Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!
W.B. Yeats, of course.
I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?
I have been afraid of answering these questions.
When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?
And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.
Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?
As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?
Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.
What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.
What do we center around?
Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash
It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.
This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.
In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …
She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.
When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.
The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.
“The centre cannot hold …”
Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.
And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!
I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.
As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.
So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
So we find a new one.
What’s in your center?
If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?
Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m thinking about this because I’m steadily publishing my fiction in serial form on Substack, week by week, about 10 pages by 10 pages, and it’s a challenge.
Something in me wants to avoid revealing my own creativity. My writing takes me to some dark, and some people would say inappropriate, places. Every week (I just posted for the 8th week), I push myself through whatever the content of my post happens to be. More than that, I deliberately take it on in an accompanying essay.
I’m an expert in self-sabotage. I’ve been doing it my whole life, largely through simple avoidance. At the same time, it appears my previously intermittent and now increasing tendency to call a spade a spade and be honest about my experience is one of the characteristics others struggle with most when they deal with me.
It’s a strange paradox, and it creates ongoing internal tension.
The avoidant part of me is childish and disempowered. The direct, take-the-bull-by-the-horns part of me is powerful and hangs out with Baba Yaga.
I love the direct part of myself, but I don’t think anyone else can. I think others want the avoidant woman, because she’s so damn “nice.”
When I first began writing creatively, I thought it would all be sweetness and light, love and romance, happily ever after.
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash
As the years passed, and I expanded out of (mostly bad) poetry, played with writing oral stories, and then started seriously writing fiction, my output took a darker turn. The sweetness and light included bitter and dark. The love and romance became raw sensuality and included detailed sexual content. I took old fairy tales, cleansed by the brothers Grimm and others, and excavated the darker, dirtier, more violent roots. My characters graphically tore out eyes and watched them change into marbles. They killed people. They ate people. Shapeshifters had sex. Towers fell. People went to war and practiced genocide.
My writing wasn’t dark on every page, but it wasn’t sweetness and light on every page, either. It made me cry. It made me cringe. It made me uncomfortable because of its emotional power. I wondered at myself. Yet never have I been so captured, so challenged, so confident, so happyas I am when writing.
After all, in those days almost nobody read it! I wrote for myself, and held nothing back.
Now I’ve deliberately changed that. Now anyone can read it. And some people are.
For a while I considered cutting the parts I judged as being too … what? Too honest? Too sexy? Too potentially offensive? Too violent? Too real?
Yes. All those things.
My impulse was to avoid revealing myself. Stay safely hidden. Stay small. Refrain from making myself or anyone else uncomfortable.
Even as I considered that, I knew I wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t betray myself that way. If I’m to be judged as not good enough, I want the judgement based on the deepest, most complex, most powerful and honest work I’m capable of.
Because that’s the only way my writing is good enough for me.
My Substack post last week included explicit sexual content. There will be more, but that was the first. I wrote an essay to go with it titled “Creating the Webbd Wheel: Sex.” I’ve been worrying about that post for weeks. In the end, I kept it simple and direct. I was writing about sexual content. The title was clear. Why prevaricate?
Substack provides writers with statistics 24 hours after they post, and I was informed my essay got the most reads of anything I’ve posted so far.
I’ve been giggling ever since. So far, nobody’s given me a bad time about my sexual content, but even if they do, I know I was right in what I wrote in that essay. Nobody wants to talk about sex, and we all have a lot of judgement and fear around it, but that doesn’t mean it occupies none of our private attention. We can’t amputate ourselves from our sexual nature, no matter how much we wish we could or others tell us we should.
I will probably unconsciously default to avoidance for the rest of my life. It’s a deeply-rooted pattern. I’m socially rewarded for being “nice.” On the other hand, I personally value authenticity and honesty far more than I do niceness. I want to grow up to be direct and clear. Not mean, but not avoidant or arguing with what is, either. It’s a fine line, one I don’t walk steadily or gracefully.
