What is art anyway?

I have a fear. A gripping fear that I think about late at night when I realize another day has gone by and the only words I’ve pieced together were about someone else’s work. When I curl up in bed, ready to fall asleep so tomorrow will come, but not ready because it means today will end.

This fear isn’t special to me. Others I know have it, too. Writers, poets, wordsmiths. One in particular, a former classmate, Chandler Birch, was so consumed by this fear at one point (or at least the idea of it) that he wrote this blog post, partly as a challenge to others, but I think mainly as a challenge to himself. I read it when he first posted it about a year ago, and since then, his words have haunted me, prodding me in my down time to write if I insist on calling myself a writer. That’s what writers do — whether or not they have assignments.

So what’s my fear? That I’m a poser? That I call myself a writer, but am really just a wannabe, like all the other wannabes who crowd the market and waste agents’ and editors’ time with their worthless queries and pitches of stories and articles they have no idea how to finish — nor have they intent to finish them, unless someone offers the big bucks? Is that what I fear? That I’m a fake? A fake among a multitude of fakes? A so-called wordsmith who just copies everyone else, but never writes anything of her own? A wannabe? A poser? Is that what I’m afraid of?

Yes. That’s exactly it.

It’s a tough world out there, especially for creative types who don’t want to work in marketing (because making people want things they don’t need and can’t afford doesn’t sit right). It’s a tough world especially for artists, because there are so many of us — or so many who call themselves one of us. The arts — dramatic, musical, visual, written — are competitive, and that means in order to “make it” as an artist, we have to cater to the masses, forget ourselves and why we love creating in the first place, and give the people what they want. Because of this, our dictionaries contain flawed definitions of art:

1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.
2. the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria.

In fact, when you search “art” on Dictionary.com, it’s not until you get to the World English Dictionary definitions — after you’ve scrolled past explanations of “art” as a verb (as in “How Great Thou Art”) and well-known figures whose real names were Arthur Garfunkel and James Arthur Monk — that you get a definition anywhere close to the real thing.

1. a. the creation of works of beauty or other special significance
b. ( as modifier ): an art movement
2. the exercise of human skill (as distinguished from nature )
3. imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination
4. a. the products of man’s creative activities; works of art collectively, esp of the visual arts, sometimes also music, drama, dance, and literature
b. arts See also fine art ( as modifier ): an art gallery
5. excellence or aesthetic merit of conception or execution as exemplified by such works

And one of the best:

13. get something down to a fine art; to become highly proficient at something through practice.

These definitions are closer to what good art truly is: it’s beautiful, significant, skillful, creative and excellently executed, requiring a lot of practice. But art is more than nice to look at/read/listen to and hard to accomplish. Real art comes from the heart. It’s an expression of deep importance and meaning coming from deep within the artist. It’s a story with emotional ties to the artist’s past. It’s a song that speaks of the pain the singer endured as she — or others — faced hardship. It’s a sketch, a photo, a painting that communicates the longing the artist has for community, love, acceptance.

Real art, good art is a labor of love. And it’s those who create not out of a financial or contractual obligation, but out of a passion and a need to share their experiences, their trials and tribulations, to show their side of the world’s story — and who do it with creative, excellent, practiced skill — it’s those who are true artists.

And so, I fear that I’m a poser. I haven’t worked on a labor of love in over a year, and I haven’t had any ideas that consume me like those I worked on before.

Last spring, I worked on a book project that told difficult, true, meaningful stories. Before then, I was working on a book for four years whose main character became a real person to me. But since May 2013, I’ve been project-less. No stories to gather or craft together. No words aching to be written. I tried started something new, and it had strong beginnings. But I’d forgotten how much work goes into developing characters from scratch and . . . I stopped.

Are my fears illogical? That last statement suggests not.

But I’ve been aching to write. Nothing specific. No certain story or article. Just words. In some semblance of order, making some degree of sense. And I’ve been following through, mostly. Writing rambling journal entries that hopefully no one will ever read. Reading past work and making changes here and there, because no matter how long it’s been, there’s always something to fix.

Today, I took a look at the book I never finished writing. Read the first few chapters, which I’ve gone over so many times I’m surprised I don’t have them memorized. This has potential, I thought. Maybe I should pick it back up again. And I’m considering it. With all the years I’ve already given that project, it would be nice to finish it. See it to completion, problems fully developed and resolved.

I’m making no promises, but that’s where I’m at. Because I’m a writer — I have to be with how much I think about it, talk about it, read about it, and have done it in the past (not to mention my college degree). And this story . . . it was a labor of love before, and it could be again.

 

On a completely different note:

Beginning this week, my Good Reads posts, recommending longform and narrative nonfiction articles from around the Web, will be published on Fridays. If you read anything you think is worth sharing, feel free to let me know via a comment, tweet, or email.

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