Friday, January 30, 2015

Standing at the Intersection of Art and Grace

            Someone was mean to me once, and it threw me ten years off course.
            It is sobering to look around in my mid-forties and realize that I’ve squandered some important creative years, all because I took to heart some freakishly harsh criticism from a person I loved, a person who should have done better by me.
            The “who” doesn’t matter. What happened is this: I was in the middle of a creative project that thrilled me, and I talked about it to one of the people I cared most about. This person sat me down and told me all of the things that were wrong with me. I felt I was better than everybody else. I lorded my accomplishments over others. I flaunted my education. I refused to speak normally, and instead used big words and complicated constructions to say basic things.
            This were personal criticisms, not poetic ones, but they rose from my attempt to express that moment of artistic glee—I had a project that was changing my creative life and making me feel like I had real potential as a poet.
            By the end of that conversation, I had put my pen in a drawer, figuratively speaking, and it stayed there for a decade.
            The other day, a friend mentioned that she was worried about sharing her work with her loved ones. Other friends piped in with advice. The work is important, they said; the loved ones need to hear it and support it, or they are not worth loving at all.
            Sharing work with special people is tricky. I’m always hearing artists talk about the fear that accompanies a family member reading their poetry or seeing their visual art in a gallery. And it may not be worth the trouble. When loved ones are also artists, it’s easier; they know how to honor the humanity within the work yet separate the product from the creator. Loved ones who aren’t artists may look for themselves in work; they may psychoanalyze the creator or see something unhealthy about the way we work through things on page or canvas.
            It seems like the best move may be to go ahead and keep work and loved ones separate, unless family, friends, or lovers seek it out on their own, or otherwise show readiness for confronting the artist through the work. I certainly experienced no profit from excitedly talking about my life-changing project with someone who didn’t know or care what it meant to me.
Art, including literary art, can be regarded sort of like, say, gardening is. It’s lovely to hear that someone has planted dahlias in the side yard; we can hear about the bold blossoms, maybe glance at them and appreciate their beauty and the fact that someone has cultivated it. We don’t need to investigate the roots and stalk. We don’t need to count the petals. Seeing the happiness of the gardener is sufficient. That person—and maybe any person who increases, rather than decreases, the beauty in the world—should be congratulated, cheered on.
            It is tempting to be angry with the person behind this moment that never stops being horrible. (I go back to the conversation from time to time, and it hurts just as much after all this time as it did at the moment it was happening.) The fact that this person made the wrong call doesn’t even factor in. An MFA in creative writing is not the kind of education one flaunts. A non-tenure-track job, lowest rank in the institution, is not an accomplishment to be lorded. Being awkward and stilted in conversation is not a source of pride. The poetry, though? That’s a very reasonable source of delight. A professor I had once told me that there are two kinds of poetry: good poetry and great poetry. The act of making art is, in itself, ennobling, whatever the product.
            I think the rightful focus of anger is obvious. It’s me. Most people are nice and supportive—even strangers hold doors and spare a smile. We run into stinkers from time to time, though, and from time to time, we are the stinkers. The only unforgivable act in this scenario is not reporting for duty—not answering the call of those poems that tried to find their way into being during that empty decade. Who knows what words might have visited me, had I been in position and ready to accept them?

            The unkindness of others shouldn’t change me, and I won’t let it change me again. Whatever the actions of people around me, I choose, forever after, to be a loving person and a gracious host.

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