The Artist’s Fear

In a class today, we were talking about the types of artists and the way that they view themselves and things like that, and something came up that caught my attention.

Someone said that a large part of being an artist is fear.

Someone else immediately went on to invalidate what was said on the grounds that fear isn’t something only artists feel. Which is true.  But our class descended into a major debate about it anyway.

So, here’s my take.  An artist is, in my mind, any person who creates something out of nothing. I specifically, am a writer.  I also play music and paint, but above and before all else I am a writer. And as a writer, there is a huge part of me that is afraid.

Afraid of being vulnerable. Afraid of being too much.  Afraid of not being good enough.

Our class is full of artists, and there aren’t any two of us that do the same thing, for the most part.  But when it got to me, the professor (If you read my first entry, it’s the woman I decided to just call K) asked for my take.

And I felt like I was going to vomit.

Now, let’s preface this with the fact that there are only two writers in our class.  I am a writer, and K is a writer.  That’s almost an insult, putting her and I in the same category.  She’s brilliant, I told you before that she’s one of the most intelligent people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, but her brilliance is most noticeable in her writing.

And I had to explain, sitting next to this brilliant woman, that as a writer, my greatest fear is handing a piece of my soul to someone like her–someone I admire and look up to in so many ways–and having her tell me it isn’t enough.

I can handle being criticized, it’s a part of doing what I do, of being who I am. But there is something different about handing it to someone you know and love, someone you have such tremendous respect for, and letting them see you bare.

And when I write, that’s what I am.  There is next to nothing that I write that doesn’t leave some part of me exposed.

Fear is a big part of being a writer, of being an artist. And I just needed to share this.

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Writing about writing.

Writing about writing is kind of like talking about talking, explaining the way words are formed, the way you push air through your vocal cords to produce sounds. Could you do it?  Could you say the word “speak” and then explain in absolute terms how you did it?

I don’t think I could, and I’m pretty good with words.

I write a lot, about a lot of different things.  I write with short sentences and long ones.  With easy words and words that make you think.  I write by hand, with a pencil, or on my computer, one key at a time.  I write naturally, about everything that touches my soul.  But even I don’t know how to write about writing.

How do you explain to someone that you sit down on the floor, light a candle, and press the tip of your pencil to the page until the words stop coming?  How do you explain to someone that you pour your soul out through your hand and bring tears to your own eyes?  How do you explain to someone who doesn’t know you, or what it means to be a writer, that the urge to write–like the urge to eat–cannot be ignored?  How do you explain the way it feels to ignore it?  The way your mind spins and your attention wanders?

My first answer, is that you don’t.  You don’t explain it, because they won’t understand.

But what kind of writer would I be if I backed down from a challenge?  What kind of writer would I be if I said ‘No, I can’t write about that, it’s too hard, or too personal, or too complicated?’

I won’t be that kind of writer. Will you?

Would you like the way I write you?

I tweeted something last week and today, it’s rolling around in my head like a marble.

The tweet said “Staring at my screen, I can’t help but wonder what the people who inspire my characters would think of the way I write them.” I tweeted it out and then let it go and kept writing.  But today, I’m sitting in my little corner of the universe, on the floor in my favorite building on campus, with one incredibly brilliant woman sitting in her office to my right, and one incredibly brilliant woman sitting in her office to my left (which is super intimidating in and of itself) and I’m looking at my screen, at the characters that they have both helped me create, and some part of me (the masochistic part, I think) really wants to hand them my computer and ask them what they think of the way they sound in my words.

I love building characters.  It’s the hardest part of writing (for me) because I have to get them right. Every character I build has to sound real, feel real, be real.  I put so many little details about the person who inspired the character into the piece that the reader can feel like they know the character.  Like they’ve met them, spoken to them, had drinks with them. I want my readers to feel like they could see my characters walking down the street, living their lives.  I want them to be that real.  I accept nothing less.

I take someone I know, a sweet brunette with a bad attitude, a bad reputation, and a soft spot that no one seems to know about, and I make her someone different. I take the girl who works a retail job dealing with people who want something for nothing and then goes home to her empty house to have a drink, play video games, and fall asleep on her couch.  And I make her someone else.  I take the beautiful mind and every good thing and every bad thing about her and I rearrange them, leaving just enough of her that you can see the person through the character. I give her a flaw.  I give her a reason.  I give her a heartbeat.  And I put it on the page in such a way that makes the reader feel like they can reach out and touch her soul.

I take the professor with the beautiful mind and smart mouth and I make her exceptional.  I make the reader value her mind over her looks in the way her colleagues obviously can’t.  I teach the readers how she takes her tea, how she spends her free time, and where she goes when she falls asleep at night.  I make her so real, so full of heart and vitality that the reader can’t help but like her, love her, remember her.  They know her favorite color, her favorite book, her favorite song.  They know that she’s capable of crying, or of standing tall when others would fall.

I take someone I know and I break them down.  I break them down and I take the pieces and put the puzzle back together.  I take the girl who might have earned a two year degree from the community college everyone in her town goes to, the girl who lives in a little house down yonder with her sister and drives her little grey car that’s always a mess, and I make her someone else.

Perhaps I write her and I don’t tell the reader where she studied, because brilliance is brilliance and it won’t change a thing.  I stay true to that girl, with the big green eyes and dark hair, and I show my readers who she is when she doesn’t have to be anyone else.  I show them how much she likes puzzles, all sorts of puzzles. I show them how she doesn’t sleep because her mind never stops working. I show them how much she hates mornings and only lives with her sister because her sister is an artist and in their town, artists can’t support themselves.  I show them that she goes to work, puts in the time and the effort, to pay the bills so that her little sister can do what she loves. I show them what makes her laugh and how she looks when she smiles and I make her know her so well that when you strip away the job and the car and the details, they know the same girl I know.  I make her so real that the character and the person cease to be truly different from one another.

I build my characters so well that my readers fall in love with them, the way I did.  BEcause if I don’t, if I skip a detail or I fail to know them well enough, I could make them do something that they wouldn’t do, and my readers would see it and they would lose faith in me.  If I lose the faith of the people reading the things I write, I have failed as a writer. I have shown my readers that they cannot trust me.  And for that, there is no forgiveness.

So I build my characters and I put a piece of my soul into them and I write in the little story about how they do one-woman musicals when they drive long distances.  I take as much time as I need and I make them as real, as whole, as human as I can.  And then, when I’m through, I sit back and I look at my screen, and up at the person sitting in front of me, and I wonder.
What would you think of the way I write you?  Would you be proud of me?  Would you think I’d done enough?  Or would you hate it? Would you feel ashamed of the way I see you?
I could ask, it would be easy, but do I dare?