The most challenging thought from this paragraph I pulled from Wangechi Mutu’s Yale University School of Art commencement speech is: “If you’re committed to creating Art for as long as you can possibly imagine, then ask your Art what it needs. But ask by creating and dedicating enough time to your work that through that very love and obsession with what you make, you’ll know [what to do next].”
What to do next is the question that’s been panting after me since I completed my short story collection. What to do next is the question that has been nipping at my heels as I’ve walked into panels and readings, into conversations with other writers, and into the dealers’ room to browse books here at the Wiscon Feminist Speculative Fiction Convention. Wangechi’s answer—create and dedicate enough time to your work so that the love and obsession that you invest will tell you what’s next—is not so much a throwing down of the gauntlet, but a puzzling koan.
It is certainly true that you can see the marks of love and obsession in works by artists who have fully committed to their form. I look at visual art and can almost see that the art before me is the result of thousands of hours of riffing, exploring, deconstructing, removing obstacles, submitting to the pull until the purest expression of whatever vein the artist is following is laid bare at her fingertips.
Mastery revels in the commitment of time. Simultaneously, everyday life takes time. Both art and life logistics loom huge, each requiring its own type of focus, its own reservoir of energy, its own field amongst the vagaries of your life. This is the boulder pushed up the hill by every artist: the commitment to the work—what, or who, are you willing to sell to get that time? Time with friends? Supporting your spouse? Your duties and responsibilities at work or at home? Spending meaningful time with your children? The empty calories of mindless entertainment that you use to scrub yourself of the day’s work? What will you shred, do away with, turn away from in order to “dedicate enough time to your work so that the love and obsession you invest will tell you what to do next?”
My brother once hypothesized that you had to be an asshole to be a great artist. I disagreed. I said that you had to be single-minded and to that end, you made cold decisions. While others are showing up for the responsibilities and necessities in their lives, the great artist is showing up to practice. Woodshedding, as it’s called in jazz. The koan is how do you do both? Can you do both? Can you commit enough love and obsession to all the areas of your life that need it?
The only answer that sits well with me is: yes. Yes, you can commit enough to all areas of your life. Yes, there is enough time, focus, energy, dedication to go around. I have that faith, but I have still not found the secret formula. For me, it is a particular spark that, when caught, I am gone—creating work in all manner of impossible circumstances. Painting in bed at night, writing on the train, editing at work. I am always capable of finding these magic pockets of time during which I can put in the hard work. I am not always capable of connecting with that spark that wills me to create in an insanely demanding day-to-day life that takes stamina to survive, even without the addition of artmaking.
I am in the phase of seeking that next spark. Which project, I wonder, will awaken that mania within me. I dabble in my novel (no spark yet), I dabble with my nonfiction book (definitely no spark), I paint a little (still spark-less). Here at Wiscon, listening to people read, my paralysis looms large. My failure to find the spark for the next project swells and my eyes threaten to spill over with tears. Tears that want to bear witness to my stagnation; tears that wish to comment on the hours unspent on the work; tears that need to show frustration for the creativity unexpressed: the work, that should be here, the undelivered ideas, the not-quite-yetness of my full artist self.
I am truly in a delightful time in my creative life. While I have not been creating at full tilt for the past ten years, my personal growth has informed my artistic growth. I am a better writer than I was five, ten, fifteen years ago. My thoughts are more sure, my presence more solid, my flexibility more durable. Yet, I worry that my growing personhood is not matched by a growing productivity. It is almost as if I am sharpening my knife, not for whittling a masterpiece, but for throwing it at the wall, if only to hear the dull thunk it makes as it embeds into my obstacles.
I will never stop thinking of myself as a long distance runner, dogged in my pursuit of the finish line. Even amidst all this worry, I still see my artistic output, arranged in foreseeable goals down the road. But even as I continue to walk forward in faith, I am also looking over my shoulder at the passage of time and chiding myself, darling, you have stretched, you have trained and, yes, I love the fluorescent laces on your shiny new sneakers, but it is time to run. No more stalling, let’s run!
*** BOOK REPORT: Tracking the Progress of Ancient, Ancient ***
My friends are full of questions about what’s happening with the collection and it has occurred to me that news of the book’s presence may be valuable to KIS.list readers. So I will share the ups and downs of my progress with the book at the bottom of my missives. Please feel free to connect with me if you have any questions, tips, or suggestions. I am fully on the journey. The big question that people keep asking me is “Is your book out yet?” Notes on Ancient, Ancient being out: My book was published by an extremely small press: Aqueduct Press. They found that, as such a small press, the only way that they could maintain their autonomy and stay true to their publishing vision was by *not* working with a distributor. Distributors have a lot of power and make a lot of demands. This artistic freedom is great. Aqueduct has been able to publish a wide range of feminist writings in a number of book formats. However, without a distributor, questions such as “Is the book out yet?” will flourish.
Answer: The book is out! Bookstores can order it from Aqueduct Press. You can get the ISBN from Amazon and then have your independent bookstore order it from Aqueduct Press.
The book is also available at Amazon, but, get this, it is out of stock. They won’t order the book from the publisher unless they think they will sell it. They won’t think they will sell it until people order it. So if you have any patience, please order the book and Amazon will order it from the publisher and get it in stock. Otherwise my book will simply be another ghost on Amazon.
Meanwhile, the publisher is selling them here at Wiscon, but it is sort of like an “if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it” type of situation. Amazon is the biggest book distribution game in town. If a book buyer doesn’t buy it from Amazon, it was not purchased. If someone does not review it on Amazon, it was not read. If a verified Amazon-purchaser of the book does not review it on Amazon, then it was not legitimately reviewed. Quite the headache, right? This is why diversity matters. One gun in town, means one set of laws, and currently Amazon is the law of the land.
In addition to trying to get patient readers to order the book on Amazon, wait for it to arrive, then post a review, I am also busy hunting down book blogger reviews. I have been emailing the book to reviewers like a mad woman and currently it seems there are three possible reviews coming my way. Funny, now that I’ve written the book, I have to prove that it exists by having other people validate it, see it, speak of it, buy it, know it.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam