Make Good Art

The problem with creating and embracing art, for me, is that I soak so much of it in, I don’t always know how to process it and put it back out there.  I feel it.  And I want to close my eyes really tight and explode it all back out onto the page.  I usually don’t know how to share my art, so I internalize the words and images I dream up and push it back down and try to forget the bitter disappointment I have in myself for not expressing it.  But after so many years, so many artists dates, it permeates my life to such an extent that I can’t hold it in. 

I somehow gathered up the courage to stop waiting until I was ready – whatever that means anyway – and start sharing, imperfect as it may be.  What’s my fear?  That no one will look at it.  That everyone will look and will laugh at it.  That the “real” photographers and writers will scoff at this woman who dares call herself that, without having a professional website, professional equipment, professional pricing.  That the people who got degrees in literature and journalism and writing would see me as something second class.  That people may start to get a glimpse of who I really am and decide they don’t like that person.  It’s so much easier to fake it than to be yourself. 

But.

“Who would I be if I did?  Who would I be if I didn’t?”

I’ve been consistently culling and editing my photo library for the past month and posting a photo a day on Instagram of my travels.  I made a Facebook Page as another way to share my work.  Doubt, of course, creeps back in and I find myself asking why.  Why am I sharing this?  Why do I care if anyone sees it?  “Make Good Art” was the unsolicited reply.  As I reread Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech from 2012, it felt like he was talking to me. 

“When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.”  Check.  I feel like an imposter all the time.

“If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.”  Mission accepted.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  I don’t have a plan.  I have “guidelines,” but I’m making this shit up every day.  It feels like what I need to do.  And maybe no more than half a dozen people who are related to me will ever care, but I’ll know I tried.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care how many Instagram views or blog comments I get.  I do care.  When I care too much I walk away and focus on the art and the inspiration and when I remember why I love it I start to share it again.  But I can’t fail to share out of fear. 

Gaiman’s third point: “When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”

I’ve submitted to two photo contests this month.  Likely I won’t hear anything back.  But I put that bottle out there.  Two of my photos have been shared on Instagram and I was as excited as if I HAD won a contest.

What it comes down to is, I want to make good art.  When I’m the only person who looks at it, when I don’t have a five-year plan, when professional goals and networking make my stomach flip, when I feel like a fraud, when I feel hopeless and scared and unoriginal, I want to make good art because even if you feel like you’ve seen it all, you haven’t seen it through my eyes, my lens, my voice, my perspective. 

Last month I was planning my trip to Oregon, and along the Google Map of the highway, I saw a marker for the Bridge of the Gods.  The last scene in the book Wild.  It was while reading that book on a plane over the west coast just two years ago that made me realize I was waiting for my life to materialize in front of me instead of doing something to make the life I wanted, even if I didn’t yet know what that was.  I ask myself Cheryl’s same questions every day: “What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what had got me here?  What if I was never redeemed?  What if I already was?”

I travel alone to let art and experience permeate me without interruption, except by life itself.  All these questions of life and art and sharing something of myself were rolling around in my mind when I pulled up to the Bridge.  It was raining, a low fog over the river, wrapping around me like a shroud to keep me safe, allowing me to experience the moment and giving me permission to share it in a way entirely my own. 

I don’t have to know what I’m doing, I just have to do it.  To trust that all these thoughts and ideas running through me will come out in some way.  Some way expressive of me.  And that I don’t really have to explain it.  If it touches you, you’ll know. 

The beauty of these final words stayed with me all day, as they do most days.

“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench the day I finished my hike.  Everything except that I didn’t have to know.  That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true.  To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days.  To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore.  To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough.  That it was everything.  It was my life – like all live, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred.  So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.  How wild it was, to let it be.”

Wild – Cheryl Strayed.

Neil Gaimon – Keynote Address at the University of the Arts Class of 2012