It turns out you can know what you want to say, and it can even be a relatively simple idea, but you can still have trouble finding the words to actually say it. It turns out you can start and re-start a blog post at least seven different ways and still not find the right one. It turns out that when trying to express a simple idea, wordiness is not an asset.
À propos of nothing, while I was composing those three sentences in my head, they looked like three drooping branch clusters of a weeping willow.
Something my new friend said to me on our choir tour is that she imagines one of the reasons people have a hard time getting to know me is because they have a hard time with the way I speak. It’s the truth. This, the way I write, is the way I speak. It’s not helping me simplify this.
I’ve been trying to write about The Impressionists since I first watched it, back in late May (or was it early June?) All I’ve wanted since then has been to express how clearly it spoke to me, how much of myself I saw on the screen. All I’ve been able to do since then has been to fumble for the right approach to the topic, because every time I try to touch it with my words, I feel pretentious.
Me, an artist. Me, comparing myself to the great trailblazers of art history. Me, daring to speak of sharing the quest for their kind of artistic honesty as though I am some sort of iconoclast.
I’ve tried to come at the topic sideways, ashamed to admit to the degree to which I see myself represented in the characters portrayed. Trying to brush it off and so maybe that way not appear so egotistical. I’ve tried head-on, a straight-up review, but that doesn’t say any of the things that make talking about the film worthwhile for me. I’ve tried being perfectly candid about my reasons for finding this so difficult. Nothing has gotten me any closer to just saying what I need to say.
Three years ago, I was given a copy of The Artists’s Way by Julia Cameron. I was in a particularly lost time and I needed something to show me a path, any path. I’m not going to go into all the reasons why it didn’t work out for me (mostly because I already have, elsewhere.) What I’m getting to here is an experience I had one day, when I was heading out on my “artist’s date.” I wasn’t actually sure where I was going. The major victory was that I had managed to get out the door on what was to me such a self-indulgent errand. So as I drove along, toward no destination in particular, I asked myself what it was my “inner artist” most wanted to do for fun just then. This meant trying to look this supposed inner artist in the eye and figure out who she is.
That was when I had this realization, in the midst of a pretty black and stormy mood. I recorded it in my Morning Pages the next day:
1 June, 2010: Apparently I’m not as dark and cynical and hard as I like to think I am. In fact, my photography portfolio reveals an entirely different story. If you look at my view of the world as seen through the lens of a camera, I’m actually quite innocent and idealistic, even romantic, at heart… I’m a child alive with the wonder of creation under all this jaded depression crap. I cling to the hardness and the darkness because the romantic child underneath is soft and vulnerable. And afraid.
My memory ate the context of the conversation a long time ago, but I distinctly remember that I was talking to someone once about my music and I said to them – with the kind of guileless self-absorption that only a teenager can manage unironically – that I played the same kind of music all the time because I had a certain feeling inside me and I was trying to find a piece of music that expressed it. I remember feeling, as I said it, that by finding that one piece of music and playing it, I would achieve a wholeness of self that was not to be had any other way; I also remember not having any particular sense that I would ever actually find it.
I’m a musician, but not a composer. I have nearly no understanding of how to construct a particular mood with chords or note progressions. Key signatures? I can play them, but I don’t really get why they work the way they do. I only know how to interpret the sounds that someone else has written. Looking to someone else’s work for an expression of my innermost self will always be a doomed quest, and I’ve always known that. It’s the search, the ongoing experience of tasting musical flavors, that’s the important thing.
I have to admit that even today, I still feel a twinge of weirdness at calling myself a musician. I was conditioned stringently in childhood not to “pretend” to talents or identities I had no right to (which, in hindsight, was anything I was ever good at because my siblings didn’t want to let me in on the fact that I deserved to be proud of myself, but it’s difficult to overcome those feelings.) I can own up to being a singer, because I’ve been doing it for so long and so irrepressibly, and have received objective competitive confirmation that I’m better than average at it. But calling myself a musician, I don’t know, implies a level of professionalism I never reached despite the fact that I was about two breaths away from majoring in vocal performance at college. Also it implies, to me, that I’m better with instruments than I am. I tanked horribly on the viola, and my skills on the piano are no better than casual despite years of practice because of the hard limitations imposed by my poor hand-eye coordination and fine motor control.
But I am a musician. I make music. End of story.
I’ve had even more of a struggle to call myself an artist. I am the one sad outcast with no drawing skill in a family of talented sketchers, so I always felt that there must have been a certain artistic gene in the family that ran out by the time I was born. It has taken me my entire adult life to come to grips with the reality that there are as many kinds of art as there are artists, and that lacking an ability to accurately render with a pencil has nothing to do with a person’s creativity. I like to make things that are beautiful. I’m still experimenting with all of the ways I can do that. One of them is through photography. The awkward part of me doesn’t want to call that art, but the logical part knows it can be. So I tentatively, shyly, wear the title of Artist.
The one thing I’ve never had any qualms about is owning myself as Writer. It’s been who I am since I was in grade school. I didn’t know how to answer the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, because while the other children wanted to be princesses and astronauts and firemen, I already was a writer and I didn’t want to be anything else. I’ve gone through periods over the years of thinking I’m a mediocre writer, but I’ve always known that I am one.
These are all tools with which I try to make sense of reality, and they each serve a different purpose. I use music to explore myself, photography to explore the world, and writing to explore the people in it.
There were certain lines in The Impressionists that leaped out at me powerfully the first time I saw it. These are a few.
“For me, Nature is an end in itself.”
“…we will all draw him differently, and his feet will be different, just as we are all different, and the world is different in every moment of every day.”
