Make The Song Cry | Thoughts on the Artist's Calling

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What drives me to create? One theory: it's an addiction. Not to the art-making process but to a specific feeling, a core theme (discussed in Sometimes Pure Light episode 1). While my substance is the feeling the fix is putting it into form. When I capture it in a photograph I get high. It! It! Elusive it! In the time it takes for a polaroid to develop, the high fades and I must pick up my camera again. Put me into form, put me in form says the feeling. 

When I don't, withdrawal looms. The feeling scratches at the door. I hear it while I'm making scrambled eggs and before I go to sleep. "Coming, coming..." I say. The scratch turns into a knock then a pound that breaks down the door. Sheesh. Many artists have described an adversarial relationship with their craft. Not the feeling itself (never) but the tension of the relationship. The demands. 

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Put me into form. Put me into form perfectly. Put me into form now. Put me into form and you will be satisfied. You will fly. Put me into form in a new way. Put me into form 1,000,000 wrong ways first and the right way will appear. Put me into form for the right reasons; for me and me alone. I am your audience, your client, your highest end. Don't put me into form until you have traveled and listened and received. Put me into form for no worldly benefit - money, recognition, praise. Put me into form even though you will be looked at by someone as a bad mom, a victim, self-obsessed, doing something unimportant and those thoughts will hurt you deeply. Put me into form instead of mopping the floors. 

Does this sound dramatic? Many have asked why artists and darkness almost always go together. Most recently I loved Yan Palmer's thoughtful post on the subject. Are depression and creativity necessarily connected? I'm not sure. What matters to me is the acknowledgement that the process necessarily beats your psyche like the ballerina's feet. At the end of the day, addiction is maladaptive. It is inconsistent with practical life, obligations, conventional behavior, linear thought. If I become a healthier person will I still create? Yes. But the process cuts, I bleed, and it leaves a scar. I strive for health, but the work itself is like the mortician's: it touches death and it affects me. 

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Should I enter rehab? Therapy? Start a yoga practice? But I have beaten you there. Making art is my healing - but if and only if I am devoted. Putting feeling in form. Taking in, putting out. Making the unfelt felt, the unsaid said, the unknown known, the unstretched stretched. Like sweating out toxins and receiving the due endorphins as a prize. But unlike those methods (which artists should probably do in addition to their art, we need all the help we can get) we don't choose to make art. It is given, like the nurse's practicality and the philosopher's probing mind.

I recently watched an interview with Jay-Z by the New York Times where he discussed a song on his new album. The hook describes the artist's reality: I can't see 'em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry. Although he's describing his inability to cry (typically not a problem for artists - ha) the line was extraordinarily beautiful to me. I gotta. It's a necessity. The best description of talent I've heard is not the thing you love to do but the thing you can't not do. I gotta make the song cry.

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In an attempt to truly show up for my marriage and kids, I have tried to put art to the side. Makes sense, right? Any way you slice it, my family is more important to me than my non-monetized, half-realized art. But the subjective reality cannot be turned off: put me into form, put me into form. It's not that I want to create more than function in my family, but rather making space for creating is what allows me to do so. Part of me believes that art and depression so often go together because the artist can't get there for various reasons. Can't get the caged bird to sing, can't get the song to cry. 

In a dark corner I have puzzled over the incompatibility of the artist's calling with motherhood. Asking the question already puts me outside the camp. Oh, no one else has a lifelong, interloping obsession that disrupts all relationships? Me either... asking for a friend! I had a conversation once with a mom I admire (hi Becky) whose talent is teaching. As a homeschooling educator she doesn't grapple with the question. Her callings are seamless. I guess my kids will have to deal with Mom Divided. But I learned something this year that is helping: devotion means consistency, passion, presence. Not exclusivity. Being 100% entranced 100% of the time isn't good for any area: children, marriage or calling.

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When I was converting to Christianity in 2007, I heard two things that changed my life. First, that the identity of a woman is not primarily in her gender but in her capacity to use reason. In her being an image-bearer of God. And that each human life has a totally unique ability to make God known. I am first human, and I have a contribution to the human story that is mine alone to give. I'm more than a sexual object and my talents matter. Had my church not been so strong in these doctrines I likely would have continued on my path of scoffing at Jesus. I connected strongly with those ideas then, but they have faded as love, marriage, pregnancies, babies, suffering and the status quo have taken residence in my mind.

How did I manage to write this blog today? Because I have dutifully woken up at 5:00 a.m. every morning this week before the kids? No. Because I had an infected wisdom tooth extracted and am locked in my workspace with jello and prescriptions. I have been writing for five hours, finally putting into words these ideas that have been percolating for ten years. But morning devotion to my craft is my path forward. To approach the feeling that seeks me and invite it in for a (timed) visit. It doesn't stop it from sitting on my doorstep like a fed stray cat, but instead of scratching she lays in the sun, cleans her paws and purrs.

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Photographs taken on a motherhood shoot with my dear friend Sarah and her daughters.