Making Art In Times Like These

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Last week, I finished reading one of the latest New York Times Best Sellers in the YA genre to take teen minds by storm. I’m a YA fiction writer myself, and after a several-year hiatus, I’m working on squizzling my way back into the game. This novel was the latest in my pursuit to catch up on what’s hot in the genre these days, and I immediately noticed something that wasn’t as prevalent in the young adult novels I read when I was young.

While Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and, yes, even Twilight had their lessons to teach, it felt less the purpose of the story and more a byproduct of hanging out with unconventional, unique characters dealing with unconventional, unique situations. The novel, Children of Blood and Bone, however, was clearly written with a single-minded drive to shine a light on the modern issue of police brutality and every sentence of the novel was drenched in that sense of purpose. While veiled in an imaginary conflict over magic in a fantasyland, no moment of character development was without agenda and no internal monologue strayed from the idea.

While the work moved me, I initially felt a tug toward criticism in the way the author tended to repeat herself, often touching on the same point in consecutive pages. I was also put off at first by the way the issues being addressed in the novel took the limelight, often at the expense of character. My knee-jerk response was to categorize the novel as one that was “almost there, but not quite.”

But, somehow, the novel and the ideas it wrestled with wouldn’t leave me. So I decided to take a closer look and with it came a new thoughtfulness.

In times like these, creating art is different than it ever has been before. Social media has not only connected us with the ideas, issues and struggles of the entire world, which in and of itself is an overwhelming thought, but it has also given each moment of pain and injustice a sense of pulse-pounding urgency. “If we don’t stop this here and now, what will happen tomorrow?”

Do you want to know the worst kept secret about artists, whether they be writers, painters, directors, poets, actors, songwriters or anything beyond?

We care. A lot. 

We care so damn much that, when faced with the pain of others, it feels like our stomachs have been replaced by a pair of headphones left for weeks to scramble into knots at the bottom of a backpack.

Art is all about the sharing and channeling of emotion – a task made astronomically difficult if you have none. In fact, what draws many of us to art is the space it provides to make sense of and purge the tangle of emotions we keep bottled inside, sending them out into the world, hoping someone else will be moved to say, "You know what? Me too!"

So in 2018, when it seems like the world, or at least the best parts of it, is crumbling around us, bit-by-bit, day-by-day, is it even possible to create art in the kind of pristine vacuum provided by the coastal Maine beach house retreats of yore?

While I was initially critical of the repetition found in Children of Blood and Bone, when I took a more sympathetic look, I recognized in it a desperation to be heard. Where I once saw heavy-handed moralizing, I now saw the same panic and urgency I feel every time a notification pops up on my phone informing me of the latest atrocity committed by those who have been tasked to preserve, protect and defend us all. I faced the idea that maybe delicacy and subtlety aren’t luxuries we all get to enjoy right now.

Long story short, I just wanted to give the author, Tomi Adeyemi, a great big hug. 

The novel felt less like an escape into a fantasy world and more like a boxing match between my heart and my reality, and one that I wasn’t sure I was going to win. But maybe that’s what I needed to endure to give me a renewed determination to fight against an injustice that I will never have to experience.

While the novel has flaws, I wonder if stories like these are the legacy of a hyper-connected culture in distress trying to make sense of, and at the same time battle against, a growing sense of dread.

And so to those who patronize artists, whether by going to movies, listening to music or reading books, I ask that you to consider that art is not merely a product for consumption. While artists have stories to tell, whether or not it connects with you, or what number is reached at the opening weekend box office, has little bearing on whether that piece of art is “good” or “bad.” And it has absolutely no impact at all on its worthiness to exist.

To my fellow artists, especially those who would give anything for a tiny taste of the inner peace from which you work best, I get it. It can feel like a betrayal to disconnect long enough to paint a portrait when immigrant children are crying out for their parents, and it can feel irresponsible to let your rage subside just enough to write a scene about a sweet, innocent first kiss. But don’t forget that we are all here to keep watch while you work. If you need a weekend away to hammer out the end of your play, take it. If you need a shoulder to cry on, call out for it. If you need to suspend all of your social media accounts for a month of peace, do it.

And if you need to do a back somersault dive into advocacy, by all means do that, too! Before you were an artist, you were a human, and no matter how esteemed your work, you can do the human things like engaging in social issues and the political forum. Whether you're in artist mode, human mode or an amalgamation of the two, you should feel free to do the thing. 

Because more than anything right now, we need you.

Making art in times like these can be confusing, exhausting and painful. It can feel like taping a sign to your forehead that says, “Come at me, trolls.” When emotions on all sides are cranked up to 11, the noise can be deafening, drowning out both inner creativity and flooding over subtlety, so be gentle with yourself. The work you do is beautiful, and we will keep on telling you so.

While artists are more accessible than ever on social media, opening them up to toxic waves of unbridled hatred, those same avenues can be paved with words of love and admiration. If you listen to a song that helps you through a tough spot in life, tell the musician so. If you watch a movie that moves you to tears or makes you laugh so hard your face hurts, tell the creative team so. And if you read a novel that helps you to understand the pain of an injustice you never have and never will live to experience, tell the author so. I did.

It’s true that making art in times like these is hard, but it’s no less true that it makes me feel so alive.