Earlier in the summer, at a writing workshop in northern California, I read a participant's brilliantly written short story. It was near perfect in every single way except there was no courage in it and its heart was underdeveloped.
He was called on it. Another student in the group confronted him. His eyes grew large. He cleared his throat. Around the room, heads bobbed in agreement. A day later, he conceded, admitting that he was so busy showing us how well he could write that he'd hoped no one would notice he'd left out what was most important. He'd hoped that readers would be so distracted with his masterful execution that they wouldn't demand more. Demand that he give the same attention and level of excellence used in the presentation of his story to what his story, at its core, was actually about.
Later in the week, at the faculty panel Q&A, an award-winning fiction author expounded on our concerns. What I heard was this: If you, as a writer, do not go through a change while writing your manuscript, then it does not matter how well you wrote it. I went a step further in my understanding: If at the end of writing your manuscript, your heart and your gut don’t feel as if they’ve just been through the most arduous form of exercise known to humankind, then don’t bother. Don’t bother even asking anyone to read it. Bury it. Start over and see if you can’t mean it this time.
When I experience any form of art—film, literature, visual or the performing arts—I expect not only rigor in its production and execution but also heart and courage. I'm not talking about sentimentality or sensationalism. I'm saying there are risks that must be taken, not only with form, but also with content, or else I do not trust the work. If I'm not invited to explore the depth, wonder and complications of my humanity, I'm bored and annoyed. The more talented the artist/writer, the more frustrated I am if I experience his work as shallow. Enough with aesthetic seduction! Enough with going through the motions!
Does that make me holier than thou (me with my weighty principles)? Absolutely not. Do I have the right to demand from others what I demand from myself? That's a tricky one. Every artist has a right to her own philosophies and intentions. My obligation is to my own definition of how and why I create while clutching my truth. However, that does not stop me from ranting, where in this city of Holy Faith, the volume of art available to consumers and collectors is an avalanche.
As artists of all kinds—poets, photographers, playwrights, musicians, filmmakers—what are we doing if we are not imbuing our work with all the heart and guts we possibly have? Do we need to be faced with the possibility of death in order to express the sincerity and totality of what it means to be alive, actively engaged in the act of living? Have we become apathetic and addicted to shiny surfaces while the truth of our humanity escapes us? If all we have is this one life, what are we doing with it? What as artists—who employ voice through a multitude of forms—are we creating? There are knives at our throats; after all, isn’t that what mortality is? Create accordingly.