We think of art as individual expression, but I’ve come to find that it’s more a subjective creation of that which is ultimately true. We know what it’s like to have a flawless construction of words speak to us and change us. To hear a song verse that makes our core rush. We take these elements and put them in our lives and they become our lives. We turn to them when we’re broken and riff off the highness when we’re not. We borrow from one another, we stand on each other’s shards of bravery and we build.
We let art guide us, though it’s more accurate to say we just follow people who are guiding themselves.
I used to think of writers in a lofty, unstable light. I used to cringe reading their most personal works. I thought of them as pained people making commodity of their suffering. I thought of them as friends and classmates, enthused about their work, ultimately knowing it wouldn’t go anywhere. I cringed at that awareness. I cringed at their honesty. I cringed at their knowing of themselves, how forthcoming they were. I did not want to be that.
The first day I was a writer was not the day I was published. It was a random afternoon that I bought a brown journal with burlap binding. The very first thing I wrote in it, on the very first page, was about a day my friend and I skipped class and went out to a random Pennsylvania field and walked through the disgusting sod and early spring dew for no reason other than we just wanted to exist there for a bit.
I wrote about the beat of the music humming from the car behind us and the smell of the grass and how my long dress came back with me smelling like manure. I wrote about the sweet tea I drank and how happy I was. I wrote it as proof that I could be happy. I wrote it as a manifesto of what I wanted my whole life to be like. I wrote it to read and re-read to remind myself that these things could simply be as I wanted them to. That first page hangs on the journal by a shred.
The rest is filled with some conglomerate of thought. Anecdotes of random lovers, thoughts and quotes and phrases that I would turn to again and again, to chant them in my mind and let them seep through me, to let them change me, and carry me away from whatever it was I couldn’t escape on my own. I wrote maniacally, receptively. I traced over the words and boldened them. I made myself look at those pages everyday. I needed them to resonate. This wasn’t a means of expression and past time, this was self-preservation.
I remember loving the smell of the ink and how my handwriting looked on the paper. I remember having the joy of a little girl excited by the simple potential of what could be. I kept writing, not for the sake of art making or accolade acquiring, but because what I wrote what I needed to read.
It’s funny, how I thought “becoming a writer” was a thing that happened when you had a lofty job title and prestigious credentials. It’s funny how I didn’t identify with that word then — or even now entirely — though what I do day in and day out, is indeed, write. I had no intention of becoming a writer until I realized that no one person is any one such thing. A job title isn’t a personal definition. A hobby isn’t either. You aren’t what you do, you are innately present and you can put titles to your presence and experience and action but you don’t have to.
Because I can see now that I was cringing at how I thought I could never attain loftiness — and I thought it was the only thing worth attaining. I was cringing at knowing that which I wouldn’t allow to be known about me. It meant lowering the wall of separation between myself and everybody else — rather, lowering the illusion that there was something I could safely tuck between pages and in my mind, and I didn’t like it. It made me vulnerable. Those walls were erected with reason. I cringed at the fact that I couldn’t know myself, nor could I articulate that knowing. I cringed at wanting to be forthcoming as well. That’s what I didn’t want to be. Myself.
What artists do is they take theory and thought and place it firmly beneath experience. They prove that which they know, they question that which they don’t, they humbly rise and speak. Artists don’t make art with other people in mind. They just let people overhear the conversation with themselves.
There are no “should be’s” here, especially when creating art you intend to be consumable. It seems counter-intuitive, but “other people” are the last ones who need to be on your mind if you’re going to be a creator. I don’t mean this about writing, either. This applies to everything and everyone. Make what heals you. What inspires you. What you put together to be chanting and reciting as I was in that brown journal and you give yourself your own salvation. It is the only way it becomes accessible to other people, because it is the only way that you tap into something honest and universal.
Scribbled on an index card above my desk, even today, is this: You should write what you need to read. Because all you can do is create something that heals you or makes you face that which you ultimately can’t bear otherwise. And allow someone else to take it, and use it as a notecard on a board or a quote in a journal or a mantra they subconsciously chant. That there was nothing more or nothing less to it. And that my problem all along wasn’t wondering what other people would think, but what I would think of myself. And artists can’t make art with other people in mind.