For Art’s Sake

lizard set

Lizard tea set, by Christina Orthwein

So I’ve been thinking a lot about J.D. Salinger and the decades and decades of his life that he didn’t publish anything. According to the documentary Salinger that I saw over the weekend, he was still writing for all those years. We get to see some of those works before too long, but I bet a lot if it will never see the light of day. I seem to recall him making some sort of statement through the interviews and commentary of the filmmakers that the point of writing isn’t publishing, it’s the act of writing itself.

Boy, I can identify with that! I’ve been writing for about 30 of my nearly 40 years on this earth, but it’s only been in the last two and a half years that I’ve gotten serious about publishing. Am I planning on publishing the things I wrote in the 28 years before I clicked “publish” on The Loyal Heart? Well, maybe one or two things in drastically revised form, but for the most part, no. Do I continue to write things just for fun that will never see the light of day? Not as much as I want to.

In my opinion, it’s very easy for we artists to get wrapped up in the production of art as opposed to the creation of art. Once the paychecks start growing and moving from “Hey! I can take my best friend out to dinner!” to “Excellent! I can pay the rent with this check!” to “Hot diggity, I’m gonna pay off all my student loans and buy a car now!” it’s far too easy to fall into the mindset of writing for that paycheck.

I would go farther to say that it’s even dangerous to think in terms of writing for your audience. If you’re putting words on a page with the thought that X amount of people will like this and review it well and tell their friends and buy the book, I think you start to lose something. Maybe it’s the divine spark, maybe it’s the sense of wonder. Or maybe it’s not so much losing something as gaining shackles around your writing wrists. The pressure to produce something out of obligation to readers or to feed the money beast can cripple creativity.

The pinnacle of creativity to me is my cousin Christina Orthwein. She is a potter, nay, a Ceramic Artist! The things she produces are truly amazing. And yet, when I listen to her talking about her workroom—in the basement of her house, I think—I picture not a refined artist dabbing lightly with a paintbrush on unfired vases, but rather a cool chick in a muddy apron throwing clay at a wheel. Possibly because I’ve seen pictures of some of the crazy challenges she has issued to her ceramics classes. She has had them throw pots blindfolded, with their feet, in pairs, with giant amounts of clay, you name it. Are these intended to be museum pieces? Nope. They’re reminders that clay is fun and when it spins really fast it’s even more fun!

My cousin Christina and some of her students throwing a BIG pot

My cousin Christina and some of her students throwing a BIG pot … and having fun

There’s a lot that we writers could learn from my cousin Christina. Every word we write doesn’t have to be an entry in a competition. Neither do we have to keep our aprons clean while we’re writing. The joy of creativity comes not in grinding out manuscripts to be consumed by readers but in pushing yourself, trying something new, experimenting with characters and settings and worlds. The point is not to be a writing factory, but to be an artist.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a thing for writing fan fiction. Always have. Some of those first stories I wrote at the tender age of about 12 were Indiana Jones and Labyrinth fan fiction. They were 100% pure self-entertainment. But they accomplished two other important things. First, they taught me how to write dimensional characters and worlds because I was trying to emulate the characters and worlds that someone else created. Second, they taught me to have fun! You can do crazy things with your talents that no one else needs to see but that can make your day.

So maybe Salinger was on to something. The art is the point. The more you work from your heart with a goal of entertaining yourself, the better your writing will become. Pressure-free, deadline-free, expectation-free. Riffing on a story is a great way to refresh the soil of your imagination so that when it does come time to write something for someone else to see, there will be a richness to what they’re seeing that comes from depth of feeling and not just deadline races.

Write your hearts out! Do it for the fun of it. Do art for art’s sake!