Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be writers
Don’t let ’em hold pencils and write all that slush
Let ’em be actors and singers and such
I just got back from a month in California where I got to visit a farmer’s market twice each week. Those markets always included a musician or two, which got me to pondering something I’ve been brushing up against a lot, lately. Let’s see if I can put it all down in words. (After I show you this fantastic fruit!)
Just before my California sojourn, I attended my second writing conference in as many months. I love hanging with my tribe a couple of times a year. It is good to be in the company of like minds, people who salivate over sentences the way I do.
But I walked away from this last con feeling so sad for the writer’s lot in life. I’ve always lumped writing in with dancing, painting, playing the cello, and so on. We’re all artists. We are angsty and internal; we are driven and haunted by our craft, by our muses; we have this thing that we want to share–we want to know if our art matters.
(Now, there are artists who do not want to share and who don’t care what anyone else thinks of their artmaking. I don’t personally know any artists like this, but I am persuaded they exist. I am not talking about these people, and I hereby beg leave to apologize for leaving them out of my discussion. :P)
At the conference I attended, I heard a clear message. It was a familiar message, but for some reason, this time I found it a bit disheartening. I hope I can summarize it fairly. It goes something like this:
It will take you a very long time to be able to put your art out there. You need to be prepared to have zero audience interaction for each and every piece of art you make for years. Maybe for decades. You should continue to strive to be the best artist you can be, but you will need to do this for love and not for money. Your artmaking must fit into the nooks and crannies after you pay the bills. For a very, very long time.
When I worked in theater (ten-ish years of my life), there was a lot of work-without-pay, for sure. But I could count on an audience to look at my craft, kind of like the musicians at the Farmer’s Market. You hit a certain level of proficiency with your craft and you start to itch to share what you do. Now, I never saw my costume designs on Broadway, but I made costumes for the local ballet, the Shakespeare festival, the kids’ summer theater. In short, I could get my art out there where it could surprise, delight, and connect with an audience.
Overlapping those years, I also worked as a clothing designer. I was never hired by Calvin Klein, but I sold at street fairs and at juried art shows, and I retailed online and wholesaled to stores. My stuff was out there. I had both an audience and a paycheck to show for it while I was still in the business of improving my craft. In the rag biz, especially, I know I wouldn’t have become such a good designer without the feedback from my customers. (BTW, I sold that company and my designs are still featured here.)
Not all of my artmaking friends make a living with their chosen craft, but most of the artists I know have the opportunity to share their art with other non-artists. That’s what the musicians at the Farmer’s Market are doing. You get feedback on what works (and doesn’t), you have interactions, you find those who appreciate the art and craft you bring to the world.
This is not the case with my writing friends. There is no Novel-in-the-Park. No gallery that will jury their books in. If they share with anyone, it’s at events like the cons I attended, or maybe in a critique group. That is, a writer’s only interactions are with other writers as opposed to with readers.
This strikes me as so different from other kinds of artmaking. For most artists, artmaking does not happen in a void. That is, along the path to becoming self-supporting artists or deciding to make art for free, they have many opportunities to perform or present their craft to an audience. I think we yearn for this as human beings–for those connections. I know I do. I know my unpublished writer friends do.
It made me happy to see the musicians at the Farmer’s Market making those human connections. And it made me sad to listen at my writers conferences where writers were being told, essentially, to put those yearnings for connection with an audience aside for a very, very long time.
I guess this explains why I pushed so hard at the boundaries that exist for writing. I get why Jane Austen borrowed money to have her work published. (Something I do not recommend, for the record!)
What do you think? Should this make me sad or was I just having a bad week?