One of my favorite bloggers is G, the genius behind Writer Reading. A few days ago she posted an extremely thought-provoking piece called Are Writers Ever Really Loners? that I have been mulling over ever since. She probes the often disruptive relationship between the “solitary” act of writing and the role of interacting with the social network that is writers, publishers, literary influencers.
My experience is that the concept of community is very different for visual artists and writers. ALL my writer friends are in some kind of writer’s group, while very few of my visual artist friends participate in any formalized art critique group. But even so, I resonated with G’s frank admission about her low comfort level with the community offered to her in her profession as a writer: I’ve never met a social network of writers that I’ve liked.
There is an essential tension between the demands of working in solitude, that “rag and bone shop” that Yeats speaks of, and the cocktail partying, coterie development, personal promotion and politicking that is also part of every business ecosystem, creatively focused or otherwise. For a number of us, the obligation to “press the flesh” is the least appealing and most inauthentic aspect of the art making venture. The discomfort G addresses in her piece is a discomfort I have felt throughout my career as a visual artist.
Making contacts for no other reason than the possibility of future endorsements, fawning over the power brokers and monied players, strategizing about getting invited to the right parties and the biggest openings—it is part of the game I have the least inclination towards. Many artists seem to thrive in that milieu. It isn’t meant as a criticism of them that they can manage in that world; it is just a very clear demarcation point.
And as G points out in her posting, an unwillingness to participate in the appropriate art scene may operate to one’s detriment. I made the decision some time ago to be willing to live with those outcomes, whatever the cost. We veer towards and away from authenticity and meaningfulness in hundreds of small ways that end up defining the texture and quality of our lives. And those two values, authenticity and meaningfulness, are more important to me than what might be considered the pragmatic, realistic approach to the business of art promotion.
I have had to adopt the attitude that there are many ways for an artist to reach out, find an audience, and connect with people who care about the same set of issues. Art world schmoozing is just one.
The best part of my networking happens outside the visual arts. When I do an assessment of my closest associations and most inspiring friendships, very few of them are visual artists. My primary network consists of people who are operating in a variety of creative métiers—poetry, music, dance, theatre, business–and individuals who are compelled by those expressive pursuits. Talking across categories rather than within a category feels more vital and expansive to my own process.
There is a line to be drawn between isolation and communitarian exchange, between needing the reclusiveness of the studio and the celebration of completion that happens with an audience, be it one or many. It isn’t easily defined, but being conscious of that grey zone is probably a good start.
Here is the text of G’s post:
During my brief foray at an advanced post-doctorate age in a low-residency MFA program, I was struck not only by the greater youth of fellow students than I had expected, but also the extreme extroversion involved in nightly dance and beer parties; the constant day-time socializing at large chatty tables for all three meals; the jockeying for time alone with the published-writer-teachers who mostly hid from students during meals in the faculty dining room. As a reclusive individual I found the intensive undergraduate-type social scene overwhelming. It was nothing like the low-key intellectual social environment of “real” graduate school I’d experienced getting a Ph.D. So, I avoided the socializing whenever possible and as a result, made few friends, none lasting.
Now, I’m not so reclusive that I can’t hold a job. Or even a job that requires constant, in-depth human interaction. But that’s just the point. It’s “in-depth.” Partying is never an in-depth social interaction. Nor is sitting at a large table of loud laughter in an enormous college dining hall. Nor is flattering a teacher to get an A. Nor is socializing with people for the sole reason that they are the handful of others your age with whom you can gripe about “the youngsters”. No one ever mentions this aspect of low-residency MFA programs that differs from normal MFA programs, and normal graduate school in general. In that sense, I would have found writing correspondence school preferable, and easier on my bank account.
Anyway, I was having a debate with someone about whether reclusive writers have ever even been published, aside from the notoriously weird J.D. Salinger. I gave a few bogus examples to make my point, my opponent being too ignorant to know the difference, and I walked away feeling I had won the debate by lying. Sure, I’d said, plenty of reclusive writers have published and I named a ridiculous collection. A hollow victory. Because I believe that every single writer who has ever published was part of a network of writers however small. That if writing programs offer nothing else, they offer to fledgling writers that cohort of camaraderie. At least to those who are sociable enough to make those connections.
So are there any reclusive writers, outside of any social network of other writers who have made it? Is that why slush piles are so dreary, because writers whose work ends up there, particularly orphaned agent-less book manuscripts, have no other writers plugging for their work, encouraging them, critiquing them? Can you actually smell the musty odor of loneliness wafting off their manuscripts?
Unless you are a total genius like, say, Stephen Hawking, every other profession requires social networks to succeed. So why shouldn’t writing? Well, I don’t think it should, because original work is not created within a social network, except maybe in science. But I have a feeling that I am very, very wrong and I hate that, because I’ve never met a social network of writers that I’ve liked, which does not bode well for me and my writing. Which I already knew anyway.
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