Click the triangle below to hear this blog post read by Allen Rubinstein.
There is a myth about writers – all artists in fact – that it takes a special personality to do it. A special visionary with a special set of skills, handed down by God at birth, to distinguish the true writers from all other beasts of burden working in the field. The artist has a special sensitivity, a gift for seeing, an affinity for language that puts him or her in a category above other people, the way saints are elevated in the Catholic Church after curing the blind or allowing kings to pull their body apart on a rack.
Their lives are imbued with passion and meaning, making their existence full of lofty pursuits and the endless praise of angels and voices of the muses constantly whispering in their ears. They are good for the subjects of movies, and, unlike you, garner all of the attention at cocktail parties where you spend your evenings, languishing by the chilled ice of champagne and helplessly shoving tiny shrimp into your mouth, trying to fill your heart like it was an empty glass.
To be fair, one of the main reasons for the proliferation of this myth about artists are the writers themselves. Ask any poet where their ideas come from, or what stirs them, or even how to define their art and they will look down at the ground, a glamour of rugged bewilderment crossing their faces, and claim, “I don’t know. It’s anyone’s guess. Art and where it comes from is a mystery.” If they’re well-educated, they’ll make some reference to the Greeks and that old idea about muses and satyrs and turning endangered women into trees.
Who can blame them?
Artists have self-mythologized for centuries now. They don’t get paid a lot. They don’t live in three-story houses, or drive Lamborghini’s or even enjoy decent medical care. So why not compensate with a little self-aggrandizing mythology every once in a while? It gives you something to feel good about, and occasionally, it gets you invited to parties, where people who have become merchants or producers or used Lamborghini salesman will feed you caviar and ask about your latest novel, poem, or recorded conversation with God.
The downside of this mythology is that the merchants, producers, and Lamborghini salesman think that they themselves cannot make art. They swim in their private pools, go to their well-paying jobs and live their quiet lives of caviar-doused despair, all the while wishing God, or the gods, or the muse would speak to them the way it spoke to their frizzy-haired, cardboard-box-dwelling artist friends.
But I’ll tell you a secret.
The writers, the real writers, do not write poems in order to win prizes, impress editors, or show off our great talent to strangers at cocktail parties. Those are perks of course, and we do appreciate the invitations and accolades when they come. But the truth is, we really write for ourselves. We write because it is pleasurable to make art, to shovel out the barn of our own unconscious, to take time to consider the specific color of a rainbow or the exact weight of an unbearable sorrow. We write poems to praise nature, or accuse our parents of not loving us enough, or just to offer a hand in darkness to others who might be suffering or celebrating in similarly lonely and unspoken ways.
Anyone can do that. Not everybody does. Not everybody knows that it will work out, but you know and I know, and maybe if you teach a class and tell a few more people, a few more people will know and they’ll start writing too.