The blinders we operate with in life are also present in our artwork. One of my favorite quotes is “When the matter is ready, the form will come.” It is maddening of course, if the form you are trying to create—a movie, a play, a novel, a relationship, a housing situation, a lifestyle—does not come to fruition, what does that say about you. Are you not really ready for it? Are you throwing up invisible blockages? Is there something emotional, spiritual, psychological in the matter that you have not yet mastered?
I thought about this, once again, recently in conversation with my father. We were talking about his projects and mine. It is profound how many levels artmaking works on. There is the immediate level: it requires presence, focus, time, attention, application of skills, imagination, a willingness to improvise, surrender, create. You have to build up certain skills, mental processes, habits, and experiences to excel in this area. This is the part that practice beings fluency. This is the part that mastery elevates to the level of magnificence. The creative impulse.
Then there is the level of ideas and ingenuity. The novelty and originality of what’s being created. Its presentation, its ability to capture imagination, emotion, spark laughter, express wit. The brains, intelligence, brilliance of the thing. This is a bit more innate, but this too can change over time, as the artmaker becomes more wise, so too can the work.
There is the personality of the thing. The character of the artist or the character of the characters/expression that readers/viewers/listeners will respond to, reflect upon, accept or reject.
And finally there is the heart of the matter, the unspoken truths that are being communicated through the work. This truth may be hidden under many layers of history, habit, dishonesty, shame, lack of awareness and fear. There are stories that we tell to handle our own pain, to find our way through the labyrinth of confusion, hurt, dissatisfaction, terror. When we are in the clutches of our burdens, we can confuse depth with dismay. A “serious” story may actually be a “pitiful” story. We may overplay our hand in an effort to make the world feel the realness of what we’re trying to express.
Art can reveal so much about the art maker. It reveals the artist’s perspective on the world, the artist’s beliefs and fears, and the artist’s view of self. When I was getting my MFA, poet Eloise Klein Healy led a workshop about “Aboutness.” As a pre-workshop assignment, she challenged us to review our work from the past few years and note the themes and topics. When I did the assignment, I discovered I had a repeated theme of unhappy—often oppressed—female characters whose stories ended with death—either the character committed suicide, was consumed, or killed to save herself.
And even with that realization years ago, I never thought that I wrote about loneliness. But the first book review of my short story collection is out from Publishers Weekly. The review ends with the following sentence:
Salaam’s unusual settings and lonely characters will call to readers who hunger for sex, identity, or just a place to belong.
It made me think about myself: Am I obsessed with loneliness? Am I lonely? What do non-lonely characters do and think about? This is great fodder for character and story-building! It is also an lens through which to view my work. Having collected work from the past two decades into Ancient, Ancient, I’ve noticed a shift in my character’s journeys. My aboutness is changing.
Now that I have arrived to a point where there is a clear transition, burdens have been laid to rest and a new person has emerged, a person who is looking back at the life that has been lived and seeing it with new eyes, I can begin to ask, what stories am I really telling? This is not about the characters, the materials, the plot, the details—this is larger than that. What have I been afraid to tell? What have I been overstating? What have I been ignoring or hiding? What have I not been celebrating? What have I been glorifying? What does it mean to tell a true story? Who are these characters that I have created, and now that I am new within myself are they no longer of any use to me? Or can I open them up, and honor them for who they are and allow them to be new to themselves too?
These are the questions I am asking and hoping to answer these days. A novel that needs a rewrite demands that those big questions be answered. Those old characters set in a city that has completely transformed are now at the hand of a new writer. What shall we create together?
As I stand on the brink of a new wave of discovery, I look forward to the next two decades. To witnessing the discovery in my work as I continue to discover more profound and freer levels of myself. I am excited to be continuing the ever-evolving journey of becoming new with myself as an artist, as a writer, and as a person.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam