Stay True to Your Art, Part I

Staying true to your core self is a good goal for everyone but today I’m particularly interested in what it means to artists.

I’ve frequently heard rock stars saying, “Stay true to your music.” It’s a bit hard to take seriously when said by the latest teen pop star falling out of a cracker jacks box of a reality show, but it does make sense. When you are singing songs you love, songs that come from your soul, that passion naturally translates into a better performance.

It’s worth noting that some can make a living while not staying true to your art. I doubt any artist finds happiness this way but it may be possible to succeed creating false art, art that is manufactured to please others rather than art that, apologies for the rhyme, comes from the heart. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that all artists want to stay true to their art at least some of the time. How do they do that? I don’t think it’s always obvious to an artist what exactly their art is.

Case Study: my evolution as a writer. I remember writing my first story in Mr. May’s class in the 5th grade. I had written bits and pieces before but this was my first story with a beginning and an end (can’t vouch for a middle). It was called “Christmas at Unhilk Castle” and now that I think about it, it would make a decent screenplay. Anyway, for the next ten or so years, I was a busy creative bee, writing short stories, occasional poems and one-act plays, and a goofy comic strip featuring two characters I not-so-creatively dubbed Super Star Trek and Super Star Wars. I felt like I had found my purpose in life: writing. But I had not found my medium. My short stories were always too involved, novellas waiting to be written. My poems were lousy. I liked writing dialogue but on a stage, dialogue does all the heavy lifting and that turned me off. It felt false. The comic strip fell by the wayside. I was never into reading comics so there was no impetus from that direction.

While I was a senior in college, I wrote my first novel. I am always amazed when young authors publish their first novels to great acclaim because mine was awful. Still, the biggest victory for me was finishing it. I had proved to myself that I could write a novel. It was a mystery wrapped in a love story, about a detective who had to chase strange bad guys all over Colorado and the world to save himself–but in the end he chose death over immortality. One problem with this book was that I do not read mysteries. I am not a fan of mysteries. Why did I write a mystery? I don’t know but I think in part I was consciously trying to write a book that would sell. It could be that this was an attempt to make a living while not staying true to my art. I did enjoy writing the novel. I became convinced I had found my medium — the novel, but maybe not mystery novels.

During my first year out of college, I wrote a second novel. It was somewhere between a mystery and contemporary fiction. My Mom had a funny line, “In your first book, I wanted your main character to live and you killed him off. In this book, I wanted him to die and you had him live.” This second novel was inspired by Anita Shreve’s Eden Close. I’m not quite sure why — I think I just like the way Shreve’s book progressed into a living room denouement. After writing this, I began to feel like I was destined to become a writer of contemporary novels. Which is another way of saying, novels that don’t easily fit into a genre like science fiction, western or mystery. I dreamed of being a novelist who could cross genres, writing one great sci-fi book and then one great western and so on. Then I got distracted by another medium.

Continued in Part II.

5 comments

  1. wratha’s avatar

    Chick lit right? It SO had to be chick lit!

  2. Frank Thecat’s avatar

    Of course, it is all semantics. If you define artist as one who is true to himself or herself, then if they fail in that goal, they are not an artist. Those who are just interested in money, by that definition, would then not be artists — OR WOULD THEY?

  3. wisco’s avatar

    Wratha, let’s hope not.

    Frank, I’m not defining an artist that way. I’m saying it is possible for an artist to create art that is not true to himself or herself. For instance, say a muralist is hired to paint Terrell Davis on the wall of a building downtown. The muralist is creating art but the mural would probably be a lot different if the muralist had been told, “Paint whatever you want.”

    Maybe I should not have used the term “false art.” I only meant it was false relative to the true art within the artist. In and of itself, it’s still art. Or is it?

  4. I Fyam What I Fyam’s avatar

    I am interested to read the rest of this Will, it is interesting. One thought that came to my mind is you can apply this not just to art but any career. Hennessey’s uncle once told me a story about a cement truck driver who was coming up to the cabin to pour cement for the bridge over the creek. When he got to the top of the driveway the truck wouldn’t fit through — there were boulders on each side that were too big to move. They figured they would just take the cement in wheelbarrows the last couple hundred yards — it would be difficult but not impossible. But the truck driver said, “Hang on just a minute,” and he backed the truck up and little by little used the tires of the truck to nudge the boulders a bit in each direction, until there was enough room for the truck to fit through. Hennessey’s uncle’s point was that to do something that well, to do ANYTHING that well, in some ways qualifies as art. I have always been inclined to agree with this. So going along with your premise, the real trick in life is not only remaining true to one’s art, but figuring out what form that art takes in the first place (and by doing so in a sense achieve at least part of the goal of being true to it). It is something very few of us achieve — I sure as shit haven’t.

  5. wisco’s avatar

    Fyam, I’m glad you find it interesting. I agree there is artistry in every line of work. My Dad once tried to convince me that being a good lawyer required a lot of creativity and I don’t doubt that it does. But I don’t think he understood why my need to be creative could not be satisfied by the kind of creativity he was talking about. Maybe one first needs to find one’s art (which is hard enough) and then one must learn how to be artful within that realm.

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