Thursday, May 3

The Artist Mama

Recently I read a (long) quote by Ira Glass:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ― Ira Glass
I'm not sure how to say this (and I'm still working my mind through it, so forgive me) but in many ways, being an artist is much like being a Mother.  You are trying to create good citizens, good people.  You fight hard, but you don't always know what you're doing.  you doubt yourself on a daily basis.  Your work is undervalued and the pay can be lousy.  There is an inherent pay-off, but it comes at a high cost. You put yourself out there, physically, mentally, emotionally, and sometimes the object of your work isn't cooperative or doesn't got he way you want it to, or think it should.  It's hard.

But in some ways, being a mother is nothing like being an artist...


My daughter plays on the floor
with plastic letters,
red, blue & hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells.

I wonder how many women
denied themselves daughters,
closed themselves in rooms,
drew the curtains
so they could mainline words.

A child is not a poem,
a poem is not a child.
there is no either/or.

I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
& in labour, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.

Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.

A word after a word
after a word is power.

At the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.

This is a metaphor.

How do you learn to spell?
Blood, sky & the sun,
your own name first,
your first naming, your first name,
your first word.

~Margaret Atwood

I had a student who did a speech a year or two ago on how creative writing was like giving birth, and having given birth, I mentally scoffed at her.  She really did butcher the entire process, and didn't do her research to support her ideas.  Besides the fact that she was somewhat ignorant on the actual physical and mental process of giving birth there was the important part that she had not addressed.  Your children grow up.  They move away.  They have their own minds and ideas.  They rebel.  They make their own choices and have their own lives.  They break your heart.  Art does not do that.  It does not develop into anything other than what you create it to be.  It will not grow, get sick, date bad boys, choose careers that don't live up to it's potential.

Children are a living, breathing piece of yourself that walk away from you and leave a permanent hole in your heart and life.  Your art will always be your art.  It's message will always be your message.  You may change, but it will not.

I'm fighting my way through motherhood, and wanting to fight my way through my own artistic need.  I think I might be getting the hang of the Mommy thing, though there are certainly areas that need improvement.  What I want to be is not yet what I am.

My art.  Not so much.  I wonder, though, how much the process of fighting through motherhood will affect the way, and how I fight, and how I HAVE to fight through my own artwork.


Laura said...

That's an excellent Ira Glass quote. Whew, what a relief.

But I disagree with your qualification of art:
"Art does not do that. It does not develop into anything other than what you create it to be."

I mean, I agree with your comparison of motherhood to art in this way, but not to your limitation of art You don't (or shouldn't) fully own or control it. I was listening to a podcast by a poet today who qualifies poetry this way that I love:

"Less as a means of expressing what they already know and more of a process by which they come to apprehend what they do not know. Perhaps what they can never exactly know, but what in exhilarating joy they come to suspect. It is therefore very misleading for us to talk of literary writing in terms of expression.... the process must be understood primarily as a way to see."

And later:

"It is poetic to the extent that it occasions further generation, that it bears fruit."

Anonymous said...

Wow! You have opened quite a box.
As a Mom & Grandmother I know what you said about the mother & child experience from my own & agree. As an artist who was only able to fully devote myself to being creative after I had retired, I found it daunting. I had all of these artistic endeavors in mind. Then I felt the pressure that goes with maybe being unreasonable to yourself. I had to step away for awhile. It was not enjoyable anymore. I am working on being more relaxed & free now. You will be a great Mother, because you work at it daily & give it much thought. I see in time, that is how you will do your artwork also.
You are doing it now with both, just maybe not as often. You also have family close by to help & to encourage you. I didn't have that.
I found freedom can be scary too.
Carol Watson

Chara said...

I'm not necessarily saying that it doesn't have other impacts later. The truth is that art is part of a conversation (IMO) and not a living being. It isn't an entity with a life of it's own. In one sense art becomes a part of the larger community, but it always belongs with, and is connected to the artist.
Art will never say back to you, "I disagree with your word choice and I'm changing it." or "This color or shape isn't done well and I am going to adjust it." Children, on the other hand, can and do make those kinds of changes in themselves. They can choose to reject your ideas, to change themselves and deviate from the person you shape them to be. It's one of the most terrifying parts of being a parent for me- that no matter how hard I work to shape my children into good people, they will later reject me and everything that I have tried to shape them into. Art can't do that.
The funny part to me is that I still agree with what you said about art being less about concrete truth that an artist "establishes" and more about a way of exploring ideas to try to get a grip on the things we don't completely, but are trying to understand. I think that is very much what this blog is about for me: trying to get a grip on a process of change- a lifelong process of change.

Laura said...

Yeah, I see what you're saying. Children are literally alive and independent. I think art can be independent of the author to, though in a less literal way.

For postmodern thinkers, we sometimes think of the "death of the author" is a sort of bleak relativism. But for pre-modern thinkers, stories and art were thought to belong to the culture rather than the artist, even if they were penned by an individual. As a society's needs changed, the art adapted to it. So in a very real way, the message wasn't always your message.

I guess this is something I like. If I try to think of art that expresses some message that I want to share, it doesn't go very far. I always feel like I have so little to share of myself. But if I make art that participates in the larger conversation, a time might come when my art will reject me. In that case, the art is successful and hopefully I will be the better for it.

Sorry, this is what i'm thinking about today, so maybe I'm off on a tangent.

Carol - I hope you get the joy back!

Chara said...

I understand what you are saying. I think that if art doesn't have a broader connection to society it becomes irrelevant. I also think that in the greater context of the community it had different meanings because it is part of a context- and certainly it isn't always the thing we were thinking it was when we originally began to create.
I think that's a given

What art won't do is suddenly change on you. If you are making a painting it won't suddenly decide to become impressionist when you were clearly painting in a realistic manner. You, as an artist, have a kind of control over your art that you will never have over your children. Even if the greater conversation finds alternative meaning in your art, you still have ultimate control over that art- you could destroy it, refuse it's publication. That's the nature of copyright.

I think that the conclusion that I am starting to come to is that it might actually be infinitely harder to be a mother than an artist. In many ways (please don't misunderstand this) being an artist is very inwardly focused. It is self-indulgent and safe. Being a mother is dangerous. It promotes the death of the ego (to steal some phrasing) and in many ways it has made me closer to God because I've been forced to see all the ways that I haven't become a living sacrifice (to steal a tattoo- ha ha!).

Laura said...

I think you're speaking of art as an object, and I'm speaking of it as a vocation - which is why we're not agreeing. But I think you're right - any good vocation, (whether motherhood, prayer, painting, or singlehood) is only good when it is a struggle to sacrifice self, and gain communion with God.

Steve Finnell said...
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