“Nothing that makes me feel, nothing that art is for me even exists for [him]!”
“If we can’t paint what we were born to paint, then we might as well be doctors and tailors. At least then we’d be doing something real.”
“No one can tell me there is no color in shadow, when I have stood here and seen it and painted it for myself.”
“I wanted to capture the impression of a moment.”
“For me, it was all about the moment… chasing the moment that will never come again.”
“Cézanne was a pioneer searching for his own truth.”
“How can anyone say that a landscape even exists when it changes so constantly?”
“You are an inspiration to me, and you… you are Renoir.”
“I am trying to clarify the relationship between color and form.” (I thought I was starting to understand what he means by this, one night as I was drifting off to sleep, but when I woke up it remained as elusive as ever. I suspect this may simply be a concept that is comprehensible only within the liminal spaces of my consciousness. But it hits me somewhere.)
“Be good. And if you’re not, you’re forgiven already.”
Even though they are never given a mention in the film, I came away from the story with an understanding of the Impressionist composers that has always eluded me. I suddenly saw what it was they were trying to do. Some music is story (a lot of music is story), some is a mathematical expression. Some is a statement of theme. I’ve always found Impressionist music beautiful but nonsensical. I get it now. They were trying to catch the abstract of the emotion of a single moment in time, never the same way twice. And I realize that’s how I make music.
Whatever it is about the movie that speaks to me, it’s beautiful – an actual work of art on its own merits. Real credit is due the cinematographer and artistic director, because every frame is like a painting. It’s worth watching for the aesthetic value alone. The performances are genuinely offered. Richard Armitage as Claude Monet is charming, life and enthusiasm bursting from the brightness of his eyes, from every barely-controlled line of his body.
I’m not going to pretend that my work is in any way visionary, or that the landscape of literature will be changed by my contributions to it. I write fantasy novels; they do what you expect them to. I am not the Monet or the Cézanne of fantasy fiction. I’m not at the forefront of anything. Where I see myself in these characters is in the dogged drive to continue honestly making the kind of art they feel compelled to make, despite a lack of support from the outside world. Sometimes the will to create sinks beneath the despair of being unknown and unappreciated, but in the end the art will out. With Monet I share that wide-eyed wonder at nature. With Cézanne I share the frustration of feeling unequal to the work (and also the poor manners, eccentric habits, and lack of social awareness.)
There is something larger here than I’ve been able to say. Or maybe I’ve been able to say it in the empty spaces. Maybe I speak best with silence.
A really interesting post, Alyssa, because it is something I often contemplate in connection with my own work. It kind of struck me that you might be suffering from the same problem that I have. A photography lecturer of mine identified it for me, a few years ago – that my idea of art is aparrently rather lofty. The typical “art as the sublime”, the divinely granted talent, the goosepimple inducing power over listeners, readers, viewers. Well, he reminded me that art can be much earthier than that hard-to-grasp Mount Olymp highness of sacred art. Art is not sacred. And we do not need to be angels or priests or perfect people in order to create art. – In my case, I am doomed to fail with my aspirations to be an artist, because I have set the bar so high with my interpretation of art as the sublime non-plus-ultra… Personally, I have given up attempting to create what I consider “art” – and yet, others tell me what I create (in visuals, sometimes also in writing) IS art. So there. Maybe it is about *accepting* oneself as an artist? With our flaws and our flawed artistic expression?
(Phew – not sure whether I make sense here at all… But anyway, now that I have written this much, I might as well post the comment… Ignore if it isn’t helpful…)
Oh, you do make sense, and I suspect you’re probably right to some degree. I struggle because I’ve been told my whole life that I’m so smart, I’m clearly destined do great things. Not only have I decidedly not yet done anything great, I also experience guilt when I do things that are well below that expectation. (See: spending a good chunk of my life being ashamed to tell people that I write fantasy.) But a major side of my issues comes down to plain old doubt that what I make is ever going to be of interest to anyone, and therefore has no value.
I think you’re definitely right that our main task is probably to just stop doubting and accept that art has intrinsic value in the act of creation, regardless of whether or not it is ever destined for consumption.
In any case, thanks for sharing and commenting. 🙂
I think it always helps to realise that others may have similar issues. In a strange way it helps *me* to know that someone as eloquent and thoughtful as you can have doubts.
Self-doubt is one of the great motivators in art, I believe. It is good to be critical of oneself. To keep expressing creativity despite doubts is the hard bit. But every time you create, you practice. And the more you practice, the better you get.
Thanks for your honest post.
FWIW I have similar problems. I had a hard time calling myself a historian for the longest time — I called myself a professor — and now I struggle to apply to myself the label writer. I was a really good musician on two instruments and couldn’t call myself that, and even when I won a poetry prize I never identified myself as a poet. Sometimes I want to strangle myself. My problem is akin to Guylty’s — if I am going to write a book I want to write the best possible one and since I know that won’t happen, I’m not going to “pretend” to the status of writer. Fine for other people, just not for me.
To me, part of what you’re getting at here is that they had the same problem as you do, from the opposite direction. They thought they were artists — but at the beginning no one else thought they did. Is that wrong?
Oh, I think that’s about right. And that may be part of my problem with trying to say that I thought the movie was speaking to me: maybe I’d look like I was claiming my work is actually great art and the world just doesn’t see it yet. (So not what I think.)
For the record, I think you are a writer. A very powerful one.
As are you — but you know that 🙂 and an artist. High five!
I’ve always liked that you sounded pretentious.
Thanks a lot, Jamie. 😛
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