Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Praise of Bourgeois Art

I've had reason to think lately about how the making of art and the hum drum professional life intersect. This would normally be a busy time at work, but this year it is even more so, in part because I'm going through one of those gradual increases of responsibilities which may or may not eventually lead to a promotion and a new, busier status quo. This busyness at work intersects with my own self imposed busyness. This is also production weekend for our community theater production of Twelve Angry Men, so I've been down at the old courthouse for two-and-a-half hours a night for the last couple weeks, sitting at the jury table in dress rehearsals as self important adman Juror #12.

And on Monday night I finally finished the latest installment of the The Great War. This was a necessary first step to my commitment to get serious about the revise-and-submit part of being a novelist. Goal for the next month or two: revise and expand If You Can Get It so that Kristy and Katie can get a shot at having their day in print. (I'll probably de-publish all those posts when I send the novel out, so this represents a last call on the original version.)

At a certain point, thinking of all this writing, I was telling myself: What I need to do is get away from all this. Once the play is over, I should arrange to take a long weekend off, go away somewhere, and just write all day long. A writer's retreat. I could get so much writing and revising done. It would be like being a real writer for a couple days.

But of course, that's a false siren call. Not only would it be really jerky to stick MrsDarwin alone for a couple days due to a needless trip right after the time stresses of a show's production week, but the fact is that the life of a "real writer" is not some airy thing where one is free to spend all day at the keyboard in some picturesque locale far from the worries of cleaning the living room, reading bedtime stories, and justifying the sell in story for 2019 pricing. Being a real writer consists of writing while in the life one actually has. Sure, if I had a couple days and a good outline, I could probably write more than I do in my normal routine during a month or two of time stolen between ten at night and one in the morning. But fantasizing about writing in such unrealistic conditions is self defeating. The distraction free life is not mine, and I don't evenP really want it to be.

Perhaps due to its creative nature, the artistic life seems prey to more than the usual number of illusions, and some of these have to do with what it means to do art. There are images of what the artistic life should be like: The starving artist living on nothing in some exotic locale while devoting all time to art. The self destructive artist destroying relationships and splitting time between substance abuse and creating brilliant art.

Yes, some people have fit these molds, but many haven't, and none of them are necessary in order to produce good art. Indeed, when actually lived rather than watched in some costume drama, poverty or dysfunctional relationships or substance abuse are things which can eat up attention and keep someone from investing the time necessary to produce good art. Producing art requires just that, sitting down and producing it. Following some trope of 'the artistic life' is in no sense necessary to it.

I was struck by this recently when reading a piece which sought to contemplate to what extent it was possible to do art (in the case of the article, acting) in a "safe space" during the current moment of heightened awareness of harassment. The author argued that art couldn't really be safe, and that while it was important that those in the artistic world engage in abuses of power, that something as small scale as a community theater production must necessarily involve lots of drinking and despair and yelling and melodrama and hookups.

Nonsense. Not only does theater not require these things, but the more your theater group can focus on their job, putting on a play, and avoid bringing personal chaos into it, the better the art you will produce. Fighting and melodrama aren't essential to acting, they're detrimental to it. The audience doesn't come to see your artistic experience, they come to see a play that actually goes well, and for a play to go well requires organization and a cast and crew that are dedicated to working hard on the project at hand.

This is why I'm always inspired by hearing about artists, writers in my case, who produced good art while also holding down a solid job in an ordinary, middle class sort of way.

Anthony Trollope, in addition to being one of the great English novelists of the 19th century, put in a full career in the post office. Even his writing routine was orderly and professional: He'd sit down each day for a set amount of time and try hard to produce a set number of pages. If his time was up in the middle of a sentence, he'd leave off there and resume the next day. If he finished one novel during a day's writing time, he'd start the next one without skipping a beat.

Even the notably cutting edge poet T. S. Eliot simultaneously pursued a successful career as a banker at Loyd's Bank in London.
The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.”

I find it inspiring that our cast is made up, not of edgy personalities living 'artistic' lives, but of half a dozen lawyers and assorted other holders of mundane jobs (project manager, math teacher, pricing director, etc.) who show up every night to put the work to make a good show. And as a writer I try to remind myself often of the good writers, writers better than I will ever be, who held down solid jobs and were good at them. Being a writer, or any other kind of artist, does not require adherence to some edgy trope. It requires only one thing, that whoever we are, whatever our vocation and employment, we sit down and create works that help others see the world a little more truly through the lens of our creations.


mandamum said...

I found it inspiring to read about Dr. McInerny's (novel) writing schedule. He was a professor of philosophy by day, and father of a young growing family (7 kids), but after he put the kids to bed and hung out with his wife, he went to the basement and typed, standing up, from 10pm to 2am.

Here's one autobiographical description from him:

lissla lissar said...

I’m thinking about this, but I just woke up, so I’m foggy. :) I’m personally having a hard time with the struggle between being a single parent, with all the responsibilities that implies, and wanting very much to pursue my craft and build my business. Because I am, in a small way, an artist. Wince. Or maybe artisan. So I’m having a lot of ‘running away for six months to pursue my craft’ fantasies. So I don’t want to shirk my normal life, but if your art and your day job are inseparable, how do you balance that and keep it from being eaten? Anyway, that’s what I’m pondering.

Foxfier said...

Random thought pops up, not sure how accurate it is:
maybe the "edgy personalities living 'artistic' lives" managing to make art is impressive exactly because they're not going to manage to help folks get that glimpse through the lens of truth any other way-- while the folks who make things work, and have families, will do so.

Sort of like how you put an identical flower in front of a flat black wall, vs in the middle of a bunch of other flowers, and consider which one shows up more impressively.

Son Mom said...

My husband is a full time writer for a living, writing for television animation, and he would definitely agree that despite the quasi-romantic stereotypes of the temperamental and/or substance addicted artist, a stable lifestyle and strong work ethic are much better means to success as a writer! It is true that in a profession in which you have to constantly create and come up with new ideas, there is a unique kind of stress, and it can be tempting to turn to alcohol or other destructive crutches when facing that stress. But it is certainly not beneficial to your work in the long term! It also tends to make a writer unreliable when it comes to meeting deadlines, which will end up hurting your employablility no matter how much of genius you are. I remember having a discussion with him and some other writers that while people love stories of the wunderkind that suddenly has professional artistic success strike when his or her genius is recognized, the average writer succeeds by a slow and incremental process of hours and hours and hours of writing (Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours hypothesis), with plenty if rejection along the way, though of course luck does play a role as well. When my husband had a full time “day job” but had the goal of becoming a professional writer, he wrote every day for several hours. He would come home from work, eat dinner, spend some time with the kids, and then write for 2-3 hours. He wrote on the weekends as well. I did go into marriage knowing this was his goal, which was good, as it did require sacrifice of time together, but we had also chosen to marry young and start a family, which required him to have that day job rather than being able to live as a starving artist and give his all to his writing.

A nocturnal lifestyle does seem quite common among many writers (my husband included) - because nighttime brings many fewer distractions and a quieter environment, especially if one has children!