All around us, we are told that our voice matters. But what happens when the planet seems to get along just fine without our contribution?
Making art is hard.
Okay, maybe it’s not hard if you are a famous creator whose every release is awaited by breathless fans. (I take it back: maybe that’s harder!). But for the rest of us—toiling away in obscurity with little to “show” for our efforts—the question feels ever more urgent.
I feel this question every day as a tightness in my chest and a white noise buzzing deep in my skull. Maybe you’ve felt them, too.
And why shouldn’t we?
All around us, we are told that our voice matters. Our words matter. Our art matters. Even the recent National Novel Writing Month has taken as its iconic tag line, “The world needs your story.”
I’m an eternal fan of NaNoWriMo, since it’s how I get my first drafts done of all my stories. But even I have had pause to question the slogan.
“Really?” I have asked myself. “Does the world truly need my story?”
I mean, it seems to be getting along fine enough without them!
And if it is . . . does that mean I’m wasting my time?
(Side Note: I may be the only person who asks myself this question, but I suspect I’m not. In fact, if you tell me that you haven’t ever doubted the urgency and vitality of your own work, I’ll suggest you *might* be lying to me. Or at the very least, to yourself.)
We want to believe this message, that what we create matters to the world we inhabit. It touches on our deepest fears of insignificance. We hope that our work will live after us, inspiring generations, standing as a testament to the fact that (at the very least) we existed, if not that our lives and ideas made a tangible impact.
I suspect most artists lie awake at night, terrified of what will happen if they die without this kind of legacy.
And yet, amid our terror, we cannot seem to answer that troublesome question . . .
Does the world really need our story?
Does our art matter at all?
Especially if we’re unknown?
I raise these questions regularly with other artists: writers, filmmakers, musicians, crafters, dancers. We chuckle together and agree we surely would like to have a larger audience for our work. After we express this sentiment, the usual commentary ensues: how difficult it is to shout above the noise, or be seen on the dizzying carousel that is the internet, or believe in ourselves enough to promote what we’ve made.
It’s all true, of course.
But I get bored hearing the same things over and over again . . . even when they’re true.
So recently, I began to experiment with that conversation.
When the topic comes up, I now suggest to others artist that maybe we don’t need an audience for our work as much as we think we do.
The response is nearly always incredulity.
“Of course I need any audience!” my co-conversant always laughs. “I mean, that’s why I’m doing this. What other point is there to making art, than to share it with an audience, be needed and loved by them?”
To date, I haven’t proposed an answer for this very valid question.
But I think perhaps a tiny answer has been growing in me for the past few months. A seed, you might say, just beginning to germinate.
I think there is a very valid audience for our art, one we already have, and one we have overlooked. One that matters far more than the masses.
That audience is us.
Think about it: the world may or may not need our story (or brushstrokes or choreography or whatever). We can’t truly answer that question.
But we need our work. Desperately.
Why else would we make it?
After all, if we are not first moved, stirred—even changed—by what we create, then how can others be moved, stirred or changed after us?
The best art comes from within, from the place where we are wrestling with ideas and emotions, attempting to lasso intangibles that seem only to be “caught” in flecks of paint or black shapes on a white page.
This is why mass-market art, while perhaps commercially successful, often leads to testimonies of burnout and frustration for artists. (Joss Whedon, anyone?)
Somewhere in the wonderful experience of popularity, these artists—often of necessity—quit making art that changes them first.
In the process, they quit making art.
Because art is first for us. We are our own audience: perhaps the only one we will ever have, or one of the few.
When we create art solely for the world, and then fail to harness its very arbitrarily-granted attention, we experience nothing but frustration.
But when we create for ourselves, we never lack an audience who “gets” what we do.
In our rush to leave our mark on the world outside ourselves, we forget that what we create begins inside us.
We overlook this incredible gift of personal transformation—perhaps because it is so intangible and invisible.
When the world somehow doesn’t share our transcendent moment, we wind up frustrated, wondering what happened.
Maybe nothing happened. Maybe everything.
And maybe that’s okay.
This all came to me this year during NaNoWriMo. On a lark, I decided to (finally) write a novel that has lain in my heart (and stacks of screenplay drafts) for a number of years. Putting it to page for NaNo was a kind of homecoming that made me realize that this story … to which I “gave birth” prematurely five years ago and which barely survived its first months of life … has always been for me.
It needed those five years to gain strength and vitality, to become a living being in whose face I can now see my own image, as a parent does in the face of a beloved child.
That story is more vital to who I am and what I am becoming now than it was when I first wrote it.
When I wrote the first version, I wanted to create something that would affect other people and build the external audience I wanted. My gaze was turned outward.
Predictably, I was disappointed.
Now I see that it was not the world that needed that story all along, but me.
I was writing it for myself even when I thought it was for others.
Only by writing it for myself, now, can I hope to create something that (by happy accident or divine providence) just might touch someone else.
The world may or may not need that story. I cannot answer that question.
But I need it.
And that makes it absolutely worth writing.
Most days I have to remind myself of this, because it’s still too easy to look at my blog stats, my book sales, or other external markers and ask myself why on earth I persist in this thing called making art.
I do not persist in making art because the world really needs me or what I make.
I persist because one person does.
And she . . . is me.
Maybe, just maybe, in making art that changes her, I’ll have a chance to change the world.
* * *
What about you? How have you wrestled with
a sense of inadequacy or pointlessness
in your regular artistic practice?