The Purpose of an Artist
I had never read Maya Angelou before this week. I cannot account for this gap in my education, a gap which until Angelou’s passing this past Wednesday had gone mostly unnoticed. I had heard, of course, many of her famous quotes, my favorite being, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” But I had never read so much as a single poem.
Still, I felt the loss the world suffered with Angelou’s death. As the great, boiling cauldron of the Internet overflowed with grief and mourning for this artist, I could not help but feel an echo of the sorrow that others voiced through articles, blogs, and social media posts. This, I thought, is the legacy of an artist and a person who knew how to be in the world. Her sudden absence illuminates the depth and breadth of her imprint on our collective and individual souls and psyche.
Though I was touched by this outpouring of love and recognition for a woman and a writer who clearly influenced so many lives, I was also disheartened by the lemming-like flood of empty lamentations from people who, like me, clearly knew little about Angelou’s life or work. Sandip Roy’s Huffington Post piece, When Maya Angelou Becomes a (Facebook) Status Symbol sums the situation up brilliantly if somewhat cynically. On the other hand, my friend and fellow writer Angela Raines wrote a lovely piece in which she shared a personal story of how Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman had given her courage at a young age. The poem Angela shared gave me my first experience reading Angelou. So, thank you for that, Angela.
Writers, painters, singers, dancers – all artists have the same goal. Though we employ hundreds of mediums and countless voices, we all work to accomplish one thing: to touch peoples’ hearts. Everything we do, we do for that purpose and that purpose alone. Yes, art is something we see or hear, touch, or even taste, but ultimately art is something we feel. The song that makes your heart ache, the painting that makes you long to walk the moors of Ireland, the ballerina’s soaring leap that makes you feel as if you have taken flight … all of these things and an infinite number more exist only to help us access our own emotions and sense of existence. Art is the physical manifestation of the soul. It is a finely crafted reflection of the human experience. It helps us know who we are.
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, last night my beau and I watched (for the second time) a documentary about another artist who touched many people with his life and his work. This Is It is a behind-the-scenes film about the development of what was to be Michael Jackson’s farewell tour, the tour that never was. I was and am a fan of Jackson’s music, but more than his music it was his sense of love and his boundless dedication to his art and to creating an experience for his fans that put me in awe of him as both an artist and a human being. Like all of us, he was flawed, but the feelings he was able to evoke through his art transcended much. Watching the clips of rehearsals, I could not help but be swept up in rolling waves of emotions, both high and low. There are few things that touch me more deeply than watching an artist break open in the attempt to give everything, to capture the raw reality of what it means to be alive, to courageously stand before an audience and deliver a performance that is simultaneously so vulnerable and so powerful that people are moved to tears without even knowing why. This is what Angelou wrote about in her tribute poem for Jackson.
Though I do not yet have the ability to put the quote in the context of her full body of work, I cannot imagine that Angelou ever got it so right as she did when she said that people will forget everything except how you made them feel. I have only realized just now that this is the reason I cannot let go of certain books. Though my recent move forced me to once again cull my library, I have resigned myself to the fact that there are some volumes that I will always carry from place to place. It isn’t necessarily the books themselves, many of which are tattered and torn. It is the aura of experience, of something each one made me feel, that binds me to them. Each one is like a touchstone in my emotional history, too precious to give away.
This is what we seek as writers, as artists – to bestow the gift of deep and lasting experience. That is what Angelou and Jackson
What I’m Writing:
There are few artistic experiences more delightful than being woken in the night by a good idea. Though I have not yet put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I have spent part of the last few days considering just such an idea that arrived, unbidden, at about two in the morning. Happily, I had the good sense to snatch my iPhone from the bedside table and quickly peck out an email to myself on the tiny, glowing keyboard. Idea captured.
Though I am sometimes discouraged that most of my fiction “writing” these days does not involve any actual crafting of sentences, I am encouraged that I am at least able to find time (and the creative energy) to come up with and slowly nurture story ideas. I recently read a great quote (which, despite spending the last twenty minutes on Pinterest has eluded me) that went something like “ninety percent of writing happens before you ever put pen to paper” … or, something like that. (Damn. I wish I could find it.)
I believe that’s true. I believe we spend our whole lives developing – subconsciously and then, one glorious day, consciously – the stories we must tell. Each day of our lives goes into the making. Though I would like to be closeted with my ideas and vast stretches of free (and uninterrupted) time to write, I am content at this stage to be collecting my thoughts, making notes, mulling ideas. I know that this is all part of the process. I realize that it cannot (must not) last forever, but I am also not so anxious that I feel I must rush through this stage of creation. Already I have latched onto and then discarded dozens of story ideas. Each time, I save the good bits and work them into the next iteration.
So, though I am not engaging in the physical aspect of writing, I am still working on my writing. I am reading. I am learning. I am developing ideas. It’s all good.
What I’m Reading:
Having finished (mere hours before our meeting) my book club’s latest pick, Finding Colin Firth, I had the pleasure this morning of selecting my next read. There is something so delicious about choosing a book to read. I have at least a dozen contenders sitting on bookshelves and bureaus around the house, to the task wasn’t an easy one, but in the end I decided to indulge in a thick fantasy novel that had earned raving cover blurbs from not one, but two of my favorite fantasy authors: Ursula K. LeGuin and Anne McCaffrey. I’m not yet ready to reveal the title, but let’s just say that one chapter in and I’m already hooked.
While I’m not sharing this latest read until I’ve finished it, I would like to share an “oldie but goodie” – one of those beaten up paperbacks that I’ve been carting from home to home for more than three decades. The Fantastic Imagination is a fantasy anthology that I bought at an indie bookstore somewhere along the Pacific Northwest coast. I was on a thirty-four day road trip with my family. Mom, Dad, my sister, and I were touring the states in our VW Rabbit. I was, if I’m remembering the dates accurately, just out of sixth grade and an avid reader of all things fantasy and SciFi. This book includes stories from the likes of George MacDonald, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Peter S. Beagle, and Lloyd Alexander. I have such fond memories of escaping into its pages even as I was enjoying a real life adventure. Holding it in my hands today, I still feel a sense of being a young girl in search of magic … and that’s a kind of magic in itself.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- 3 Insights That Lead to Successful Publishing Careers by @JaneFriedman via @WriterUnboxed
- How One Woman Is Saving The Book Industry–The Old-Fashioned Way by @ayanabyrd via @FastCoDesign
- How Children’s Books Inspire Wonder in Readers of All Ages – by Alena Hall (includes video)
- Getting Personal About My Journey as an Author Entrepreneur. Plus Podcasts for Indie Authors. by @TheCreativePenn
- Jane Yolen, America’s Hans Christian Anderson, On Rejection, Reading Aloud, and the Keys to Writing Great Books for Kids by @sterryhead
- 10 Free Ebooks to Motivate and Inspire Your Writing Adventures by @danasitar via @thewritelife
- Writers’ Anxiety: Less Prozac, More Presence by @bentguy1 via @WriterUnboxed
- Five unbelievable social media mistakes you may be making right now by @markwschaefer
- Give Your Characters The Meyers Briggs Test by @epbure
Finally, a quote for the week:
Thanks, as always, for sharing part of your weekend with me. Here’s to your writing practice, whether today’s work is reading, or writing, or just staring out the window thinking about your story.
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.