Recently, I was reading over a statement I wrote for admission into graduate school and I noticed a mistake that revealed a larger issue of faulty artist self-definition. The first three lines of the statement read:
“My writer self is 12 years old. I emerged as a writer in 1991 when I wrote my first short story. Since that adolescent stage, I have explored the vast and pliable genre of creative writing to publish a body of work that includes…”
Now, if I wrote my FIRST short story in 1991, it’s impossible that I was in an adolescent stage. I was actually in a stage of birth and infancy. Now, 12 years later, I am finally an adolescent. This would appear to be a benign slip up, but it’s not. Very few of us artists take real stock of where we are in our careers, how long we’ve been practicing our craft, and what that really means in terms of our growth and development.
This truth was brought home to me again when I visited my sister’s home. After years and years of being an artist, she finally set up a studio. While her home is a well organized, supremely accented and well arranged harmonious living space, her studio was as chaotic as a child’s play space. Materials were everywhere. Paper, scissors, rulers, and other tools were spilling off the shelves. “Wow,” I said, “you’re in a baby stage. Stuff is everywhere.” “Oh, give me toddler status, at least,” she replied.
But why? Why should we as artists give ourselves more seniority than we’ve actually earned? Why do we feel pressured to pretend to have more wisdom than we’ve actually gained? How can we presume to possess the level of seasoning of artists 5, 10, 15 years our senior?
The more I turn the concept over in my head, the more power I think the idea of “aging” your artist self has. When you calculate your age as an artist, you put yourself in the position to realistically assess your progress in your craft. How long have you been practicing your craft? Not how long have you wanted to write. Not how long has it been since you first put pen to paper. But how long have you actually been engaging with the craft, wrestling with concepts and materials, and examining the intimate crevices of your mind?
Don’t quote me on this, but I believe it was Harold Bloom, who noted in his book Genius that artists really reach their stride at middle age—around 40 or 50 years old is when many artists make works of genius. Of course there are those who don’t need so long to build up the power and potency of their work. There are prodigies and blessed ones and lucky stars (Mr. Lito, I won’t call you out by name). But I’m talking about a “normal” range of artist development. I assume at 40 or 50 years old, most artists have been at their crafts for anywhere from 20 to 30 years. By that time their artist self and their thinking selves have had the opportunity to grow up.
Think about how long it took you to understand life. Think about how long it took you to learn how not to bounce checks at the end of the month. Or keep your heart protected when you met someone who wanted to suck your spirit from you. Think about all the complex things you learn on the path to becoming a full-fledged adult. Then think about how long you’ve been practicing your craft. Five years? Ten years? Twenty?
Once, when my sister wanted proclaim that she was going to be a fulltime artist, she did a visualization exercise. She imagined her artist self talking to her graphic design self. Her artist self, said “Look, I’m taking over, I’m going to be running our life now.” And the graphic design self laughed. “You’re a child,” she said to the artist self. “How are you going to support us?”
In response to last month’s posting, writer Ta’Shia Asanti (www.sacreddoor.com) wrote to say that in the same year she became a grandmother, she enjoyed the privilege of working a 9-to-5 job for only one month. “This was major for me,” she writes. “I basically supported myself solely from my writing and speaking. A major shift in creative consciousness.” (She also organized an international conference on African traditional spirituality and got cast on a national TV show—The Mad, Mad House.) To me, Iya Ta’Shia Asante’s year represents the fruits of an artist’s maturation.
My artist self is 12 years old. As a 12-year-old, I’m in that awkward puberty stage. I know myself pretty well, but I haven’t had to take on the world in full yet. I’m still sheltered by my parents, but I have my own likes and dislikes. I pick my own friends, I decide what I want to eat and which extracurricular activities I participate in, but I can’t drive a car, I don’t pay the bills, and I can’t decide my curfew. There are still lots and lots of things I don’t know. No matter how much I think I know about the world, I’m wrong a lot of the time. And most importantly, I have no idea who I’m going to be in the future.
I can relate all of that to myself as a writer. I’ve spent the past 12 years trying so many things on. Writing in different genres, seeking income in different ways, but I remain sheltered by the workaday world. I have some say in getting published now, but I still don’t have real pull. And I’m still learning how wrong I was (and still am) about so many assumptions about writing, a writing career, and what it means to be an artist. And I have dreams and ideas about my writing career, but I have no idea who I’m going to be as an artist in the future.
And it’s o.k.
