What Do We Own?
This morning I was thinking about this artist I knew when I was younger and just starting out in the creative world. He was about fifteen years older than me, miles ahead in the development of his voice, so I looked up to him. He was a friend’s boyfriend, so I was more of a friend of a friend to him, but I suppose I felt I knew him better than I did because she would talk about their relationship with me.
This was nearly two decades ago, in Brooklyn.
He was someone who worked obsessively and achieved more recognition than sales. He was a name, and he knew a lot of people, and he had gallery shows, but would only sell a few big pieces a year. He was known better in Europe than in America, maybe. Not a terrible place to be known. He had a specific vision and a singular voice and was just wildly talented and respected. It felt like he truly owned his art. Yet he barely got by financially for years and years. I don’t know if it bothered him, but it seemed like he accepted it.
Again, this was from afar, and translated through my friend, but I found his story tantalizing and inspiring. He was punk rock to the core. I was not yet committed to writing like I am now or even was a few years after I met him. It was important for me to see people doing that kind of work. Visual artists and writers have different concerns in some ways, but all artists need to be obsessed to get anywhere.
Also, I needed to learn that financial success, making a living as artist, that desire had to be secondary. Don’t get me wrong - we should absolutely get compensated for our work. I don’t believe in the idea of exposure as payment, for example. Pay me can be a helpful mantra. I think it’s healthy to have working toward publication as one of your end goals. Through knowing him, though, I learned that it was hard to make a living as an artist and only if you loved it like no other should you proceed. He was like a trail map that cautions you on conditions ahead. But oh, that viewpoint in the distance.
Eventually he and my friend broke up. I don’t think I saw him for a few years. Maybe at an art show in Bushwick or something. Finally, I wrote a book, and was trying to sell it. I was ready to become a working artist barely getting by myself. But I had loved writing that book. Being that person. I was 34 years old.
On New Year’s Day that year, my friend called me, distraught. The artist had died, tragically, in a motorcycle accident. It was devastating news.
Can you guess what happened next? The value of his artwork shot through the roof. It was hard not to wonder how he would have felt about it all.
A few years later, I wrote a novel about a woman tending to her artist husband who was in a coma. She is living off the proceeds of selling off his now-valuable artwork. The book is primarily about the woman, and her struggle to move on from her life with him, and the people she meets who help her along the way. The artist character in the book is not the artist I knew (the artist character in the book is a careless philanderer, for starters) but of course I was inspired by him. Then, in the writing of that book, and now, always, by the idea of someone who loved to make his work in such a pure way.
I am mostly thinking about this this morning because I am in this phase of having to talk about myself a little more than I’d like to promote my forthcoming book. I am looking at my schedule ahead and remembering there’s always a time where I arrive at being just so sick of myself, because we aren’t meant to answer all these questions or talk about ourselves out loud so much. (This is one reason why I had zero interest in recording my audio book – I thought my head might split in two.)
So I try and remember that feeling of being young and hungry and inspired and grateful and ambitious not to be known but simply to make great (or good, sometimes, anyway) art. The ambition should be in the work, always. And I think about being impressed by someone who already knew their voice. The goal of trying to access it. The stew of ideas that drove me then are still at my core.
It’s invigorating to remember who we once were, why we started these projects of ours. To recall our goals, no matter where we are in the process, early in our careers or later.
Dig deep, can you remember what inspired you to start writing in the first place? Who you admired, what your influences are? Is today a good time to make a list, even if it’s just to have one to check back on in the future? Always remember that energy. What do we own? I think about it all the time. Our words, our history, and our dreams.
I’m opening the comments today so you can declare some of your early inspirations and influences.
Have a nice Sunday.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to ACLU Louisiana.
Coincindentally, I was just thinking about the first time I realized I wanted to write, and that was when I was in the first grade. My father had come home with presents from Dollar Bill's, and mine had been a set of magic markers, as usual. But I saw him holding a day per page journal, one obviously meant for a grown up man, it was brown pleather and very serious and manly-looking. But I claimed it, much to my dad's surprise. I only just realized as I recalled that moment that he had given in because didn't have the heart to deny it to me when I was so excited to think he'd bought it for me.
Anyway, I had this journal, but I didn't know what to write in it -- I was only six or seven years old and hadn't done much with my life yet. But I had this feeling that once I did begin to write about my life it would take on some kind of meaning that it didn't have when unwritten. This much I was sure of. So, I forced myself to write something, anything.
I only used that journal twice before my mother's invasion of my privacy made my home an unsafe place to write, and gave up on studying writing and literature seriously because my father's disdain of "loser English Majors" led him to refuse to let me study at Stonybrook even when I was accepted. Instead of writing, I read voraciously all my life, especially after getting an after-school job at the local library. But because of my parents' middle class ideas about who gets to write and who doesn't, I went into art, instead, rather half-heartedly. I wouldn't seriously try to write again until I was about 36.
I see someone has mentioned Joe Frank here: I used to listen to his show on Sunday nights, and followed him on Facebook. He was the first writer to encourage me to write, after a comment I posted in response to a post on his Facebook page led him to DM me, telling me I wrote well, and should write more. To be told by a writer that you can write, that you should write, is so important to helping you realize it's not just something you do even though everything and everyone else is telling you otherwise.
My little brother died in a car crash when he was 23, I was 26. I wrote a poem straight from my heart at that dark time. When I was packing up boxes to move recently - having done a writing course and four drafts of a novel - I found that poem, it reminded me that I was a writer even then but didn't know it.. finding the poem was sad but also a beautiful moment of rememberance.