Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Small book, big ideas and questions to ponder: What drives us to do what we love? What gives us the confidence to keep going and what keeps us from starting at all? First printed in 1993, one might expect some of the concepts raised in this book to be slightly out of date, but in the two and a half hours it took me to finish it, I never once felt like I was reading a sixteen-year-old observation, nor did I feel any of it crossed the line into preachy self-help nonsense.

“Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, or all of the above. It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage. It may in fact be the engagement — not the art — that you seek.”

Where a person is in their artistic life will determine what they get out of this book, I think. Writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers — it’s not really aimed at one particular field. Originally, my photographer husband purchased it and found it to be a useful reminder that “tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite for succeeding.”

In other words, do what you do, see what happens. Some artists will succeed before you (that 9-year-old prodigy), some will never be appreciated until they are long gone (F. Scott Fitzgerald), but the personal satisfaction one derives from their art should not be wrapped up in the fear of approval.

“The real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art.”

It’s hard not think of people like Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga while reading, or really anyone else who doesn’t fit an expected mold. They’re the sort who seem to come from their own planet, their own universe, and maybe initially, it’s hard to see what the big deal is. It might be hard to see the art in the performance. The thing is, whether you “get it” or not is not going to change them. You like it or you don’t, but they’ll just keep on being who they are. It does take a fearlessness to be able to do that. Certainly not everyone can all of the time. If all art is autobiographical, it takes bravery to expose yourself to the potential criticism of others.

Reading this made me think more of music than books, despite wanting to be in the business of writing them. For me, they are so intertwined with one another. Maybe I’m constantly trying to put the feelings I get from music into a language I speak — the story behind the music, the process of creating something out of the echos in your mind. Even if I’m not writing about musicians, the characters are all passionate about something that isn’t going to pay the bills. Or perhaps they once felt that way, and now they wonder how to find that spark again. Either way, I like writing about the process — how the inside affects the outside.

Years ago, when I was in middle and high school, I used to be much more fearless about my work. Hell, I’d hand a friend a very first-draft section of a story, written during history class. (History class was a very productive time for me.) “Read what I did today,” I’d say, not at all nervous by the reception. I wrote short stories, poems, made strange birthday and Christmas cards, all without revision. “Oh, just excuse the typos,” I said, presenting someone with a binder full of papers. It wasn’t that I’d convinced myself I was some genius. I certainly felt capable, above-average, but it was more that I trusted my friends to get what I meant, despite the imperfections. And the thing was, they did. They enjoyed what I wrote, asked when I’d have more for them to read, and I used up a lot of printer ink.

The confidence began to erode, I think, once I got out of practice. I didn’t write as often, had a handful of personal issues going on, and I found myself dropping out of college feeling like I was nowhere near the right headspace to write much of anything. I started and stopped a few projects, but it took a long time, a bit more than four years, before anything started to stick again.

Though I’m not the type to make serious New Year’s Resolutions, last year, I bothered. “I’m going to be more brave,” I said. What that meant, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to be too specific, thinking that leaving it open-ended would leave the greatest chance for success. And I think I have succeeded. My husband and I started an online monthly arts magazine, where I have a music column talking about whatever I want. I finished a third draft of a novel, let some people read it, then wrote a fourth and final (for now) draft, and let people read that one. I took on this Cannonball Read challenge, I wrote another 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. I decided to be more present. By staying in practice, by doing exactly what I want to do, not only have I enjoyed the positive response, but I’m just happy to have my brain working again. I can do this, you know?

“We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in — and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing — the only work you can do convincingly — is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.”

And that’s it, really. I don’t need to have a million and one ideas if I just write from a place of honesty. If I feel strongly about something, it will come through. People who would never go fly-fishing still liked A River Runs Through It. Americans who don’t know a damn thing about soccer enjoyed Fever Pitch. The best kinds of books, the best songs — the best anything, really — takes the personal and makes it feel universal. We recognize that these stories aren’t about the techniques, the actions, but the emotions behind them.

We’re all proud, we’re all apprehensive. We suffer from fits of loneliness, and we’re all in love with something. One mistake informs the next success. If this book accomplishes anything, it’s a great reminder that being true to yourself doesn’t have to be a cliche. Whatever our definition of success is, we make the decisions.

Book # 6/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on RiVerSpeAK on Decemeber 22, 2009


  1. Man, this post really resonated with me. I did NaNo this year, too -- because I have had a novel I've been wanting to write FOREVER, but I was always afraid that I'd spend all this time writing it and get all invested only to find that it was no good and I'd been wasting my time.

    NaNo was the motivation I needed to get started, and I'm so glad that I did it. I'm working on revisions and hoping to start shopping it out next year.

    Great post -- and best of luck to you in your pursuit of YOUR art! :)

  2. NaNo is a great kick in the ass, I think. Gets you in the chair and just go, go, going. I've done it every year since 2004. My "main" book's first draft came out of 2006's effort.

    I'm glad you liked the review! I always feel a bit warm and fuzzy when people I don't actually know read what I have to say. Guess I should get used to it. ;)