It’s o.k. for me to be 12. No point in putting on lipstick and high heels and using fake I.D. I might miss some important lessons and some crucial foundations while I’m trying to appear sophisticated and accomplished, or while I’m pouting about why so-and-so published her book at age 26 and I still haven’t finished my novel. I’m getting more graceful about taking critiques and more objective about other’s opinions about what needs work in my pieces. I’m gaining power, wisdom, confidence, reason, and experience. I’m growing up.
The fact is, it’s difficult to consistently create great work. It takes commitment, talent, experience, growth, honesty, vulnerability. In a recent Sun magazine, editor Sy Syfransky writes:
“I don’t need to take personally the fact that creating something truthful and beautiful is a challenge. It isn’t a challenge because I’m not smart enough. It’s a challenge because it’s a challenge.”
It is a challenge to create truthful and beautiful work. It is a challenge to demonstrate artistic promise, as well as artistic genius. And it is an immense human challenge to be with who you are as an artist and how much or how little you’ve accomplished. My cousin recently confronted the challenge of being simply who she is when she had to present her work at an artist talk. All her slides were old, so she decided she needed to create three new pieces by the time the talk came around. She was in the throes of conceiving and planning the pieces, when she thought, “What am I doing? Who am I pretending for? If the work is old, it’s old. That’s where I am right now.”
So I encourage all of you to assess where you are right now. If your artist self is 3, 6, 12, or 60. If you’re a child prodigy, an average achiever, a sparkling starter, or a late bloomer. What are your expectations of yourself as an artist? Contrary to human compulsion, the goal of life is not to win… it is not to be the best. It is to grow, to thrive, and to make some contribution to the world around you.
The concept of average growth makes a lot of sense to us when measuring the development of a child. Sure, we’d like our kids to be geniuses, but we’re proud just to have them keeping up with what’s expected of kids their age. We gleefully encourage attempts, accomplishments, mistakes, confusion—and we see it all as steps on a continuum of growth and development. Why can’t we take a similar approach to our artist selves?
As Lynn Pitts writes in my sister Asante Salaam’s promotional material for her life coaching business—Juicy Living:
“When you were learning your first words and your first steps, everything you did was cheered and encouraged. One day you mumbled ‘da-da’ and the room went wild. You took your first steps, maybe eight, nine inches across the living room carpet, and your mother was on the phone sharing the good news with the world.”
We, as artists, have to champion ourselves through our growth. It’s all about approach, effort, consistency, and—most of all—growth/development. As Pitts goes on to write:
“It [doesn’t] matter that you [fall] down frequently or that you [can’t] master more than two syllables at a time, what matter[s is] this: you [are] moving toward something big.”
And let’s not get confused, it’s not the “something big” that matters—it is the movement. Sure, it’s the something big that will earn money and gain notoriety and hang around for future posterity. I don’t deny the importance of all that. But what’s relevant to the artist self is that we as artists are constantly growing and reaching and stretching.
Each of our “something big” varies by talent, commitment, and age. If we stop after we finish a piece or win a prize or have national recognition, then our artist selves have stopped growing. The goddess of art doesn’t require particular achievements for us to wear the label artist—she only requires that we do and we keep doing so that we continue growing with the passing of time.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
An essay I wrote about the tensions surrounding paternity issues—otherwise known as baby-daddy drama—has just come out in the anthology “Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues: Young African-Americans on Love, Sex, Relationships, and the Search for Mr. Right.” The anthology is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores around the country.
Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues contains 25 first-person essays about African-American love and relationships with the Black community. 20 of the essays are written by women and there are 5 essays by brothers in a section entitled, “Talking Back.” The list of contributors includes: Kevin Powell * Asha Bandele * Cheo Tyehimba * Thembisa Mshaka * K. Ibura * Lawrence C. Ross, Jr. * Kristal Brent Zook * Taigi Smith * Keisha Gaye-Anderson * Shawn E. Rhea * Shrona Sheppard * Victor LaValle.
The essays in this book are hardhitting, witty, well-thought, groundbreaking, honest, and real. Issues addressed include DNA testing and denial of paternity, materialism, infidelity, marriage, interracial marriage and dating, incarceration, death (of a lover), homosexuality, childbirth, economic (in)equality within marriage, racism, motherhood, fatherhood, single-parenting, stay-at-home dads, step-parenting, the effect of multiple sclerosis on marriage, alcoholism, navigating the first year of marriage, etc….Every essay is unique and complex in its own special way. I hope each of you will take a moment to read and embrace this very special book. Most importantly, please remember that this is the first compilation of REAL, first-person essays that critically dissects the state modern-day African-American relationships. The book is published by Seal Press.
No acceptances or rejections this month
Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4