Scene: A small theater in the early morning hours. A bank of empty seats faces a scuffed black stage framed by red velvet curtains. A single spotlight illuminates the stage, raised three feet above the main floor. Dust motes dance in the air.
Enter a WOMAN with shoulder-length brown tresses. She takes the stage, a thick book in hand.
Woman: [clears throat] He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, and rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, will yearly on the vigil feast with his neighbors and say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars—
Ghost: You didn’t write that, you know.
Woman: Huh? [WOMAN turns around, scanning backstage] Of course not.
Ghost: You’re reciting it like you did.
Woman: It’s fitting to read Shakespeare aloud, given the setting. Who are you?
Ghost: A ghost.
Woman: Where are you? [Turns to scan the empty seats]
Ghost: In your mind. That’s how I know you’ve never been in a fist fight, let alone a war. Saint Crispian’s day, indeed. Why not read something more your speed?
Woman: Maybe you’re right. [WOMAN shrugs, flips through book] To be… or not to be, that is the question—
Ghost: Oh, please. You have about as much in common with a mad Danish prince as Miley Cyrus.
Woman: [Grumbles and turns pages] O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Woman: [Eyes narrowed, her rapid page turning rips the onion skin paper] There would have been a time for such a word, tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. [WOMAN pauses, anticipating GHOST’s interruption, then continues] Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Ghost: You didn’t write it, but it sounds familiar.
Woman: Gee, thanks. So, why are you here?
Ghost: It’s two-thirty in the morning and you’re pacing on the stage of an empty playhouse reading Shakespeare. Cue the ghost. You tell me: why am I here?
Woman: To be or not to be… [WOMAN shrugs, sets down the book] I want to be that good. I want to make something that gives people chills when they hear it in the dark.
Ghost: You want fame? Adoration?
Woman: Not exactly. I want to get it right. With one sentence in a hundred, maybe two, I really hit it. I can feel it when I’ve made something good.
Woman: Those moments are few and far between. I’ve received so many rejections that I could wallpaper my house. If I was really good, wouldn’t I have an agent or a book deal? A essay in Modern Love?
Ghost: The best writers in the world are rejected thousands of times, just like you. Are they really untouchable geniuses? Or maybe they wanted it more than you? Enough of the bard. Where’s your material?
Woman: Not ready yet.
Ghost: So, how’s anyone going to hear you?
Woman: Point taken.
Ghost: I mean it. Get to it, girl. We could both use some sleep. [WOMAN scrapes the toe of her shoe on the stage] Well?
Woman: I’m capable, but it’s harder than I thought. That’s a sign, isn’t it? I write for hours and my work is still filled with cavities of stupid and mean. Some nights, it feels like I’m so close, like if I could just throw off this heavy thing, I could fly… [WOMAN steps to center stage under the spotlight] You have dreams growing up —everyone has to be good at something, right?— and this was it for me. But being good isn’t enough. Maybe I’ll never be anything more than a woman on an empty stage reciting someone else’s words because they’re always better than her own.
Ghost: That’s only true if you don’t write them.
Woman: What if they’re never worthy?
Ghost: I guess that’s up to you.
Like most high-performing self-made individuals, I believed writing would be easy when I finally did it my way. My Midwest work ethic also said that I would find success through diligence, like in my daytime career. I mean success in the sense of a progression of upwardly mobile milestones, such as title, salary and responsibility — things tangible to others besides me. I only needed to show my work to be discovered, and thus, promptly rewarded with a book deal that would transform me into Stephen King or Anne Rice.
In preparation, I read books on craft and the philosophy of writing. I attended workshops, submitted work to literary journals and applied for residencies, grants and fellowships. I read contemporary authors, something I had never done in college, and got to know some of them personally. In the last four years, I laid the groundwork, waiting for a defining moment, some sort of coronation that conferred a title: Writer. I didn’t realize that, in my actions to become a writer, I was making myself into an artist. (And that I would write and edit more drafts of my work than I had imagined possible.)
To me, the title of Artist was equivalent to mystic celebrity. Artists had styles, grappled with taboo issues, rattled off statements of purpose, experimented with processes and implements that no one has considered before. They worked all night. They appeared on magazine covers and event listings. They had fans and websites. They won commissions. A turn of phrase overheard at a party could inspire a brilliant series of paintings or new book heralded as genius. It looked effortless for them and impossible for most everyone else.
To make a plan that yields an established artistic career as if it were a tin of muffins is unrealistic. There is no formula, no how-to book. You can read a thousand interviews to suss out a common strategy, but all you’ll find is that artists are simply people who absorb what’s around them and are capable of getting lost in it. Their work is rooted in observing, exploring and reinterpreting their experience as embodied beings. They use this process to understand the world, posing questions that many of us don’t stop to ponder, let alone identify. First lost, then found. That’s where the hard part really comes. Artists spend an awful lot of time wading through with no promise of an answer, let alone one others agree is correct or worthy. They allow themselves to be fascinated, obsessed. They ask, they try, they risk, they learn, they share, they repeat.
In between, there is a lot of failure. It’s not easy, not for anyone, including the masters. When, after hundreds of hours spent on a single piece, the artist realizes it is intrinsically flawed, that it will never be born in its current incarnation, that the only way to save the good parts are to pick them out piecemeal and use them elsewhere, or never—but she can’t stop making the art because she learned something in failing—that is hard. The risk and process of failing makes it difficult for some to view art as anything but idle play or a waste of time. After all, if a goalie missed more balls than she deflected or a lawyer lost more cases than she won, would either keep her job?
