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Entries in #artists (3)



From the most recent To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast comes Aaron James, who, while talking about the subject of his recent book, made one of the more profound statements about artists and the larger world that I've heard (any transcription errors are mine):

Often the big mistake [artists make] is not realizing how grateful they should be to larger society for giving them the gift of creative opportunity, without which they would have never achieved or been successful. I mean, artists who have to fend for food all the time, or fend off foreign armies, or whatever, aren't going to get a lot of art done. But many of them, when they are successful and produce great artworks, everyone's very grateful for that, and then they sort of just take credit for it, you know, I did it. And then they think even more should be coming to them, or something like that, [in addition to] the great benefits that they've already got.

I usually do feel pretty grateful to get to do what I do in the way that I do it, but after this gentle reminder I'm overflowing--thank you to everyone, especially the people whom I don't usually think to thank, from the road builders to the pilots to the food safety inspectors to the nice people who remove our trash. It also makes me think of Obama's much-maligned comment about the collective power of community--and the need to appreciate every level of specialization that makes our world, and our own individual endeavors, possible.

I won't argue that it's the best of all worlds in which we live; I've read too much Voltaire for that. But in the spirit of gratitude, I appreciate a whole lot of people these days, people whom, whether they realize it or not, allow me to carry on with my peculiar obsession. I hope to be able to pay it back, or forward, one of these days.


Why Are My Eyes Sad?

Not actually our tree, but still a Swedish Christmas tree.

So I bought a Christmas tree today from an Egyptian guy who had a bunch of them stuck out in the snow right by our house. It's a lovely tree, and it's currently in our apartment, upright, with two cats circling. (After all, not only is it a tree, but it came in with snow that they didn't have to go outside to experience.)

While he was wrapping it up in the tree-netting, though, after we'd discussed the relative merits of our home countries' political systems, he told me he wanted to ask me something.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. "Sure," I told him, preparing to turn down a date.

"Why do you have sad eyes?"

That one wasn't what I expected.

"Well, I don't know," I said finally. "I mean, I'm not actually sad."

"Ah, okay. Some people just have sad eyes. That must be it."

This wasn't the usual "Smile, gorgeous!" that creepy guys like to give women on the street now and then. And he didn't seem like a creepy guy. The conversation drifted to tree technicalities easily, and then I paid for the tree and dragged it home.

But this still begs the question: are my eyes actually sad? No one else has ever told me that. So either everyone has just been protecting me from the horrible truth, or maybe I really did look sad. The possibility that the young, lonely, cold guy who spoke no Swedish was trying to prolong the conversation and hit on me notwithstanding (my husband and my father, I know well, will pick this option), what could be causing sad-eyes?

1) Allergies. Definitely a contributing factor.

2) I'm deeply depressed but have no idea.

3) I was actually a little bummed about something just before I bought the tree and it showed on my face.'s number three (with a touch of number one). I didn't realize that it was going to be obvious, but as I walked from the mall to the tree place, I had just realized why I've been so reluctant to get to work this week. After a wonderfully productive retreat with the Stockholm Writers' Group, I now have a full draft. This will be (knock wood) one of the last full drafts of this book I ever write. In the new year, I'll send it off to my agent, and I hope with all sincerity that she'll then take it away to be sold.

In short, while the rest of you might get to enter this imagined world sooner rather than later, my own period of intimacy with it is almost done. For six years and change, I've been at it, off and on–but mostly on. I've spent so much time with these characters that they are as real to me as many famous real people out there I hear about but have never met. More real, even. And just now, just as I'm getting things to where I am really happy with what the book is and does, I have to send it away. Maybe it's kind of like sending a kid to preschool just after you get them toilet trained. And I do joke that I'll tell our kids (when they exist) that this book is their older sibling.

Jokes and comparision to kids aside, I know I can't be the first writer or artist to feel this way near the culmination of a large project. I'm actually pretty bad at finishing projects in general. I took a personality test once that gave you indices of how driven you supposedly are by all of these theoretically-motivating factors. And guess what I got for "Completing Things," or whatever it was called. Yes, that's right: 0. That was my lowest score, even lower than "Neatness." (Swear to god, Mom, it really was!) It's probably tied into why I write novels vs shorter pieces in the first place. This way, I get to sit with these characters and their world for years.

I wish for all possible success with this book, I really do. But it's still bittersweet to give it up.


On the Value of Depression

One evening, after our workshop let out, four of us from my MFA fiction cohort crammed into a car to drive through the Caldecott tunnel. We were discussing class, probably discussing our classmates and their work--I don't remember the specifics. What I do remember, however, is one of us saying that a particular classmate was neurotic. "Of course he is," someone else said, indignant. "We all are. We're writers."

I would be lying if I said that there weren't times when I've wondered whether being mentally healthy is a liability in my chosen path, that maybe I've gotten myself to a point where I'm too sane for greatness. 

I don't think it's just that we expect extremes to go together, whether extremes of talent, personality, behavior, or whatever, even though that's clearly part of it. Culturally we are far more likely to forgive, or at least overlook, eccentricities if they come packaged along with incredible talent. (What, Mr. Jobs? You want a genetic background of that sushi you just ate? You got it.) I think we've come to demand it as a method of artistic authentication. And when I talk about writers, I'm not talking about the Malcolm Gladstones or Michael Pollans or Jonah Lehrers of the world, although that group's clearly been having its own problems lately, problems indicative of a whole other batch of fallacies about writing and ideas and public personas (but that's another post). I'm talking about the fiction writers, the painters, the singers, the actors--David Foster Wallace,  Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger. Go back a little further and there's Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Vincent VanGogh. And so on. I could go on for quite awhile.

And it's dangerous.

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