In the Gooey Center

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the title of this blog, Between. How apt this word is to describe what’s missing in most discussions about anything of relevance. How appropriate this word is to explain what I’m most interested in exploring through my writing.

I’ve been noticing how often my own views fall somewhere in the middle territory between the popularly accepted “pro” and “con” positions on an issue. This can be an uncomfortable place to sit, with strong forces pulling this way and that. We’re all supposed to be either for or against a thing. Anyone who claims to see both sides or tries to incorporate some of the good from each side in their position is said to be weak, wishy-washy, copping out, afraid to take a stand. But I think the space between is where most of us actually live.

The minute someone lays out a platform, someone else will find a point on which they disagree. The problem is the idea of absolutes, of purity in positions. Between the absolutes at each end of the spectrum lie an infinite number of fractional positions. Only the most extreme among us strictly adhere to the absolutes. I don’t need to work a full-time job to be a feminist. I don’t need to be anti-abortion to be pro-life. I don’t need to register as a Democrat to defend progressive ideals. I don’t need to be a Republican to care about balanced budgets.

Our common ground can be found in the gooey center. Though each of us is stuffed with contradictions, out in the world we are categorized, placed into one box or another, added to this or that list. My views seem extreme to some, mundane to others. But I bet I could find something in common with every person I bump up against. Maybe it would be only one thing, but that one thing could help us both recognize the humanity in each other. If you see me as a liberal and I see you as a conservative, but we each care about, say, preserving Medicare, why can we not come together to figure out a way to make it work? Continue reading “In the Gooey Center”

Book a Week: The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson

In 2012, I resolve to read at least one book a week and to post my thoughts on the books I read here each Monday.

I don’t remember what led me to add Anne Carson’s book to my “to-read” list. I’m sure it had something to do with the mixture of genres in this “fictional essay in 29 tangos.” I plan to tell a tale via poems and short stories for my master’s capstone project (aka thesis), so I probably noted this book as one to read for ideas on how to structure my own book.

The structure of The Beauty of the Husband is fascinating. Carson pays homage to Keats throughout the book. She also pulls from greek classics and many other works that I’m not very familiar with. Sometimes this makes for difficult reading for the less-educated (me).

Still, I was moved by the tragedy of this love story, the desire and obsession. The “tangos” read like poems that at times verge on prose. I worried that I would get lost in all the allusions, but to Carson’s credit I did not, though I’m sure one with a better understanding of them would pick up on even more layers of meaning than I was able to.

A challenging, complex choice for my first read of 2012, but inspirational as well.

An Artist’s Responsibility (One More for the Jumble)

Warning: What follows is esoteric as hell.

Googling the term “responsibility of an artist” returns over sixty million results. A quick scan through just the first few pages of these finds more than a dozen peer-reviewed, academic essays with similar titles.

Seems I’m not the first to ponder the question. I may as well ask, “What is the meaning of life?” Yet I suspect all of us who consider applying the label “artist” to ourselves must consider this issue.

What is the issue, you ask? For me, right now, the question I’m pondering has to do with the purpose of my art, the reason I write, the themes I choose to write about, the publications where I aim to place my work. Heavy stuff like am I concerned with myself or the larger world, with style or with substance, with form or with function?

Here’s what I know: When I write, my first intention is to communicate a particular experience, observation, or emotion. To communicate a thought process. To communicate an idea. To communicate. Now, if I’m honest with myself, I also realize that in some instances I hope to persuade as well. Or at least to get someone thinking a little differently than he was before he read the piece. I want to generate a visceral response in a reader.

I like playing with sounds. I like finding the exact right word. I like arranging words into structures. For me, this part of the writing process is every bit as important as the idea I’m trying to communicate.

I know that my words contain power and I want to use that power to support ideas, places, and people I believe in. This part gets a little complicated, because I have no aspiration to preach or to try to convert in any realm, though I will gladly debate if I have a genuine interest in a discussion. I’m not interested, however, in using the power of my words to promote anything I’m not particularly motivated about or inspired by (which is why I’ll never work in advertising).

Which brings me back to responsibility. Is an artist responsible only to herself? Or is an artist responsible also to her community?

I think these types of questions are ultimately personal, to be decided by each individual artist, because we each have different priorities in our lives as well as in our art. Our art cannot be separated from the remainder of the fabric of our lives. Our art must be integrated into our lives if we are to be whole. Each of us belongs to various communities, some of which are very close to home, others that extend endlessly outward to the entire community of our planet. We are each affected by different moments as we move through our lives, and those become our inspirations, the running themes of our lives. We tend toward communities that hold sacred similar moments.

My words contain power. If I am to truly belong to my communities, then I must use what power I have to support those communities. I feel a responsibility to those groups as an artist because they are part of my self, integral to my life as a whole.

That little word “my” holds a lot of weight, though. I cannot as an individual nor as an artist be held responsible for supporting every good idea, every worthy cause, every deserving community. There simply aren’t enough hours available in my lifetime. I must make choices. I must decide which communities to devote my power to, just as I must decide which personal themes to focus on in my work. I choose to expend my energy supporting those communities most in-line with the running theme of my own life. (What other way is there?) And in making that choice, I necessarily decide that I must withhold my energy from the rest, because my power source of words is not unlimited. I must have time to recharge. 

And though I do, as an artist, feel I have a responsibility to my communities, I also must uphold the responsibility I have to myself to produce the best work I possibly can, according to my own standards. When I compromise my artistic standards in support of a group expectation, I am not being true to myself. Ideally, I need these two goals to align. Realistically, of course, this won’t always happen. So, there will be times when I will compromise my artistic standards for the sake of a community goal, to support the greater good, so to speak. But then, what I produce in those situations is not, to me, truly art–even though others might say it is–because it does not measure up to my personal benchmark of artistic expression. Sometimes I’m more concerned about supporting a particular ideology or cause or person than I am about creating art, and in those cases, the compromise doesn’t worry me much. But I know that if I deny my artistic self too often for the sake of community goals, I will not be whole.

My conclusion is that both responsibilities, to myself and to my communities, are necessary to maintain my artistic wholeness. As in much of life, the answer is in the gray spaces in between, in how we give attention to both without neglecting either.

And my journey continues.

A Life’s Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about platform. We writers are told all the time that we need to build a platform, literally the soapbox we plan to stand on to grab the attention of readers.

Platform comes naturally to nonfiction writers. They’re writing in the first place to communicate a particular idea or philosopy, or to sell a product or service. Platform is a no-brainer in these situations.

But what about us creative types? What kind of platform should a poet or a storyteller build? Even an essayist or memoirist can have a tough time figuring out how to communicate their core message.

That’s what a platform is it seems, the core message we want to send. Or, as a friend recently put it, a vocation.

For months now I’ve been circling my own passion, zeroing in on exactly what it is I want to communicate to the world through my writing. There are concrete topics I keep returning to: adoption, mental illness, motherhood, to name a few. But there are themes too: control, loss, belonging. And these are just a sampling of the many ideas that pass through my consciousness.

When I try to analyze my own writing looking for patterns, I become too much a literary critic. I don’t want to label myself as this or that type of writer. I don’t want to worry about whether I’m aligned with any particular school of thought. I simply want to write. Let someone else worry about the labels.

My vocation is to express my truth at any given moment of writing. My platform will be the sum total of my work. It will continuously evolve, just like me.