This is the result of a conversation I had with a fellow writer a while back. After a brief exchange on the writing process and the nature of creativity, some thoughts started flowing. Wheels started turning. I guess you could say this all happened in a fleeting flash of clarity. Or naivety. You can be the judge.
THE INCITING COMMENT
“It’s one of those things that feels like a bad translation when you say it.”
This struck an immediate chord with me because it sounds like the exact thing that goes on in my head every time I try to write something. It’s like there’s something very important trying to come out, but the paper just dissolves it to meaninglessness.
But then I got to thinking. Maybe that’s the point. And probably the same might be said for more than just writing.
Maybe all creativity is just a bad translation of something we feel is very important. And this thing that is so very important exists in a tumultuous nebulous of mind and heart, and we have to figure out a way for this to translate into something we and others can see—can make sense of.
And I think this happens for everyone, “artist” or otherwise. The difference lies in how the individual responds to this struggle—what they do with it.
THE TRUE ARTIST
My writer friend responded that it would be great if there were “a language of the subconscious.”
That, I submit to you, is the response of the true artist.
In today’s reality-show-twitter-status-update culture, most people don’t struggle much over what they say. At the push of a button, our words cross oceans. With less effort than it takes to clip a toenail, we can communicate across the globe. “Talk is cheap” has taken on a whole new meaning. So without a thought, we spout off the first thing that comes into our heads like it’s the most brilliant thing ever spoken, and everyone needs to hear it. And everyone does. People used to struggle over their words because giving them an audience used to take effort. It used to take risk and sacrifice.
But the most interesting people, the true artists, if you will, are the ones who still realize that the things they have the hardest time saying are the things most worth the struggle of figuring out how to say. Or write or paint or whatever.
They wish for a language of the subconscious. And then invent one of their own.
THE TRUE CYNIC
That last section might sound a bit cynical to some. But I think art takes a healthy dose of cynicism.
Because the cynic does not take it for granted that he is right. Or that what he says is the end of the argument. He doubts even himself. And he always asks questions.
Stop asking questions, especially of yourself, and everything becomes stagnant. Beliefs, relationships, conversations, art, everything.
WRITING FOR OTHERS
I speak of art in the specific terms of writing because that is my form, but these concepts are transcendental.
What do you art for?
I write for me.
It’s something that I have to do because it’s how I express myself, explore questions, work through doubts, pray, challenge myself, and just generally function as a person. If you worry about writing to please others, convince others, or win others, your work will seem insincere.
When you let your writing dig through the depths of your thoughts and emotions rather than trying to say something in a way you think others will find entertaining or brilliant, your writing will become what it could never be otherwise—truly unique and absolutely fascinating.
TALK AS ART
And these concepts are not just limited to writing or art.
I’m a pretty reserved person now, even more so when I was younger. And, of course, I was picked on because of it. I used to hate myself in those moments. The incessant talkers were the ones worth something. They were entertainers, dazzling the masses with their clever wit and quick tongue. And what did I have to offer? Silent observation. But then I learned the concept of idle talk.
Since then, quietude is a trait I’ve come to value, both in myself and in others. It is in this quiet that we struggle with our thoughts and the meaning of our words. It is in the quiet that we learn what it means to be an artist.
Art should be a picture of struggle. The minute you use art to convey something you think you’ve got figured out, you’ve lost it.
Art is in the question, not the answer.
Art is conflict, not victory.
Here is something that I wrote as an angst-y teenager that I think relates:
He hears the language of his thoughts and sets himself to the task of deciphering them. He speaks, but he gets them wrong. Most of the time, he gets them wrong. But the intelligent person knows this so he tries harder next time. But he gets it wrong again.
So he stops and thinks and considers while others talk and talk and laugh and ask him why are you just sitting there. Say something. Contribute! But he knows that he has something important and delicate to say and he will not break it again. He hates himself for it, but he loves it, too, so he keeps quiet and swims around inside his head. He can hear his thoughts telling him deep, dark, and wonderful things. Sometimes terrible things, but they are things that only he can hear.
ART AS EVERYTHING
The true artist struggles with his art as much as with his thoughts, his words, his conversations, his religion, and his relationships. Because he knows how truly wonderful and delicate and important it all is. Nothing is for nothing. Nothing is wasted and nothing should be taken for granted.
A good writer is a good artist is a good thinker is a good listener is a relentless struggler.
But what do I know?
This is probably just another bad translation.
Vincent van Gogh said it much better in fewer words:
I am an artist. It’s self-evident that what that word implies is looking for something all the time without ever finding it in full. It is the opposite of saying, “I know all about it. I’ve already found it.” As far as I’m concerned, the word means, “I am looking. I am hunting for it, I am deeply involved.”