How to find out if you are an artist

Junot Diaz explains (via Jonah Lehrer at The frontal cortex):

So 10 years ago you were the hot young writer. There was a lot of expectation placed on you. Was that a burden?

Someone said this to me and I love it: “Being a hot young short-story writer is like being a hot young up-and-coming pastry chef.” Who really knows or cares in the real world? I think most of the pressure that was on was because of me. I drive myself crazy very well, thank you. Even if the first book had had no success, I would have driven myself crazy with the second one. But no, it didn’t help people saying, “Hey, it’s taken a long time for your book, do you think you can’t write novels?” And every time I did a Q&A at a reading, there was always someone who was like, “So do you think you suck or what?”

What would you say to that?

I’m like, “God, I don’t know!” You want to say, “No, no I don’t.” But you can’t tell them until the book is done. So, of course, you’re like, “Damn, I hope not!”

Did it ever get you down? Did you feel like, screw it?

Oh, yeah. Talk to my fiancée. No, I think it was an incredibly difficult struggle. I tell a lot of young people I work with that nothing should be more inspirational than my dumb ass. It took me 11 years to struggle through one dumb book, and every day you just want to give up. But you don’t find out you’re an artist because you do something really well. You find out you’re an artist because when you fail you have something within you—strength or belief or just craziness—that picks you back up again. Most of the artists I know will never, fortunately for them, have to face an 11-year hole. Fighting your way out of an 11-year hole is a lot tougher than it might seem. And I think had it not been for, like, that stupid Caribbean immigrant stubbornness that my mom bred into me, my God, I would have actually stayed down.

Jonah goes on to use one of the answers above as the starting point to discuss the difficulties involved in the artistic process:

One of the things that surprised me (and my surprise was quite naive) was just how hard it was for all of the artists in my book to make their art. The act of creation was an arduous struggle. Proust spent more than ten years writing In Search of Lost Time and even then he insisted on making numerous last minute changes to the text. Cezanne would spend years painting the same Provencal mountain, as he deliberated over each brushstroke. For Virginia Woolf, the act of writing was so intense and draining that she would often relapse into her mental illness after finishing a draft. And so on.

One of the reasons the artistic process was so difficult is that these artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff. George Eliot, for instance, famously described her novels as a “a set of experiments in life.” Virginia Woolf, before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, said that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” Whitman worked in Civil War hospitals and corresponded for years with the neurologist who discovered phantom limb syndrome. (He also kept up with phrenology, the brain science of his day.) Gertrude Stein worked in William James’ Harvard psychology lab, then went to med-school at Johns Hopkins where she worked in a neuroanatomy lab. She would later say that her art was inspired by some of these experiments. (Her first piece of published writing was actually a science article on “automatic writing”.) My point is that it’s easy to falsely dismiss the artistic process as lacking rigor or diligence, to pretend that artists are merely trying to come up with creations that are entertaining or pretty.

Obviously, a novel makes a different set of epistemic claims than an experiment. Nevertheless, I think many artists, and certainly all of the artists I talk about in my book, are still passionately interested in reality. They want their fiction to feel authentic, to accurately capture some hard to capture element of human existence. That’s why good art is so hard to make. Just ask Junot Diaz.

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2 Responses to “How to find out if you are an artist”

  1. raj Says:

    “One of the reasons the artistic process was so difficult is that these artists weren’t simply describing stuff – they were investigating stuff.”

    I found that line interesting.

    Sherlock Holmes, in one of his conversations with Watson, traces his investigative skills to his grandmother, who was an artist. “Art in the blood takes the strangest form”, he says.

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Raj,

    That is true; in fact, your quoting Shelock Holmes is very appropriate. Somewhere, Holmes even complains to Watson that what should have been fine lectures are made into sensational and trivial stories, and blames the public for their not caring for subtle analyses for the state of things. Thus, I do agree that fiction could be a legitimate way of probing reality and that indeed is an important observation to take home from Jonah’s post. (By the way, totally unrelated to the topic in hand, I think Watson-ian way of describing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are also a good model for writing interesting scientific pieces. But that is a post by itself for some future time.)

    Having said that, in my opinion, Jonah, in his enthusiasm to project artists as the ones who are investigators of reality, misses another crucial aspect of making art: as P G Wodehouse is supposed to have said

    “I believe,” he remarked in an oft-quoted letter to his friend William Townend, “there are only two ways of writing a novel. One is mine, making the thing a sort of musical comedy without music, and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going down deep into life and not caring a damn.”

    In fact, every piece of fiction consists of both these; some are at one extreme and others at the other (and, at either extremes you can have wonderful art, Wodehouse and Holmes being the examples); but most are a combination of both to varying degrees. In other words, I do not like some of the implications of Jonah’s post — specifically, that (a) fiction is harder because it is about reality, and (b) fiction of the type where one simply describes stuff without any mooring in reality is easy.

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