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Art is Hard

On ruins, and writing, and letting yourself get started..

In high school I wrote a short story about a composer. They'd written a grand new piece for the piano, but they weren't satisfied with it. Each day, they sat with their score to make revisions. They cut and cut and cut, taking out full pages first, then measures. Next, they took aim at individual notes, plucking them out one by one. Finally, when they sat at the piano, there was one note left in the whole score. They played that one note and it was still wrong, so the next day they didn't play at all.

I can't tell you how many times I've sat down to start a blog. My drafts folder is filled with ruins. I write for myself every day, but each time I sit at my computer thinking I might write something for someone else to read, my approach sours. I can no longer talk casually on paper as I do when I know I'm the only one who will read it. And if I do manage to write something, like the pianist in my old story, I will tear back through what I've written the next day, and the day after that — pressing backspace, adding commas, changing verbs, and restructuring sentences — until I can barely recognize what I started out to say. And then I give up.

I hold myself to the expectation that anything new I start has to be spectacular. I don't let myself warm up. I don't tolerate my own growth very well. I am impatient with myself, expecting the highest standards in everything I do. I let my work stall out in that drafts folder because I worry someone else has said it, and better. Or I think, if I can just spend a few more days on that, it'll be ready. And then a few days later I think, just a few days more. And soon, the days take over. It's a whole lot of aiming at a target having never learned to use a bow and arrow.

Somehow I've also told myself there are things that are silly to write about, either because they are clichéd or because I cannot write about them as well as others have. When I was younger, for instance, I thought it was old hat to write poetry about the natural world, about flowers or trees or clouds. The only thing I got out of that line of thinking was a whole lot less poetry than I otherwise could have written. As an adult, I'll read a novel or a story and think, I'll never write like that. And perhaps I'm right, perhaps I won't. But no one needs me to write like someone whose work they can already put on their shelf.

Art is hard. The trouble comes when you try and lift the creative impulse to the level of ambition. As an artist, much of the pandemic has been about learning to affirm for myself that any creative action is good simply by virtue of the fact that I have done it. If it has brought about pleasure or healing in my life, it was worthy of my time and it is worthy of celebration. I am also learning that my standards of excellence, in many ways, are predicated on the expectations of institutions (and of people I have perceived could grant me access to those institutions). Many of those same institutions perpetuate racist, queerphobic, fatphobic, ableist, misogynist harm, so I have reason to believe they don't share my values. As a result, I also have reason to interrogate my understanding of what it means to be excellent.

This blog is an attempt to unpack some of the stifling thoughts I hold around my creative work. I have it on good authority I am not the only one with thoughts like these. I believe they have calcified in me after years of self-denial and pigeonholing, rejection and disappointment as a performing artist, and because of my experiences of trauma. I have begun to think about what it means to reclaim creativity for the purpose of my own healing, instead of dedicating all my resources and energy toward pleasing a marketability engine that may never be satisfied with me. I intend to use this space to center myself and to practice. I will endeavor to learn as I go, to write authentically, and to trust rather than fear. I hope it can be meaningful work for someone other than myself, but even if it is just for me and a handful of supportive friends and family I will cherish it.

I have many ruins I'd like to excavate.

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