As regular readers know, for several years I’ve been writing fiction. I’m now working on the third book in my series, The Webbd Wheel.
After I finished the first book, The Hanged Man, I had it professionally edited twice. I was looking for a reality check. Was it any good at all? Did I need to begin again?
Much to my surprise, my editor praised it warmly.
This was wonderful, but not at all the same as attracting an agent or publisher. The writing’s quality takes second place to the estimated commercial value of the work in the current publishing business model.
I understand this. Business is business and it’s not personal. However, writers like me have very little ability to compete with writers who are proven money-makers.
Books require paper, which comes from trees. I love books. They’re the mainstay of my existence. Yet neither I nor anyone else will survive if we kill all the trees on this planet. I’m not much of a digital reader, though many people are. I’d like to be in print, but the money required to get into print and the possibility those books will not sell are part of what’s driving the current publishing model, and I don’t want to be decimating trees for books that sit unwanted on a shelf or in boxes.
Traditional publishing, because it’s capitalist, is conservative. There are rules. Unproven writers, in particular, have to follow the conventions.
You may not have noticed, but I’m not very conventional, especially not creatively. According to print publishing conventions, my books are too long for a newbie author. They’re a synthesis of many different cultures and stories, which raises the spectre of cultural appropriation, a hot potato no publisher wants to handle. There are numerous characters and the story is complicated. (Who do I think I am? George R. R. Martin?) There’s erotica, including shapeshifting lovers. There’s paganism. There’s witchcraft and magic. There’s natural systems collapse. There are all the messy aspects of relationship with family, friends, mates, and children.
In short, I want to write without the shackles imposed by the necessity to please most people most of the time and offend no one so millions will buy my work and a publisher makes money.
The conventions are simply too small for me or my imagination to fit into.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
This, by the way, is not a surprise. I’ve never fit into conventions. Why did I think I would be successful now?
For years I’ve been submitting my work, collecting rejections, and researching alternative ways to get my writing to readers.
Publishing, like many other things in our world, is changing rapidly. Technology has opened up new and different ways to share written material.
Success, from a traditional publisher’s point of view, is sales. Sales require good marketing and a vast audience. I’ve been told over and over again if I want to be noticed, if I want to be successful, the only path is social media.
Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. I’ve read a lot of books by authors who were writing before social media. I’ve read some really terrible bestsellers that, as far as I’m concerned, should never have been published, but the authors had a big following and fan base on social media and elsewhere. They were popular. They got rich, at least by my standards!
Here’s the thing. I don’t want to write something I wouldn’t read or buy. I don’t want to be a product for the social media platforms, and I don’t want you to be, either. I’m not producing work that appeals to everyone, and that’s okay with me.
I have no ambition to be popular. Useful? Sure. Provocative, as in provoking discussions, questions, new ways to think about problems and issues? Wonderful. Validating? Great. Connecting? Absolutely.
People who rock boats are not popular, and I’m a boat rocker from way back.
I want an audience which finds value in my work. The size of that audience is not my business.
One of the options for digital publishing is an online platform called Substack, which was created especially for writers. Several well-known authors who are in print publish there, and some have started there and subsequently been “discovered” and published conventionally. Substack allows a writer to deliver serial fiction directly to readers. No middlemen. No advertising. A free or low-cost monthly subscription that can be cancelled at any time with no book to rehome, give away, or collect dust.
This platform supports authors and readers engaging in discussion and creating community. It allows writers to take readers behind the scenes of the creative writing process, not necessarily as teachers, though there are plenty of guides and teachers on Substack, but as playmates. As equals and peers who live in the same world and share the human experience.
I’ve spent the last two or three weeks creating a site on Substack called A Stone, a Web, a Story. This weekend, after I post this in Harvesting Stones on Saturday, I will publish on Substack on Sunday. The starting posts will be the first 10 pages of my first book, The Hanged Man, and a post specifically about creating The Webbd Wheel series. E-mail subscribers to Harvesting Stones will receive an e-mail from A Stone, a Web, a Story every week when I post there. You can opt out of my e-mail list for either site at any time.
