Selfishness and the Creative Life

In Friday Night Lights, art student Matt Saracen wins an internship with a brilliant but eccentric artist.  The artist is the cranky sort who answers the front door in his underwear, destroys his creations in drunken temper tantrums, and is generally uncommunicative and difficult to get along with.  After he meets Matt’s pretty, blonde-haired and blue-eyed girlfriend, he challenges the boy about his ability to be a true artist while maintaining connections to the world and its everyday obligations.  The message is that to be an artist one must also allow oneself to be unlikable, unself-conscious, and solitary.

It’s true that there is something selfish about creating art but also about promoting it, especially in our social media age where I can reach out and annoy my friends every time I produce something. The most successful artists – both in the quality of their work and in their widespread acceptance – don’t seem to give a fuck what anybody thinks of them.  This is an attitude I have failed to cultivate (haven’t tried, really) and sometimes I think it holds me back in too many situations, creative or otherwise.

What I’m trying to cultivate now, before I can even deal with artistic achievement, is personality.  Obviously, I have a personality.  It’s hard to walk around for 31 years and not have an inner life, although I’m told that some people manage it.  I think I’ve seen them.  But my friends have complained that I rarely let my personality show or that I only let it come out when I’m less inhibited (booze).  The social media age is the best possible time for this “personality experiment,” where personality is carefully curated and mostly performative. Not unlike a troll, I treat my online identity as a kind of performance art, composing pithy tweets, censoring myself, or intentionally not censoring myself to make a point, writing blog posts, sharing links to things that hopefully function to make me sound more interesting.  None of these things are dishonest.  I am performing, but I am performing “me.”

So what does this have to do with art or creativity?  I am a writer, a poet, and my writing must logically be an extension of my personality, even if I’m writing about things that are clearly fictional or unrealistic.  Too often I have gone through life unaware of my own thoughts, impulses, and interests.  In cultivating my personality, I am forced to examine my thoughts and see which ideas might be worthy of writing about: ideas unique to my weird brain, extending from my weird interests.

This pursuit is navel-gazing, of course, and that’s the rub.  Writing itself is a private act, but the end result is made public; there’s a very fine line to be negotiated between the self-absorption needed to complete a creative work and the outward-facing nature of sharing with an audience.  Sometimes writers get defensive and want to draw a line in the sand: you’re either writing for yourself or you’re writing to please others.   Neither one of these can be true on its own.  Writing for yourself is called journaling.  Every writer with a goal to publish eventually has to walk the knife’s edge of composing without inhibition before editing without mercy.  This is just part of the process.

The bigger issue is the lack of self-consciousness needed to be a writer, not just in the writing process, but in the whole lifestyle.  Sure, it’s hard to expose yourself in confessional poetry or memoir, but you also have to be ruthless in exposing your friends, family, boyfriends, and girlfriends.  Many of them won’t take it well and you have to be prepared for the fallout.  Writers also steal.  That anecdote you told at a party?  It’s mine now.  The conversation we had the other day?  Repurposed for my characters in the story I’m writing.  Being a writer feels unethical sometimes, like being a muckraking journalist doing whatever it takes to “get the story.”  Writers also risk alienating their readers by writing about dark, disgusting, unpopular and controversial things.  Readers often misinterpret these darker fascinations and say that an author is condoning distasteful subject matter when really the author is approaching the idea with a critical eye.

But is it worth it?  The hours spent alone.  The hours spent letting go of self-consciousness to produce difficult work.  Potentially destroyed relationships.  The social experiences forgone at the expense of time spent alone.  Writing things people might find repugnant, offensive.  Is it worth doing these things if it means broken friendships and alienation?  If you’re only writing to please yourself, than maybe it’s worth it for the sake of catharsis.  But if you’re writing with the hopes that someone will read what you are writing — what if no one is reading it?  Is it still worth it?  Does artistic creation have intrinsic value even when no one appreciates it?  Is it worth making the sacrifices an artist might make to create art that no one is consuming?

