I Know You Of Old: The Artist and the Community

“Artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them, they also find...that these oddities are what constitute their value to others.” 
~Kathleen Norris

“I’d like to try continuing to connect the writer to his audience...writing well takes a good deal of dedication, almost as much as it takes talent; it also takes a particular calling - a vocation to ‘otherness’, to take up the voice of the community...”

I have a list, buried deep in Google Docs, of several terms I do not care for, and community is one of them. It's a sterile word, vague and unimaginative, something used by politicians and sociologists when they want to sound compassionate. Now, Masha isn't to be blamed in the least for matters of my distaste. But I'm going to call the word into question here for its lack of specificity nonetheless.

The problem is that the artist deals with more than one community. There are the people he lives with every day; then there are the communities of artists and critics and critique partners; then there's his audience. In all likelihood, these are different sets of people, with widely varying levels of artistic expertise, not to mention differing thought patterns and ideas of what should result from art. Whose voice is the artist responsible to take up?

It is true, as Masha points out, that any of these groups is liable to treat the artist in a variety of inappropriate ways. They may idealize him as a prophet at some moments and demand from him the vacuous entertainment of a freak show at others. The artist has no control over this sort of thing unless he portrays himself as such, and he probably ought not concern himself with it.

It is also often true, though not always, that the artist is a loner, an outsider—someone who can spend hours, days, weeks on end with people who exist only on paper, but who may turn into an inept and anti-social bore when confronted with flesh and blood humanity. Mr. Pond defends this freedom:
At best [active community membership] teaches [the poet] compassion, which he can hack up into fuel for poetry. At worst it takes him away from his writing, devouring his time, crowding his mind with other things than the play of vision and colour and words, the light and texture of sound; it lets him flatter himself he is doing well when he has forsaken his true calling.
Which is hyperbolic, of course, but certainly to the point. Better yet, though, Mr. Pond explains:
His community is his tradition, the company of writers and poets who have followed this path before; the supple words of court poets from centuries ago speak to him with more power and immediacy than the pundits and activists on his neighborhood block.
The isolation of the poet, as put forward by Mr. Pond, brings me back to the part of Masha's post that especially intrigued me:
...writing well takes... a particular calling - a vocation to ‘otherness’
This connects strongly with Norris' claim that "Artists discover as children that they have inappropriate responses to events around them", yet "these oddities are what constitute their value to others." It also connects strongly with my own experience as a writer. Without getting into too much self-psychoanalysis, things like slow, repetitive mental process and sometimes-hypersensitivity and even depression help make me the writer I am. For instance, I am distressingly unobservant, thanks to the tendency to focus so hard that... well,  I have a lot of conversations like this:

Friend: "What is that awful noise?"

Me: "What noise?... Oh. I don't know, but it's loud, isn't it?"

That focus comes in handy, though, when I'm trying to hold an entire story in my head. And it's just one example among many of ways that human and social weaknesses may become artistic strengths. I'm not making excuses for artists making jerks of themselves; no amount of genius gives anyone the right to that. I only claim that Norris is correct about oddities constituting the artist's value to others.

As for taking up the voice of the community, that is something that may be best done unconsciously. I suspect that authors who try outright to speak for a particular group of people wind up coming across as if they have an agenda, which question this blogalectic has already covered.

If the writer takes up his own voice as he works, though—if he has any compassion, any empathy, any truth in him, he'll find that he's spoken for others as well as for himself.

1 comment:

  1. Nice! You gave me a bit of a different perspective on Mr. Pond - who inspired 90% of today's post - and I know exactly what you mean about being unobservant! I'm awful.

    Thanks too, for clarifying the necessity of unintentionally taking up a voice, I should have, but I was..um..unobservant :)


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