I’ve added a new category to the home page on Harvesting Stones below the image links for the blog and resources. It’s titled The Webbd Wheel. A click will take you to a page that tells you a little about the books and provides a link to A Stone, a Web, a Story. You’ll also find The Webbd Wheel on the menu at the top of every page on Harvesting Stones.
If you want to check out A Stone, a Web, a Story, follow this link. Remember, the first post won’t go up until Sunday, 11/28. I’ll continue to publish here as usual.
As I write, it’s Thanksgiving. I am thankful for every single person reading this. When I began blogging in the summer of 2016, I could not have imagined the journey I was embarking upon. Now, more than 200 posts and two books later, I’ve made connections, learned, grown, laughed, cried, and been touched by your comments and questions. I’m proud to begin sharing my fiction with you and I hope you’ll join me and other readers on Substack as I add posts and features to A Stone, a Web, a Story. Thank you.
My emotions are running free and fierce these days. There’s the tumult and chaos outside the small bubble of my life and my attic aerie, and at the same time there are singing threads of gold weaving through the much darker pattern of fear, uncertainty and loss. My gaze shifts from gold to darkness when I raise my eyes from my own step-by-step choices and routine.
I have a strange thought that coronavirus has brought with it many gifts.
I came across this article about nurturing creativity in our children, and enjoyed the metaphor of meeting the flame of creativity with a bucket of cold water or a breath of wind. Although the author here is talking specifically about children, it seems to me we’re witnessing a flowering of creativity from people of all ages on every side.
I’ve long insisted creativity belongs to everyone. Since the dawn of our species, we’ve been artists, makers, dancers, drummers and innovators of symbols in order to create language. One of the most destructive aspects of a rampant capitalistic culture is that we are discouraged from innovating for ourselves and encouraged to go out and buy something someone else (someone qualified to do so) has designed and produced. The cultural belief is if we can’t sell what we make for money, our creativity and innovation are worthless. Refer again to the article about writing’s “dirty secret” in one of my recent posts.
Most of us can’t possibly compete with the unlimited fame and resources of the rich and influential to advertise and promote our product, and we don’t try, under normal circumstances. We know who’s in charge. We know who has the powerful connections and the money. It’s not us.
Our present circumstances are not normal. I am delighted and awed to see, every day, hundreds (at least) of people are rediscovering or perhaps discovering for the first time their flexibility, their resilience, their creativity and their innovation.
It’s notable for every article I find online about making DIY facemasks there’s an article saying they’re not good enough, they won’t work, and citing all the reasons why it’s either a bad idea or a pointless one. I have yet to see the “it’s not patriotic” spin, but doubtless it will come. Cold water on creativity, indeed.
I rejoice to see people are making facemasks anyway! Facemasks in layers. Facemasks with makeshift filters. Facemasks that can be washed and reused. Not facemasks as a magic bullet, but to help remind us not to touch our faces and to protect others from our droplets, since it appears many of us may be asymptomatic and infected.
After all, a non-commercial facemask isn’t going to make anything worse, and it might provide some protection for us and those around us, so why not? We do not currently have the personal protective equipment we need in this country to battle this pandemic. That’s a fact. Ask any doctor, technician or nurse in a hospital. At the hospital I work in we are strictly rationing masks and we haven’t admitted a single COVID-19 patient. Yet.
I observe with interest many of the innovators out there are not leaders (I use that term advisedly). They’re regular people, out of work, frightened, wondering what will happen next, trying to care for and protect their families and communities. They don’t have connections. They’re not rich or famous (or infamous). Just people. Marvelous, adaptable, curious, creative people are making masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, ventilators, etc., etc. Virtual concerts. Virtual birthday parties and get togethers. Hand written letters of appreciation and signs held up outside windows for quarantined loved ones. Birthday parades of neighborhood cars.