I don’t know if I can let go of my self-consciousness.  I’ve always cared too much what other people think of me.  There’s a constant struggle between things I want that might not be socially acceptable and the desire to fit in. Minimize conflict with the world around me.  I want to wear wacky fashions in public, act like the eccentric my grandmother always told me I could be, make jokes about rape and what it’s like to feel ugly.  I want to go to the theater alone to watch the new horror movie because none of my friends will go.  I want people to hear my voice.  I want to feel like my voice is worth hearing.  But I also flinch when I remember all the times kids called me a weirdo, a freak.  When my friends shamed me for saying inappropriate things, when boyfriends balked at my “intensity.”  I want to be normal, I do.

But normal is getting in the way.  I haven’t written poetry in almost three years because the poetry I wrote didn’t “fit in.”   Halfway through my MFA program, I stopped thinking of myself as a  “real poet” because my sensibilities were different, not acceptable by literary standards, and I didn’t recognize myself or my work in any of my classmates. I didn’t want to write “serious” poems about fathers, grandmothers, or botanical imagery.  I wanted to write about zombies and hermaphrodites, hoping that impressions and images were enough without having to have some deep philosophical message.  I wanted to write books of poetry that were also graphic novels.  I was not a serious writer.

So, I cultivate my personality.  With the hope that one day it will lead me back to poetry, the poetry I want or need to write even if it doesn’t fit in the with the proper stuff I was taught to write in almost nine years of workshops.  Or! Maybe I’m just not a poet anymore, and the words that will eventually bubble out of me won’t take that form.  This is part of the reason why I take to social media now, that most self-indulgent form, and express myself in any possible way – status updates, tweeting, blogging – not with the sole purpose of inflicting myself and my insipid thoughts upon my friends (although that is what I’m doing) but as an exercise in losing some self-consciousness, saying things I wouldn’t have allowed myself to say before (too caustic or inappropriate), attempting to make jokes (even when they fail), and exposing some of my more fucked up interests (memento mori photography).  These actions are inherently selfish.  I post and await comment, taking perverse joy in people’s reactions.  Unself-consciousness in the social media world is, paradoxically, the exact same thing as self-consciousness.  Much like writing itself: the artifice that doesn’t look artificial.

Maybe some people won’t like what I have to say or how I say it.  Maybe a lot of people — and I don’t know how to feel about that.  It’s worth noting that I’m not exactly a provocateur, and I don’t say shocking, mean, or controversial things.  I’m not a shit stirrer, just someone who likes to get a little attention and feedback (who doesn’t?).  I’m not quite ready to answer the door in my underwear, but I do need to get a little freakier, adopt a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude, and learn to live with a little selfishness.  Friends have often criticized me for being self-absorbed but my attempts to fix that flaw have resulted in a losing battle.  Maybe it’s time to embrace self-absorption and see what happens.

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About Candice

I like horror movies, poetry, and weird things. ATX

2 responses to “Selfishness and the Creative Life”

  1. Ellie says :

    Three things:

    1) I don’t think of you as self-absorbed.

    2) I am borrowing “composing without inhibition before editing without mercy.”

    3) Someday I really want to read your book of poems/graphic novel.

    Seriously though. I’m in this documentary filmmaking class right now, and we had our first film assignment due yesterday, which was an edited film interview. Our prof is trying to get this idea through to us about not being afraid to push people in interviews, which you could tell we were all afraid to do, and also about being ruthless with editing (just like you said). And it’s one of those things that is hard to get until you’ve actually done it – he can say it over and over again, but until I figure it out, it’s not going to mean much. It’s interesting to think about what you’ve said in this essay in terms of the class – I always thought of documentary work as sitting back and letting something happen, then carefully curating it afterwards. But with film – even more than photography or oral histories – it’s really about the vision of the fimmaker, and it’s as much the filmmaker’s art and story as it would be in a narrative film – even though it is ostensivly a documentary. So the things you’re saying about art and being ruthless and uninhibited are echoing what I’ve been thinking about for the class.

    I’ve been enjoying all your recent blogging – so you know there’s at least one person out there reading 🙂

    • zombette says :

      Documentary filmmaking! That’s so exciting and something I don’t know if I could do for exactly those reasons. When I was in college, I ended up dropping out of a documentary photography class because the idea of getting in someone’s face, poking around in their lives, gave me panic attacks.

      Let me know how it goes. And I know you’re busy, but you should start blogging again, too.

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