Here is my artist manifesto. Well, really, it’s manifesto-ish. Manifesto adjacent. It’s not meant to be rigid. I don’t intend to ride or die on this manifesto. What I’m interested in is what I believe as an artist at this particular moment—February 25, 2018 at 4:15pm—and how that informs my plans for the next five minutes, the next five days, the next five months. I don’t expect it to be exactly the same over the next five years, for, as Sonia Sanchez has said:
“I think that the reason why art stays alive is that the artist grows. I mean the body doesn’t stay the same; the brain doesn’t stay the same. Your art can’t stay the same.”
This manifesto-ish thing is by no means comprehensive. I fully expect to read it over tomorrow, or later tonight and see some holes, gaping or otherwise. Still, it’s a way to see where my head’s at, to gather my thoughts, after a week of iron sharpening iron conversations—including two individual chats today with women artists I respect and adore as well as a three-hour symposium listening to really smart, passionate people speak smartly and passionately.
I don’t think there is anything original in this manifesto-ish thing. I am not the only one who’s had these thoughts or ideas, and, in fact, many of these thoughts/ideas are paraphrases of what other people have said to me during various creative collisions. I don’t believe we either think or create in a vacuum, but more on that below.
So here are some things I think as related to the artist’s life and practice, which you can take as a manifesto or a roadmap or a meditation or a behind-the-scenes of my brain pan or not take in any way at all.
I have to define my quest, my hero’s journey for myself. I may be Frodo or I may be Sam. I may switch roles as the quest requires. My quest may not look like anyone else’s, nor may it even seem like a quest. All of that is okay. It’s about feeling a sense of momentum, moving forward (or inching forward), even if we cannot make out what it is we’re moving toward either consistently or conclusively.
It’s okay to not be able to see past the bend in the road. But I should also not be fearful to imagine what’s past the bend in the road. So what if I’m wrong?
I must dream big. Then dream bigger than that. Then take a step forward. Baby steps are fine. As are leaps.
I do not have to wait for my greatness. I have to walk into the greatness I hold within myself right now. And, yes, we all hold greatness within us in some form or fashion, in some magnitude right at this very moment.
I must consistently and constantly be willing to ask and answer the questions: How am I stopping myself? How do I not stop myself?
There is no such thing as originality. I am always standing on the shoulders of someone else’s thought, someone else’s creativity, someone else’s work. What I mean when I say something is my original work is “I am being as faithful as I possibly can within this work of art to my own experience, my own vision.”
If I can’t write from a place of authority, I must write from a place of discovery. I also need to privilege work created from a place of creativity over that created from a place of authority. To quote Azar Nafisi paraphrasing Milan Kundera, “Artists are not here to preach the truth, they are here to discover it.”
I must engage fully in my life at all times. What that means from day to day may change. And what that means for someone else is probably not what it means for me.
I must allow myself to take up space in my life and in the lives of others. I must allow myself to inhabit my voice fully. There are people who need my voice in the same way there are those whose voices I need.
And also the truth can stare you in the face for four decades and it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether or not the truth is easily apprehended—they were at fault not me—it’s about when you figure out how to stop listening to all the stories you’ve learned to tell yourself to explain the monster.
But when you’re a storyteller—as it’s plain you are—it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the stories you tell because they’re true and the stories you tell because you need them to be true. Is that something one ever learns to do with 100 percent accuracy? Even now as I write this confessional porn—Look at me and my beautiful wounds! Don’t I look great from the vantage point of my internal suffering?—I wonder what is honest, what is embellished. But that’s the legacy of growing up with parents like ours, isn’t it? It’s hard to be secure in what we feel, to know if our joy or our grief or our anger or our bewilderment is a true thing. We’ve been forced to be our own parents and, really, what kind of parent is a kid in single digits going to make? What kid doesn’t err on the side of make-believe?
I’ve been lately thinking about that lack of security—emotional, psychological—in terms of my arts career. I used to feel bad about the fact that I’ve—for the most part—as an adult always had a full-time job. Poetry, theater work, whatever else I wanted to do as an art practice has always been practiced in the cracks of the 9-5 day. I’ve thought for years, decades, that having a good-paying full-time job meant that somehow I lacked courage and drive to be an artist. But I’ve come to realize that when you’re a kid who grows up always trying to catch your balance on shifting sands, you crave something stable.
My natural state is chaos but I realize it’s all grounded in habit and ritual so I can keep some sort of balance. Even when I had a seven-month fellowship on the tip of Cape Cod during which I didn’t have to work a traditional job, I found rituals—walking up and down Commercial Street, singing with the church choir, making apple crisp. My somewhat traditional life hasn’t kept me from being a great artist, but instead I realize now it’s kept me alive long enough so I can keep working toward being a great artist. No, not a great artist, but an artist who reaches people whether it’s on a grand scale or not. It’s kept me alive so I can write about this shit and hopefully save someone else from wandering around in the desert as long as I have. I think that’s what you do, too, Marc.
Yes, I think it’s time I started calling you Marc…
To be continued…