I had a boss once who was competent, intelligent, experienced and organized. I appreciated her in many ways. Then, one day, something tragic and sudden happened at work, and she did not know what to do. She was unable to take a leadership role. She fell apart right in front of me. There was nothing in our standard operating procedures, nothing in our binders and protocols, addressing the situation. She was undone because there were no guidelines and she was strictly a by-the-book person. She was not flexible or creative.
It so happened that the event that occurred was something I had a lot of experience with; a colleague and I took charge of the crisis so other lives would not be lost. It was a hideous few hours, but we contained the situation and dealt with it. It left us all deeply scarred.
I was reprimanded later for taking control, for not “staying in my place” as a subordinate, for daring to direct those ostensibly in charge during the crisis!
This reminded me of the value and power in being able to adjust, adapt, think on one’s feet, and throw away (at least temporarily) the rule book.
Sometimes our leaders are unable to lead. Sometimes the rule books give us no useful guidance.
Sometimes we just have to proceed with our own experience and good sense and do the best we can, knowing others might actively discourage us from doing so!
But Frodo Baggins (unexpected hero and leader) does live, and he’s just a regular person like you and me. Sometimes we get no permission, no validation and no support for our innovation and creativity, because many people are better at throwing buckets of cold water around than they are at gently fanning the flame of an idea or plan.
Those who can only operate inside the box are naturally threatened and outraged by those of us who like to color outside the lines, but the ability and willingness to color outside the lines is what is going to get us through these times, as it got us through the World Wars, 911 and other terrible events. We are faced now with uncertainty, shortages, financial collapse and a crisis threatening such monoliths as public education and public health, not to mention our taken-for-granted personal freedoms.
Yet this tiny crowned virus is reminding us what it means to be human and encouraging us to reclaim powerful parts of our humanity. We are makers, creators. We were that a long, long time before we were consumers. We may be in the middle of personal and institutional financial collapse, but we can still make and create, and we are. We are. We are beautiful.
One of the powerful lessons our planet has to teach us (if only more would listen!) is the miracle of complex systems. Scientists are beginning to understand our old paradigm of mechanistic reductionism does not honor how intricately and elegantly chemistry, geology, oceanography, paleontology, astrophysics and biology are woven together. Our most challenging and pressing issues are all connected: health and access to healthcare, diet, climate change, overshoot, pollution, education and resource access, to name but a few.
As I write this post, I’m crammed in a corner of my attic office. My partner is building me a bookcase in the middle of the room. There’s sawdust on the rug, piles of books all over the floor, tools and shims and clamps and screws on the floor and file cabinet. We’re chatting about nothing much as I write and he mutters to himself and runs power tools. I pause now and then to look out the window, where a frigid winter wind blows, and to run my eyes lovingly over the books heaped around my feet, waiting patiently for their new accommodations.
Several others have occupied this attic space before me. The house, after all, is almost 200 years old. The horsehair lath and plaster walls, covered with old-fashioned wallpaper; the slanting ceiling; and the wide planks of the floor, painted a light shade of grey-brown, have contained and witnessed many thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams.
When I moved in, I adjusted to the space and what was here, not only because I was overwhelmed and homesick for my place in Colorado, but also out of respect for the rooms, the house, and my partner and his memories and history in this place.
Now, nearly five years later, I have rooted firmly into my new life. I no longer feel like a visitor or a temporary roommate. These two adjoining attic rooms know me. I’ve slept here. I’ve pulled Tarot cards, burned candles and incense, cleaned, smudged, written countless words, cried, listened to music, exercised, danced, and nursed illness and injury here.
We humans have a tendency to consider ourselves Masters of the Universe. Between that assumption and the truth, that we are but one species among billions of other forms of life, some of which we remain ignorant of and many of which have lived on this planet millions of years longer than we have, yawns a chasm of ignorance, arrogance and self-destruction.
