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.