. Okay… I’m babbling here. Just write for you, and make it true, alive, tragic, and fabulous as you can. :) – Justin

  3. Great post, friend. I just LOVE that Vonnegut quote, came across it in researching my creativity sermon and reading through my notes, it just so resonated. Glad it gave you food for fodder! I also loved your observation near the end that we should be playful, think about the small random acts of creativity we conduct all day, down to such details as to whether to paint our toenails green for a change. Peace, Linda

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