A study of complexity opens up a wider awareness, however. This space is not truly mine. I’m a temporary occupant, and I care for and about these little rooms, but they were here long before I was and may yet shelter other lives when I am through here. In fact, I wonder if I don’t belong as much to the space as it does to me.
That thought leads me to wondering if I’m shaping worlds, creating characters and writing stories, or if those worlds, characters and stories are shaping, creating and writing me.
We didn’t plan it, but somehow last weekend my partner and I found ourselves up here with tools and a crowbar, disassembling a large counter built by a previous occupant. I didn’t find it useful as anything but a bookshelf, and it took up a lot of space. I was beginning to think about removing it sometime in the future in favor of a couple of bookshelves. The stars unexpectedly aligned perfectly on this snowy, cold weekend, and we rolled up our sleeves and started making a mess.
Tearing out the counter damaged the wall. I spackled and sanded and began to think about paint. I tore a small sample of the old wallpaper out of a corner of the closet and took it to the paint store, where I picked out a buttery cream color (Cottage Cream—I love paint color names!) that toned with the wallpaper.
That’s why, this morning, I’m an island in a sea of books while my partner inches busily around one of my new bookshelves with tools and hardware in the middle of the room. In the adjoining room, the first coat of paint is drying. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to do a final coat before I leave for work. I hate living in chaos. On the other hand, it’s possible my shelves will be ready in time for me to get some of my books off the floor before I leave!
It was tempting to tell myself this morning I couldn’t do any writing in such a mess. Instead, I decided to allow the temporary chaos around me to write this post, to shape this morning, and to mold me in this moment in time. At the same time, we, the current inhabitants of this house, are shaping a more usable and personalized space for me.
We humans are not graceful about being shaped by anyone or anything. We resent and resist. For some reason, we don’t feel as though we should have to deal with disagreement; inconvenience; difficult people, situations or feelings. We’re equally outraged if others complain about the impact of our behavior on them.
I see a different truth. Each individual life on earth is literally shaped by everything around it, both living and what we call nonliving. Our inability to discern a direct superhighway between ourselves and a total stranger on the other side of the world doesn’t diminish the power and reality of our interdependence. It just means we’re terribly and dangerously ignorant.
Those who came before me to this attic aerie chose wallpaper, paint, shelves, window coverings, and where to fasten things to the walls. Now I, in my turn, am molding the space to my needs and preferences, but the space itself is not passive. Sunlight, moonlight and draughts move through it in a particular way. The red bricks of the chimney rising through one of the rooms radiates heat. The floor dips, creaks and sways, dictating where I sit, sleep and exercise. The low, slanted ceiling does not accommodate some stretches and dance movements. The narrow, steep stairs limit what I can bring up in terms of furniture.
I am shaped, influenced, limited, challenged, rearranged, smoothed down and roughed up by my two little rooms, just as surely as I’m deconstructing, patching, sanding, painting, scrubbing and reconstructing my physical surroundings. Together, we create my life. We are partners. I am who I am because of my living space, and it is as it is because of me.
My whole life has shaped my writing, and in the last few years my writing has shaped my life. As I weave story and work with characters and other worlds, they enter my dreams and my thoughts. I carry their influence with me as I live. Because of my blog, I ask more questions in the world, am more present with others, and listen more carefully. The discipline of posting weekly demands I find a way through discomfort, change and upheaval, and write anyway. I am not the Princess and the Pea. I can write even if my surroundings are not ideal.
Nobody but me could write my Webbd Wheelseries or create the space I need. Perhaps no other story or living space in the world could have written this moment’s version of me.
I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.
The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.
Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.
“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”
It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.
Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.
Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”
Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.
It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.
Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.
Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. Their creations may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.
This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies someone decides what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?
As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition — do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.
As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.
Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.
Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.
What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression reflecting a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.
In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.
Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?
I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.
To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.
I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?
I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.
Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.