Like many, I grew up believing in rules, order and safe choices. I was raised to be obedient not expressive. I was not encouraged to challenge the process, empower others besides myself or pursue an artistic voice; I didn’t think the former or latter was possible, frankly. Thus, my greatest challenge as a writer is to ignore the Swiss watch that powers my thinking. My lizard brain doesn’t like tiptoeing through tulips or doubling back on blind alleys. Those activities are not efficient and ultimately distract from a short path to success.
For a long time, I didn’t understand that the diligence my parents drilled into me —the planning, checking and back-checking, the persevering work ethic— doesn’t contradict with an artistic life, but support it. It’s what holds the tiptoeing together rather than restrains its expression, unless I let it. I was under the misconception that “real” artists did far more luxurious exploring, receiving bursts of brilliance on command. They knew which alleys were dead-ends without having to traverse them; to be creative meant already knowing the answer. Imagine my surprise at learning that artists actually use struggle to discover things — that the outcomes often surprise them, that their work comes from training and rigor rather than ease?
Since my re-start as a writer in 2010, I’ve been so focused on establishing legitimacy and success (again, whatever that means) that my practice evolved without me realizing it. My goal —get published— spun off unplanned experiences that helped me develop as an artist. Turns out that, by writing, I became a writer. In four years, I’ve written and self-published a book. I’ve started this blog. I’ve learned spoken performance. I’ve sold a fiction story that will be published this year. These are tangible outputs. Yet, underneath it, writing is the hour equivalent of a part-time job, most of whose activities will never meet the light of day. Am I succeeding or failing? How will I know when I’m there?
I asked myself this throughout our Leadership Tomorrow Arts and Culture Challenge Day earlier this month, which we spent in the Cornish Playhouse (formerly, the Intiman Theater.) Listening to the wisdom and performances of professional artists and arts administrators, it felt like I was still at the beginning. They discussed with confidence the importance of story to leadership, taking us through kinesthetic exercises that illustrated the dynamics of teamwork, creativity and trust. We heard live performances from musicians and writers whose abilities conferred on them the title of Artist. Did someone tell them that they were worthy, or did they just know it? Did any of them feel that they were there yet?
As artists, there is always more to do, not in the sense of winning, but uncovering new territory through both intuition and stumbling in the dark. It also means clarifying one’s perspective. What questions are worth exploring, and what unique stance do we take to yield focus to that questioning? Life is art is life, which becomes more interesting as one’s perspective changes over time. Age and experience supply us with new material, and hopefully, enough vision and fortitude to make something from it. Art can grant us purpose and drive, but we have to risk staking a claim, or it’s useless.
That’s where there is. There is risk. There being in flow. It’s not knowing an answer as much as it is knowing how to explore and translate a question, whether into a play, a sonnet, a glass bowl or a song. There is not forcing the process to happen in a given time. It means accepting failure in plumbing these depths when impenetrable bedrock forces us to find another way. There is the pure love of making, whether someone applauds or agrees or not, whether you get picked second instead of first every single time—or not.
In a risk-averse world that prizes completion and consensus, artistic pursuit –and failure– can seem pointless, perhaps even shaming. We fear being fired, losing friends, getting dumped, being laughed at, making public mistakes and being wrong. We sometimes fear living as much as dying. We fear not knowing. It’s a squalid mess in which to find inspiration, unless we see how fertile the squalid mess actually is and fearlessly embrace it. Artist, know thyself.
When I entered the Cornish Playhouse, I saw a cover of CityArts on display featuring Tomo Nakayama, lead singer of Grand Hallway. I was first introduced to his hauntingly beautiful music at a Hugo House Literary Series event a couple years ago. That weekend, when I ordered a latte at my neighborhood coffee house, I realized he had also been my barista for quite some time.
Since then, I’ve watched Tomo’s talent unfold into a host of new venues, including Lynn Shelton’s latest movie, Touchy Feely, both as an actor and a singer. Now focusing on his solo career, he’s making an album and touring while balancing other jobs, a common phenomenon for most working artists. (Consider how many gigs has Stephen King worked in his lifetime.) Each time we chat, I feel proud to see a truly talented and hardworking local artist make good. It gives me hope.
Does Tomo think he’s there? I bet not. Something about there indicates an end, and there’s never an end for artists, just evolution. There holds a false mystique, like once you’re an artist you don’t have to work anymore, or that art is effortless, something that every writer, musician, painter or sculptor that I know continues to prove otherwise. Being an artist doesn’t mean you get to take a vacation, but actually work that much harder—deeply, searingly, achingly. I suppose the difference between art and having a j-o-b is that you don’t mind when it keeps you up until two a.m. In fact, you’re so energized by what you discovered, that you feel exhilarated rather than drained. Then you go back to work the next day.
Last week when friends asked about my writing, I found myself explaining why I don’t have a book after traveling and working towards it for the last two years. The resulting 70,000 words may form the basis of future essays and stories, or they may simply be necessary tulip tiptoeing. I often return to the nearly-completed draft manuscript (a series of essays collectively titled The Year of the Tiger) to borrow passages. It’s a touchstone rather than a polished gem. I cringe while reading some paragraphs but feel compelled to use others. One or two sentences in a hundred are good, and I’m okay with that.
This back-and-forth sewing of material is certainly not what I had planned to produce, but from it I’ve forged a writing practice. I’ve learned to leave some things behind. When I feel relief rather than regret, at doing so, it confirms that they were not for me. Other times, I lift up a rock that I had passed by a thousand times only to unearth something beneath it that I hadn’t known was there. These smaller treasures are turning out to be worth more to me right now.
As I return to my writing each day, I’m finding stronger themes beginning to emerge, particular viewpoints not born from a static plan but the ability to leverage past experience to inform the questions I’m interested in and ready to explore today. It’s less a rule book and more of a florid tip-toe-tulipy dance, which is to say that, while I haven’t arrived, I’m getting there.