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Business of Writing, Craft of Writing, The Writer's Life

Your Writing: Is It Art?

First, let me say that if I could, I would spend my days writing. I wouldn’t blog, I wouldn’t tweet, I wouldn’t spend time marketing or promoting myself other than to participate in readings.

And if I could afford to publish Tahoma Literary Review and produce a professional publication (including paying contributors decent rates) without charging submission fees, I would do that too.

There are few people rich or successful enough to do those things. There are others who receive university or government funding, or patronage to make it possible. As much as I might like to, I don’t live in those worlds.

For better or worse, I live in mainstream America in 2014, a society that has changed over time from a system based on capitalism to one of consumerism. It’s no longer about the acquisition of wealth, but the acquisition of material goods. Therefore, everything is assigned a value, even if there is little or no basis for that value. Everything has a price. Everything can be bought and sold. Or can it?

The creation of art, almost by definition, is the antithesis of this idea. To write, or paint, or create music (in my experience at least) involves removing oneself for long stretches of uninterrupted time, and as far as possible, from the cesspool of daily commerce. Only then can the artist place his ideas about the world in perspective to it, and create a unique and profound statement. Only then does the art have value.

But here, I’m talking about the emotional, psychological value of the work. The finished art, if it is art, must speak to the recipient on some level other than the monetary. Unfortunately, it appears many in our society have forgotten how to assess that quality. Value, in 2014 mainstream America, is based almost solely on sales. How much can we charge; how many can we sell? Everything must have a market niche. In the writing biz, agents and publishers, who used to take chances on writing that was different from the mainstream (the search for emotional value), don’t do that so much any more. They are hamstrung by their corporate overlords and the mantra of commerce uber alles. Personally, nearly every agent I’ve talked to or communicated with has repeated this belief. In fact, my most frequent query rejection is, “I love your writing, but I can’t sell it.”

But none of this is new.

Some people, some artists, believe the artist’s life means nearly complete separation from the considerations of the markets, an unfettered, Thoreau-like existence of streams and dreams, writing and wildlife. But most artists of note throughout history have spent lives buffeted between their passion to create and the need to make enough money to support that desire. Think of the artists of the Renaissance, in thrall to royalty or the church, spending as much of their time butting heads with patrons and marketing themselves (in the fashion of the day, that is), as any artist today. Remember those like Van Gogh, whose struggles with sales were a chief concern as he tried to establish himself. Read of James Joyce’s lifelong problems with making enough to live on. There have been millions like them.

Most artists in America today have day jobs. For them, life becomes a constant compromise, a schizophrenia in which we must be able to separate, as much as possible, our competing existences in order to create. When possible, we throw ourselves into our art, but unlike regular jobs, there’s no guarantee of a paycheck at the end of the week, which is the consumer culture’s way of saying the pursuit of art, the work of making art has no value. The completed artwork is assigned an arbitrary value, but the work to create it, nada. Whether a book took ten years or ten weeks to write doesn’t factor into that equation. But if a person spends an hour to create a widget, or ten seconds to dish out an order of fries, that, in this culture, has value, and is compensated accordingly. Of course, those occupations have little emotional value.

So what, if anything, constitutes the bridge that connects these two value systems?

More next week. See ya then.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


12 thoughts on “Your Writing: Is It Art?

  1. A colleague of mine is currently working on Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” I’m fairly certain (if memory serves) that Henry James himself saw that work as one of his self-named “pot-boilers,” works created mainly to sell and bring him in some much-needed cash (for in spite of his sometime ivory tower reputation, he was often strapped for the ready). Funnily enough, however, James himself came through the erstwhile ghost-thriller story enough that ever since there has been constant debate over whether or not there are really ghosts there, or whether the governess is mentally ill (James’s famed ambiguity being well known). So I guess sometimes, when we are forced to live for the dollar, the artist in us betrays itself anyway, and a small masterpiece is born. Now, if only it worked for all of us like that!

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 9, 2014, 4:02 PM
    • So true. Perhaps the desire of the artist to completely disconnect from the world is a false one, since we have to live amid what is going on to be able to write/paint/scupt about it. But we still need that time away to make sense of it all.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 10, 2014, 2:43 PM
      • Yes, you’re right. As the frog said, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” Time seems to expand and contract depending on how you’re experiencing it. There have been times when I get more done in a lo-n-n-g half-hour than I do in three hours of free time the next day (when I seem to have time to ponder, and mope over the empty page, and cogitate freely, but hover over the paper seemingly unable to go on). I guess it’s a question of getting work done when the moment presents itself and you have something to say, and then trying to do the same again next time, even if it’s less successful. I think I may have quoted Stanislavski here before, but I’m always remembering (and sometimes rueing) his remark to an acting student who had claimed he could only work when inspired. Stanislavski said “That’s what technique is for; you work with technique all the time, and then the times when inspiration presents itself, it’s the icing on the cake. But you must work with technique first, and always,” or words to that effect. I find myself in the position of that student a lot, trying to hone a writing technique that will keep me writing even when I don’t feel particularly inspired, but I honestly have to admit that I’ve had only partial success.

