Serving the Gift: Artists and Their Art
No Work is Too Small
If the work comes to the artist and says, “Here I am, serve me,” then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
To feed the lake is to serve, to be a servant. Servant is another unpopular word, a word we have decided by denigrating servants and service. To serve should be a privilege, and it is to our shame that we tend to think of it as a burden, something to do if you’re not fit for anything better or higher.
I have never served a work as it ought to be served; my little trickle adds hardly a drop of water to the lake, and yet it doesn’t matter; there is no trickle too small. Over the years I have come to recognize that the work often knows more than I do. And with each book I start, I have hopes that I may be helped to serve it a little more fully.
I am not a good servant. As someone who is selfish by nature, I have to rigorously remind myself to not be, well, myself when I go to work, where my entire job is constantly helping customers. God did not equip me with the skills of good customer service, and the only thing I can say to my fate of actually working in customer service right now is that He is either doing it out of spite or wants me to learn something important about properly serving something or someone other than myself.
When it comes to writing–like a lot of writers, I’m sure–my focus and motivation is much stronger when struck with inspiration rather than sitting down by way of duty and obligation. My idea of “life is about doing the work” is still something I’m coming to terms with and grasping in all its ferocious, hard reality. I’ve been researching life during the Great Depression for a story I’m working on, and the research is going slowly, the writing of the story much slower than that. I sometimes get discouraged by the idea of the trickle, because what little ego I have wants to be a thick veiny river gushing wildly into the lake, while my actual workload is about as thick as cockroach antennae.
I am discovering the difficulty of getting myself in a frame of mind that will allow me to sit down, focus, and plow through my work. This was not so much of a problem in college as it is now, because then my GPA was on the line, whereas now the only thing on the line is my repertoire, which if I were a bonafide member of literary society that would be much more important to me than my GPA ever did. There are days when I am thankful to still be so young and still “learning” how to structure my life, but I know that there will come a point when I won’t have my youth as an excuse anymore, and honestly, I hope that I have my shit together by then. But when I look at the progress I’m making in my creative life now, which is very little, I know that I am on the wrong track to getting anything accomplished. I have sent two short stories off to be considered for three different literary journals, but other than that I have not done much in the way of writing.
It has always mystified me the effort I will put into avoiding my writing rather than just sitting down and doing it. I have several stories I want to record in my journal from the last two weeks that I have yet to sit down and write, and on top of that are research for my book, actually writing my book, and brewing up more short stories. I have never known myself to avoid my writing so ardently as I do now, and the only thing I can say as to why I have had a nasty habit of doing that in the last year is because I’ve had a lot of time for self-evaluation, and I haven’t liked what I’ve seen. If I were to sit down and actually focus on my writing, I’d be forced to acknowledge and externalize some vicious internalizations.
But that is what must be done in order to properly serve your work. I have read that it is impossible to be completely honest with ourselves in our journaling, but I think in order to reach that place that opens us up to this way of living is to remap our course and surge as hard as we can toward that lonely island of denial. Forgive me this horrendous pirate metaphor, but there is a metaphorical treasure to be found when we are able to be 100% honest with ourselves. It exposes us to ourselves in a way that nothing else can, and if we can read back to ourselves why we feel a certain way about something or why we reacted a certain way to an experience, then we have a power in our hands that we’ve never had before–the power to change and develop as human beings into someone infinitely more aware of the world around us.
Madeleine says that the range of an artist’s talent doesn’t matter. If there is a story that presents itself to a writer or an image a painter or a song a musician, then they are responsible for creating it and it will turn out the way it is meant to turn out. Despite Madeleine’s religion, I don’t think this is a necessarily unfair statement and has very little to do with her beliefs, actually, but more so with her experience as a writer and creator. What I am constantly reminding myself is that, in spite of my sluggish writing process and lack of exposure in areas I wish I had much more knowledge of, I will gain this knowledge in conjunction with my progress at the opportune moments, and the stories will finally be written when they are meant to be written, as they are meant to be written.
I think that is what she means be “trickle.” Today, I am a lazy creek dribbling into other lazy creeks that eventually find themselves dipping into thick, veiny rivers surging toward the lake. And maybe one day I will be the one surging through those veins of water and pouring myself into oceans. But I am still young and I still have lessons to learn, experiences to be had and mistakes to be made. I am confident, though, there will come a day when I know what it means to throw myself into something, to serve a work as fully as I know how.