Craft: Living Like an Artist

As a writer, it is important to get into the mindset of being an artist. Because writing is more cerebral than visual, it’s easy to get into a rut, chaining ourselves to our desks or spiraling into despair.

Not that I’ve ever done that.

To avoid this kind of stagnation, it can be useful to pull inspiration from other kinds of artistry. Take painters, or sculptors, or any kind of visual artist, for example.

Things Artists Do:

Sketch/Doodle/Paint Random Stuff

Visual artists spend a lot of time practicing in small-scale ways. They might sketch the way the light looks on a piece of fruit, or paint a row of flowers. This isn’t the time for big-scale works of art; it’s just playing with the medium.

Study Other Artists

While some people are more artistically inclined, no one is born with all the skill they’ll ever have. Visual artists spend a lot of time studying technique, and looking at works of art from other artists, paying attention to the choices made in the execution of technique. Artists verse themselves in the styles of the masters, and what different trends and movements have occurred in art over time.

Create a Community of Peers

Artists make connections with other artists, from mentors to learn from, to peers to grow with. They collaborate, sharing ideas and projects, and building rapport.

Submit to Art Shows/Exhibits/Events

Artists show their work publicly, even if it’s a state fair or an Instagram account. They get feedback on how their work reaches their audience. They gather experience in what it means to share their art with the world, and they deal with the acceptance or rejection that entails.

Live Life

Artists are human beings. They eat, they sleep, they work, they have families and hobbies and worries and joys and obligations. All these experiences feed their craft.

Make Great Works of Art

Lastly artists, well, make art. The big, showstopping paintings or sculptures or whatever it may be. The art you think of when you think of artists. But the great works of art come at the end. All those other things, are part of the lifestyle of an artist, and you don’t get great works of art without them.

As writing artists, this translates perfectly:

Things Writing Artists Do:

Write Down Notes/Thoughts/Random Stuff

A funny joke pops into your mind? Write it down. Your mom says something odd? Write it down. You notice a detail on a building you’ve never seen before, or the way two people look at each other, or that a certain crack makes the sidewalk look like it’s smiling? Write it down. You get a premise, or an ending, or half a story idea in your head? Write it down even if you don’t have the rest of it. This is practice. This is like sketching fruit or painting flowers.

Study Other Writers

Everyone says that reading is part of writing. They say it because it’s true. When you read from other authors, especially the greats, you learn to notice their technique, their treatment of plot and character and dialogue. You also learn what conventions have shaped literature throughout history, and you get a glimpse into how people were thinking about what was happening in the past.

And don’t limit yourself to reading your own genre, or reading what people “should” read; read anything and everything that catches your eye. I’m a big believer in Following Your Joy. I once went on a self-help book kick, in which I read everything I could find about personality types, anxiety, religion, organization, etc. etc. This helped immensely a year later, when I sat down to write my novel in which the main character struggles with tragedy and loss and the personal, emotional, mental, and spiritual issues that brings up for her. It also helped me during a mild quarter-life crisis, but that’s another story. It was helpful; that’s my point.

Build a Community as a Literary Citizen

Writers don’t exist in individual bubbles. We are—and should be—literary citizens, part of a whole community of writing artists. Connect with people you admire however you can (as long as it’s not illegal or annoying). Connect with peers who can encourage and challenge you. Go to conferences and public readings (or virtual ones, as the case may be). Find people you believe in, and who believe in you too.

Submit to Readings, Publications, and Contests

This one is hard for me. Nothing will make you face your fear of rejection like, well… rejection. But if you don’t submit your work to literary journals and contests, or pitch stories to magazines and websites, or perform at public readings, people won’t see your work. You won’t gain the valuable experience of growing a thick skin. And of course, you have no chance of everything going wonderfully, and your work getting praised/recognized/published. So bite the bullet, and start submitting your work as much as you can. Doing this numbs the pain of rejection. Writing-wise, at least.

Live Life

The best art is not forced. There is a difference between being diligent and disciplined, and pressuring your creative process. Diligence looks like showing up, committing, and living the life of an artist. Pressure looks like trying to muscle your work into something it’s not willing to be, on a timeline it’s not willing to follow.

I’m a bit of a mystic when it comes to this. I truly believe that we do not create our art; we are conduits for it. When I write a story, I’m not making up the story. The story exists, and I am the archaeologist digging it up and dusting it off, uncovering it page by painful page. My point is this: let your experiences and life lived, the things you notice and the things you feel, shape your work. This takes time, because life takes time. Let your story tell you what it wants to be about, and listen to it, because the story always knows best.

Yes I do use essential oils, why do you ask?

Write a Novel, or a Short Story Collection, or a Memoir, or a Book of Poems

Just like in art, the highlight of a writer’s life is really the end result of a lot of other things. You can’t paint the Mona Lisa without a ton of practice and a friend who will let you paint her smiling mysteriously. You can’t run a 50k through the woods without months of training (well, my husband did, but that’s another story. It was foolish, is my point). And you can’t write the Great American (or European, or South Asian) Novel without living a writing artist’s lifestyle. You might physically be able to do it, but it won’t have the resonance and care and honesty and intention that the story needs.

Because here’s the thing. Being a writer isn’t just producing content. When we are only producers, our value is linked to our production. When production lags, our value is nil. This is a sucky way to live. We know this. But when we live like writers, our value is innate. It is linked with who we are, as it should be. Our value lies in living true to our identities, in being honest about who we are and what we care about. If I go to bed at the end of the day and still haven’t finished my Great American Novel, I don’t have to be afraid of what this means for my identity. I can point to the small paragraph I jotted down, to the Zoom chat I had with my writer friends, to the article I read, to the brilliant contrast of green leaves against blue sky which I duly noticed, to the way one of my favorite songs makes me think about what it means to be human.

And because I’ve decided to live like a writer, I know that I am one.

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