        Posted by shadowoperator | August 10, 2014, 4:26 PM
  2. Poe also comes to mind. He dropped out of West Point because he yearned to be a poet and a writer. He had opportunities to go mainsteam, but his desire to make art trumped everything. I also think of my good friend Sonny Brewer, an artful writer (and a masterful oral storyteller), who “clocked out” of the literary world because he was busted flat and had to support his family. It’s tough. And it’s complicated because it’s different for everyone.

    I just love that you’re tackling this subject, Joe, and I can’t wait to read next Saturday’s post.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 9, 2014, 5:09 PM
    • Funny how it works is all I can say, because there’s no way to figure it out. Poe refused to compromise. Henry James (above comment) and George Clooney (below comment) had no trouble going mainstream in order to create an opportunity to do their most creative work. This is a rewarding exploration for me, perhaps because I have dedicated myself to the creative and have not had commercial success. I would even encourage other artists to take the same look at their careers to help decide their future direction.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 10, 2014, 2:55 PM
  3. I like what George Clooney says on the topic—something to the effect that he spends his time playing Batman so he can later do a movie like Syriana. You have to play along, is what he’s saying, and I agree. The stuff that matters to him is going to have a much smaller audience and it’s going to be poorly funded and hard to realize. He can only swing a project like that because he’s willing to put in the time on the big commercial popcorn flicks—and he’s going to be professional and do solid work on those as well, and put that money and cred in the bank against later creative withdrawals. Pretty savvy plan if you ask me.

    Posted by Averil Dean | August 10, 2014, 1:28 AM
    • Every artist, I think, needs to find that balance, the place where s/he is comfortable between the mercenary world and the creative. I love Clooney’s more cerebral work and understand it wouldn’t happen if he didn’t do the junky stuff like Batman and Gravity (yes, Gravity–what a piece of tripe). Anyway, the film world will remember him for those great movies, not the clunkers. So it is with artists. We have to do whatever it takes to give ourselves creative opportunities.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 10, 2014, 2:49 PM
      • Exactly. I also think that it’s okay to be an entertainer. There’s no shame in it, and it doesn’t prevent us from delving more deeply into the ideas that move us. Someone like Meryl Streep is the perfect example of that idea in the film world. Part of what makes her great is the fact that she doesn’t take herself too seriously.

        Writers don’t tend to have the same range actors do, of course, but I still find myself gravitating toward their way of the bridging the gap. I think they have a lot to teach us.

        (Re: Gravity… Why the hell is a medical doctor fixing a computer in outer space? And she doesn’t even want to be there!)

        Posted by Averil Dean | August 10, 2014, 3:35 PM
      • The “science” in that movie was so phony I wanted to throw something at the screen. No wonder people believe climate change deniers.

        Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 10, 2014, 3:59 PM
  4. Not to play the contrarian, but how’s an artist going to impact her audience unless she has some sort of connection to it? Of course, that connection need not be limited to the consumer world of her audience; but there’s got to be some sort of Golden Mean between The Strip Mall and The Ivory Tower, no?

    On a more practical level, there are ways for artists to retreat more formally from Default World. Think about intellectual property. It doesn’t even have to be artistic, per se. For instance, an author could create and sell a creative writing course; the Net makes it incredibly easy to store and deliver the documents, etc. the artist would need for that particular venture.

    Posted by La Tigresa | August 10, 2014, 8:31 PM
  5. There’s nothing I can add here that hasn’t already been written above. It can be discouraging if we dwell on it. I like Averil’s thoughts on George Clooney finding the balance or playing the game, so to speak.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | August 11, 2014, 12:12 PM
  6. I think that an artist needs to find a way to transmit their passion, and excite the interest of their intended audience, the way any successful professional who interacts with people does. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with lowering one’s standards of excellence. If an artist aims to communicate a vision, he/she must be able to do so in an engaging manner, otherwise, their work will become a self-indulgent exercise, and a possible buried treasure.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | August 13, 2014, 4:46 AM

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