Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2015

Art is Selfish

A lot of artists use this phrase to mean that they as people are excused from being kind because, well, art. That is not what I mean when I say that art is selfish, although we can argue about the conditions under which it is possible to produce art versus the necessity of having a real life with relationships to write about the same. "Art is selfish" means to me that art is individual, unique, and is about a single person's point of view. "Art is selfish" means that you are going to have to give everything that you have to your art, holding nothing back out of the desire to remain private or to save other people's feelings. "Art is selfish" means that art isn't for representing a culture or to pump for a political point of view, to convince people of something you believe in, or to proselytize a religion.

Part of the reason this particular motto comes to mind to me right now is because I've been accused a lot recently of writing a book (The Bishop's Wife) that is too liberal in its criticisms of the Mormon church structure and history and of members of the church, while at the same time being too conservative in its acceptance that many people find comfort and meaning in the church. To both of these, I find myself responding that I didn't write the book to encourage people to join the church or to leave the church. I also didn't write the book to make people think that I'm smart, that I'm a good writer, that I am an expert on Mormon history or culture, that I am a decent human being, or that I'm a good and fair representative of the Mormon church. I wrote the book to get readers to experience a story that is true to my own experience of my own life. And this is what I think that writers in general (and other artists) are supposed to be doing to create "art."

Mormons for a long time have been waiting for their own "Miltons and Shakespeares," as Orson F. Whitney said in 1888. I won't try to argue that I am either of those writers, but I would argue that no matter how "universal" your writing teachers argue that their themes or lessons are, the truth is that the actual scenes and stories are about individuals who have a very specific experience in life. People read Milton and Shakespeare all the time and do not care for them at all. The language can be a barrier. So can the medium. Those who do not have the background in Bible reading may not get what Milton is doing at all, and Shakespeare's bawdy humor and political jabs go right past many of us. What is great about these writers isn't their universality at all. It's that they are very, very good at telling a unique story set in a specific time and place with specific cultural expectations. The more you understand those specifics, the more you will understand the stories -- and probably come to love them.

When I write, I don't sit down to make a list of things I want to include in a book. I don't try to cram in everything I have to say about men and women, about my feelings for food or for exercise, my love of family, Mormonism, or what I think about Donald Trump running for President. What I try to do is to recreate for someone else a specific experience of my own. I think about one moment when I felt one thing, and then I close my eyes and take a breath, trying to remember that moment as best I can. I sometimes type with my eyes still closed, so that I don't lose focus. I search for just the right words to communicate that moment, even though it is almost always for another character in another world in a slightly different situation than my own. When I revise, I have to work on going back to that moment and doing an even better job recapturing it than the first time. The sharper and more precise the details, the more that my readers will feel like they are there with me, and with my character. The more I try to generalize or press my experience on others, the less they will connect to me.

In writing I have also found dramatically more success the more risks I take personally. By this I mean that the more of myself I put in the book, the scarier it feels to publish it. And as a result, the more people have read the book and loved it -- or hated it. There is very little in between. I don't get a lot of readers telling me they admired my language and telling me this or that thing that didn't work for them. It's either all in or all out. They go with me for the experience or they don't. As a writer, you need to expect this and prepare for it. For me, it has taken me years of writing and publishing to peel back the layers of myself enough to get really deep into my own heart and soul and to figure out how to put that on the page for others to either love or mock or spit at. Most people spend their lives building more and more layers of protection around themselves, which makes sense. Writers and other artists do this at the peril of their own work. You must be vulnerable to create good art. The art is selfish because it doesn't care if its creation or reception hurts you.

One of my writer friends said years ago that as she wrote each draft, she would ask herself, "Is it true yet?" And each time, she would try to make the book she was writing closer to truth. Obviously, she did not mean that the events or characters in the book were real people, or that they were factually accurate. To fiction writers, facts are completely unimportant to the truth of the story. This, too, is a kind of selfishness. I know many writers who try to tell their own life story and fail to get to the truth of it because they can't let go of the facts. If this sounds nonsensical, trust me, you will understand later. Truth is not the same as the facts. Truth is deeper and more difficult to write. It also doesn't have fact checkers.

Now, when I say that you put more of yourself in the book and that you may end up offending people in your life by this, I do not mean that you should do this by using actual scenes from your life, dialogue from real people you know, or that you should always be writing memoir and just call it fiction. Most of the time, when people write directly about their own lives, the stories are boring. Again, this is partly because of a reliance on boring facts or quotidian details, but also partly because when people do this they are often grinding axes. So they caricaturize their friends and family members and make themselves into the only sensible person, the hero of their own story, and everyone else looks bad. This is not when I mean when I say that you need to dig deeper, put more of yourself in, and make it true.

Instead, you should be working as a writer (and as a human being) at seeing the world from other people's points of view all the time. When someone does something that hurts you, resist the temptation of telling a story in your mind about how stupid or selfish that person is. Instead, try to think of their upbringing, their assumptions, their weaknesses, and their wounds. You may even figure out how to think about the whole scene so that what that person did not only makes sense but is the only right and sensible thing to do. When you can do that often, you are getting closer to seeing the world as a writer must.

But the next thing you have to do is to figure out how to talk about yourself from the outside. How do other people see you? What do you do that irritates the hell out of them? What do you do that other people can't figure out? What offends them? When do they see you as a villain even if you believe you are acting heroically? When you can write a scene with a character like yourself in it and have all the things you say and believe come out sounding wrong, then you are ready to start writing the truth.

You are not one person in your fiction. You are all your characters, with both their weaknesses and strengths. I don't mean, of course, that you can only write about people who are like you. I mean that you have to understand them deeply. You may even hurt with them when your characters go through difficult times. Your connection to all the characters will make them feel more real. And you putting in real details of your own life or expressing feelings you have felt yourself while in another character's skin will make readers sure that you understand and know everything about life (which you don't).

Art is selfish because it is a hard taskmaster. It demands that you give up pretensions to any kind of glory. You may or you may not ever get published. You may or may not make money from your writing, or become famous. You may or may not win awards. Art doesn't care about any of that. You may care about it. I used to, though I think I'm doing a good job of recovering from it. Art is about the work itself, whenever you can fit it in. I have five children and I don't neglect them (at least not very often) for my art. But I have been known to wake up in the wee hours to write, to give up going to a movie or out to dinner to get in that one scene that's floating in my head. I always have a notebook with me so that I am never wasting time waiting in line, but jot down notes for the next project. I try to listen to my kids when they are talking, but often plot novels while driving or watching television shows. It's a glorious kind of selfishness.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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