Throughout my career working in the arts, whether in the theatre or now finding my way as a writer, I've been fortunate enough to come into contact with people who have not only shared their experience but also set an example. Some of them have been teachers over the course of years whom I've apprenticed with, and others I've only had a few precious hours with, but all of them have contributed something to my development and growth as an artist.
"My development and growth as an artist" implies that I consider myself an artist, doesn't it? Sort of presumptuous on my part, you might be thinking. Here's this guy who's never even published anything, except online, and he's calling himself an artist. Boy, talk about nerve. Hey, I didn't say I was a writer, only finding my way as a writer; I said I was an artist. Big difference.
Obviously I'm not talking about being a painter either, so what the hell am I talking about, and what is it these people have taught or shown me that so damned important? First off I guess we need to define the "a" word: artist. You hear it being used these days in the same way they used to describe performers as "the talent" in order to differentiate between them and the crew on a movie set or in the studio.
Maybe the union got it put in their contract that talent was demeaning or something, so they get to be called artists instead, I don't know. But hearing someone refer to Julia Roberts or Britney Spears as an artist makes my head spin and want to go into a full scale Linda Blair act a la The Exorcist. Technically speaking they work in the arts, in the same fields as Judi Dench and Billie Holiday respectively, but there's a world of difference between the latter pair and the former.
Being an artist is not about talent, career choices, how much money you make, or whether or not you lead a tortured life. There have been plenty of people I would consider artists who have made lots of money and seem to lead reasonably stable lives. The stereotype of the poor struggling artist suffering for his or her art is usually perpetuated by people who like to assume the role without having done anything to justify the pretence.
The comic Jeff Foxworthy used to do this routine that started off with the line "You know you might be a redneck when…" and listed a variety of characteristics that in combination would seal a person's fate. If you can do that for rednecks, why can't you do the same sort of thing with artists and their characteristics?
You know you may be an artist if…
- you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night just having to write out that poem, record that song, or start that painting.
- you have no choice in the matter about whether you're going to do what it is you do, be it acting, singing, painting, or writing. It's a compulsion that left unfulfilled leaves your life empty and meaningless.
- you do it regardless of pay, fame, attention, rewards, or other considerations beyond the simple doing.
- you are never content with what you have accomplished and always believe you can do better.
- nothing, not sex, booze, or drugs gives you the same feeling of fulfillment as your work.
- you find yourself thinking of everything in terms of your art. That would make a great scene, that's a great painting, there's a song in that, what a neat character, etc.
- you think nothing of sitting up the whole night making sure something is just the way you want it and then tear it up the next day when you think of something better.
Of course there's always the question of how I came up with that list, isn't there? Why should you believe me and my silly definitions with no proof of their accuracy? The only answer I can give to allay anyone's doubts about the veracity of that list is that I assembled it based on personal experience, observation of other people at work, conversations with artists who have more experience than me, and reading what other people have had to say about the idea.
If poetry is your goal, you've got to forget all about punishments and all about rewards and all about self-styled obligations and duties and responsibilities etcetera ad infinitum and remember one thing only: that it's you – nobody else – who determine your destiny and decide your fate. — e.e. cummings
That quote from a series of six non-lectures that e.e. cummings gave at Harvard University back in the 1950s, along with some words from T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and theatre director Erwin Piscator, have played an important part in my intellectual understanding of what is meant by the term artist. But it was those teachers and others who I talked about back at the beginning of this article who have been the ones that have not only shown me what it takes to be an artist, but what it is to be one as well.
It wasn't through them saying anything in particular, or sitting myself down and saying, "So you want to be an artist…" It was and is a matter of observing who they are and how they are in the world. Just being and talking with people who are dedicated to creating something beyond themselves for no other reason than the sense of fulfillment it brings them was more informative than any textbook or course ever could have been.
Musicians, painters, writers, actors, and designers — it's made no difference what their medium was because they were all driven by the same desire to create. My work in theatre brought me into contact with people working in all disciplines and involved every aspect of artistic creation from conception to reality.
An actor building a character goes through the same process that a designer does in creating the set the actor will perform on. They both start with a concept or idea of what they see as the final result, and then utilize the skills and talent at their disposal to enable them to ensure its realization.
It's been many years since I've worked in theatre, but in the interim, and especially in the last year, I've had the opportunity to talk to authors and musicians about what motivates them to do what they do. The answer has almost always been a variation on "I need to," "I'm driven," or "it's what keeps me sane."
When I used the word teacher that might have been misleading as it implies that these people taught me how to do something. But the desire to create is an intangible that can't be learned like accounting skills or the like. What they and others since have done is show me what is entailed in being an artist.
Everyday I wake up with the compulsion to write. I feel like I'm at my most complete and most alive when doing that. Whether it's writing for my blog, working on my novel, or even writing a letter to somebody about a topic that interests me, it's all part of being who I've become.
Since my illness I've gained a greater appreciation for any time that I'm able to spend at my keyboard writing and putting one word after the other to form a thought, describe a scene, or create a new person. Having periods when I'm not able to write because my body won't let me has taught me not to take anything for granted. Perhaps that's why I'm so defensive about the word artist — I realize that it's a gift that can be taken away at any time.
You know, I may or may not be an artist, but the people I've known, met, and talked with that I would consider artists never take their gifts of talent for granted. For all of them, creating isn't a choice, it's their life. In the words of e.e. cummings — every artist's strictly illimitable country is himself, and the artist who has played that country false has committed suicide.