On Being A Savage
First, before you do anything, watch this. It's a video of an amazing modern ballet I saw last night called'Chroma.'This is the Royal Ballet's production, a bit over twenty minutes but well worth your time. Why' Because it's transcendent and reminds me of why I call myself an artist, why I want to be part of this totally dysfunctional, beautiful, insane group of people who, day in and day out, throw their souls into the void and hope to have something to bring back into the real world as a souvenir for their troubles. And in the words of Julia Cameron (of'The Artist's Way'fame, one of my all-time favorite books), sometimes we need to "fill the well" - the creative well. Otherwise, we get depleted, run dry, and then creating becomes a bitch.
Note: There is some potentially offensive language below. I don't know why I'm writing this disclaimer since I don't in my books, but whatever.
This post is about navigating the messiness of being an artist, more specifically, a writer. It's in response to a letter I read in this amazing book by Cheryl Strayed, which you must buy immediately if you haven't already:'Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar.'You might look at the title and think this is so not your thing - I did, too, when I received it in the mail as a Christmas present from my agent. She'd said it was her favorite book of the year, but I was skeptical - until I read the first few pages. Then I fell in love and have been buying it for people and recommending it ever since. Basically, Dear Sugar is a column'written by Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir,'Wild.'She's a fabulous writer, but also a generally amazing human being, full of love and compassion and other nice things. She also keeps it real. The book is a collection of letters written to Sugar from people all over the country and of different ages, asking for advice. Sugar advises.
I read one the other night (if you have it, the letter section is called "We Are All Savages" and you can read it here) and it blew my mind and I wanted to touch on some of what Sugar said in response to the letter writer, who called himself "Awful Jealous Person." He was writing about being jealous of his writer friends who have experienced success (he has not) and was asking Sugar how to deal. Now, if you've ever put pen to paper in the hopes of getting paid to do it someday, then you will understand how the Green-Eyed Monster loves to pay visits to writers. I myself, despite being pretty darn lucky as of late, have had such visitations. And Sugar was harsh with him and I was surprised, but then I realized that she was right. We are all savages - meaning, we are all capable of jealousy and jealousy is ugly. He had to get over himself. Much easier said then done. And I wanted to just sort of riff off of some of the things she was saying, because she's brilliant and I want to sort of bask in her rays.
First off is my favorite quote, which is in response to this dude's worry over getting published despite having an MFA and thinking his work is pretty good. I sympathize with him so much, but Strayed is relentless in her advocacy of doing the work and letting it be about the work, which is something you have to go to, again and again, published or no:
Before we get into it, I want to talk about what we're talking about. We are not talking about books. We are talking about book deals. You know they're not the same, right''One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation.'
I really loved this quote because, whether or not the language offends, you really do have to write like a motherfucker. Writers (myself included) spend so much time worrying about publishing and they forget to keep themselves invested in the work. The next quote is another I underlined as I read because she really gives it to Awful Jealous Person about his jealousy. She tries to get to the root of its cause and to show how it's pointless and hurtful, both to you and your friends who are writers.
...get over yourself...If you are a writer, it's the writing that matters and no amount of battery acid in your stomach over who got what for what book they wrote is going to help you in your cause. Your cause is to write a great book and then to write another great book and to keep writing them for as long as you can. That is your only cause. It is not to get a six-figure book deal.'
Now, in the interests of keeping it real, I don't know from what perspective she's writing this, in that, had she already had her memoir picked by Oprah's book club' Because it's easier to say this from that perspective. However, speaking as someone who has finally gotten a book deal, this is the attitude you need to have when you're published, too. Because there will always be someone making more than you, selling more than you, loved more than you, writing better than you, etc. So and so got a movie deal. So and so got a Printz award. So and so got a starred review. It's about the work.
She gets how hard it is, being a writer, being an artist, though. She's not writing from a lofty tower:
I know the gulf between creation and commerce is so tremendously wide that it's sometimes impossible not to feel annihilated'by it. A lot of artists give up because it's just too damn hard to go on making art in a culture that by and large does not support its artists.'
Then Strayed tells Awful Jealous Person about the writers who have succeeded:
Most of the people who didn't give up realized that in order to thrive they had to dismantle the ugly jealous god in their heads so they could instead serve something greater: their own work.'
And if you read the letter from Awful Jealous Person, he makes a point to note that he went to a "prestigious" school for his MFA. He builds a wall around himself that makes him feel better about who he is, despite his rejections and frustrations. To his insistence on building himself up, Strayed says:
You might...be interested to know that the word "prestigious" is derived from the Latin'praestigiae,'which means "conjuror's tricks." Isn't that interesting' The word that we use to mean honorable and esteemed has its beginnings in a word that has everything to do with illusion, deception, and trickery.'
So how do we stop being jealous of others' Strayed says:
You remember that someone else's success has absolutely no bearing on your own...[And if you can't muster up good, positive feelings for your friends who have had success...these are my words, not Strayed's!]...you just stop [being jealous]. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn't a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your own bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.'
These are strong words, but I really connected to her advice because it so perfectly deals with such a big problem writers and artists have. And you want to know something fabulous that can help with this' My friends, you can buy a Write Like A Motherfucker mug! Mine's in the mail. You should also pick up a copy of'Art and Fear.'A tiny book with a big impact, required reading for all artists.
Love to all of you struggling to do the work. You're my people. Keep on with the work, savages. It's what it's about.
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