An artist must take risks. An artist must be willing to be vulnerable. This is not comfortable. But if you want to maintain a safe, respectable distance, if you are wedded to appearing calm and rational, if you want to hide behind a polished persona, above reproach, if you don’t want to let your deepest feelings, thoughts and experiences be shared with the world, you run the serious risk of making art which might achieve a certain technical virtuosity but never move or touch anyone, never make a difference in someone’s life.
We have all witnessed this kind of art, remarkable in its wizardry but it leaves us cold—like the musician who practices ten hours a day but has never put his own heart into his playing. Contrast this with the old-time blues musician on his front porch, playing simple chords on a beat-up guitar and singing in a raw, untrained voice, but touching our souls and causing our hairs to stand on end.
You may appear accomplished if you master the craft of your art form, but you have not actually put yourself into it, and so others are not inspired or moved to deep feeling. They may applaud your mastery, but they never approach you with tears in their eyes or face aglow, nearly speechless from what you have given them. You don’t change their life in any way.
You have to expose yourself, your feelings, sensations and thoughts, without trying to make them look more polite, reasonable or contained.
Yes, you shape them into art, but you have to share your experiences and imagination, not from a safe, comfortable distance, but as wild and real as they occur.
The poet Robert Frost famously wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” If you, as author or creator, are not feeling your own sorrow as you write and willingly sharing that open place within you, your reader is not going to be feeling the sadness you are hoping to convey either. Your reader is not going to be feeling anything but bored, detached, unengaged.
Are you moved as you write your poem? Are you moved as you read it? Or are you unwilling to re-feel your own feelings and experiences deeply? Are you afraid to stir those waters or confess your real truths? Then, that too is what the reader will feel, your fear, your caution, your hiding, your lies.
The poet William Wordsworth wrote, “ I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
Note that although he says that the previously-felt emotion is now recollected in tranquility, Wordsworth goes on to say that the poet recalls this emotion until it is felt again powerfully. He then says, “In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…”
“Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself,” Walt Whitman wrote.
I come back to these quotes again and again because they are deep and true and serve as powerful guides and reminders for poets and artists. There is much wisdom to be mined in them. This quote by Walt Whitman reminds us that you are not going to get away with lying and pretending in your art to be someone that you are not. The reader will smell the deception. The writing will not be convincing, and your true self will show through anyway.
If you are feeling mean-spirited at the moment, then mean-spirited is what you can write. It is no use trying to be loving and compassionate because it will just ring false. But you can perhaps write a great villain character or a poem about feeling grouchy (I’ve written some powerful poems in this state), and others will be grateful for the honesty, the reflection of something they recognize in themselves or in the world.
Yes, you can create characters and personae. You can use clever word play, and certainly you can try to keep parts of your life private, but you have to be generous, willing to share who you are and how you experience the world, to be vulnerable.
An artist does not have the luxury of hiding. She makes art out of her own life, her own body, heart and soul, even when she does not personally appear in her poems as an “I,” she is nonetheless everywhere throughout the poems.
In my next article, I will talk about the challenges posed by this vulnerability and how to meet them. Stay tuned
Hey. If you loved this essay, if you got benefit from it, if it stirred something in you, I’d love to know. Would you take a moment to leave a comment here? I’d love it if you would. Thanks!