How I wrote my artist statement

Anyone remember that Muppet (Don Music, above) on Sesame Street who kept trying to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano? He would almost reach the end, then play the wrong note. Then he’d groan, “OH, I’LL NEVER GET IT! NEVERRRRR!” (and, sproing: the sound of his head hitting the piano keys.)

That’s how I felt about writing my artist statement for a grant application. Lately I’ve thought about that Muppet, a lot.

Writing the artist statement was one of the most productive writing assignments I’ve had on this blog. Translation: it KICKED my ASS over and over again. It was excruciating. I actually tried to write an artist statement back in November, for this same grant, and I actually missed the application deadline. Uncharacteristically, I gave up. Now, I usually let the pressure of the deadline work its magic, and Just Do It. But I didn’t, and I missed the deadline. I decided that I wouldn’t let the deadline pass me by again.

What paralyzed me for so long was, really, two things. The first thing was the perfectionist voice: it BETTER be good. I can understand how artist statements can be bad for those who have not been taught how to write. But, some voice sneered, a writer’s artist statement better be GOOD. Writers write, after all. We usually don’t paint or compose music or use other artistic forms to express ourselves. Words are what we have. I’ve read some terrible artist statements, ones which made the artist seem incredibly pretentious, or ones which made me respect the artist less. So my internal editor voice kept butting in: ’that’s SO cliche,” “that’s how EVERY artist statement starts,” and so on.

The second thing that paralyzed me was an issue of identity. Having been a professor and a scholar for so long, and having worked so hard to get there, it was hard for me to switch gears and claim myself as a writer. Writing the biography of myself as a writer, as an artist, then, was invaluable, and I had to write that before I got to the artist statement. I had to believe that I was—no, am—a writer.

Now in my teaching, I’ve asked my students to write artist statements. I’ve emphasized that artists need to be able to talk about their own work intelligently. Our culture demands (and gains) access to the artist and creative processes. Because of this demand, artists who can talk about their own work are often artists that I respect.

But in this case, ironically, I couldn’t let myself trust the writing process—the very process that I kept emphasizing as a writing teacher.  As the editor Bill Germano says, “You don’t write to record; you write to discover.”
I wrote six drafts of my artist statement. Most of them felt miserable and inadequate. I complained most of the time. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty writerly process. I wanted to describe some of the drafts, so that if you are struggling with your artist statement, you could take some of the approaches below. Consider them writing prompts, or a mishmash of ways to brainstorm for the artist statement.

  • In one draft, I wrote three anecdotes about the things that I write about frequently.
  • Another draft made me erase the stories and anecdotes. I think I was trying to hide behind the stories, the equivalent of the artist’s plea, “Should my work speak for itself?” But on my way out the door for a run, some tough-love voice said to me: “No. You do know why you write what you write. To pretend otherwise is dishonest.” So I wrote for that voice for a little while. I did know why I write what I write; I just didn’t want to claim these things, and risk being vulnerable or wrong. I looked at the whys and the hearts of the anecdotes: what were the lessons or themes to take from the stories?
  • In another draft, I wrote about the things I’d like to stand for, as an artist: education, literacy, compassion, questioning. (In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott calls this your “moral point of view.”) They don’t describe what I do write about, all the time. And that gave me pause.  I ended up putting these things into the statement anyway, because they do inform my work.
  • The next draft brought me to a more honest place. I looked at a bunch of things I’d written, and tried to find common threads and themes. These themes didn’t match the lofty goals that emerged in the earlier draft. But they felt accurate, and they felt sincere. And they felt raw.
  • Still another draft made me think about the emotional and psychological place that I inhabit when I write. The place where I’m writing freely and honestly, where I feel like I am doing good work. I thought about how I am scared by some of the things that I write, and I thought about Nikki Giovanni’s wonderful quotation, “If you’re not scared of your own work, it’s not doing anything.” And I’ve found that to be true: the writing that’s scared me the most is the writing that people respond to the most. That’s been my best writing. I thought about the strengths I try to access, the weaknesses I try to ignore, the wounds that I pretend don’t exist. I named those things, and I put them into the statement.
  • I also thought about my goals as an artist, and thought about them as goals that I haven’t reached yet, rather than descriptions of what I actually do. To do this, I had to admit that my work does not always match my goals. There’s the artist I’d like to be, and there’s the artist that I am. I think there will always be a gap between the two, and I had to make peace with that. I know very few artists that are completely happy with what they’ve released in the world—there’s always something you can do, something you can fix. And I thought about the artistic struggle between what the artist wants the art to be (or their original vision of the art) and the art that emerges.
  • I looked at the forms that I tend to use in my writing, in my blog posts and my creative nonfiction essays. I noticed that I like certain forms, such as the essay strung together with vignettes. I thought about the poetry classes I’ve taken, and how they’ve stayed with me because so much of my work is image-driven.
  • I thought about how I wanted to challenge myself as an artist, and how challenge is a goal for my writing. I do want to challenge myself, and I want to keep learning. I added something in the statement about how I value the work that is making art.

I sent the draft, a sad little cluster of sentences, to a writer friend from Twitter who generously offered to read it. She gave me wonderful and thorough comments on the rest of the application, including a biographical statement. But she liked that little cluster of sentences. I knew I had to write more. And that was enough to get me through the rest.

Most of all, I wanted the statement to clarify my writing. I wanted it to illuminate my writing, the way that sunlight illuminates the colors of stained glass. What emerged is not a great artist statement, but I think it describes what I do, and clearly. It’s a good beginning. I know I’ll revise it again. I’ll revise it one more time, and put it up here in the next post. I’ll try to add more about what I learned about artist statements, too.
I’m just glad I made it this far. For now, I want to remember how it felt when I finished that last draft. How I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before I hit “send” on the grant application. “It’s taken me twelve years to return,” I wrote in my biographical statement. “But I’m a writer again.”

Beginning the book

I’ve got an idea for a book, and I’ve got some drafts of pieces. So what’s next?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to structure the book overall. There are a number of pieces that I’m juggling, several historical time periods, and at least several plot lines (my dad’s incarceration, his untimely death, my own job loss and the writing of this book). And a whole bunch of smaller pieces about each “document.” It’s quite a lot to juggle. I’m not exactly sure what story I want to tell, and so much of the writing will be about discovery. I know that I want to begin with an introduction of mine, and then move into physical documents, into virtual documents (like Facebook and blogs). And then end with a memory. It’s not quite a linear approach, but I know that non-linear can really turn people away from a book (‘too difficult to follow”). We’ll see if the book really ends up this way.

So I’ve begun to write a draft of the Introduction, which feels really exciting to me. As I’ve been reading (and rereading, obsessively) Anne Lamott’s wonderful Bird By Bird, it strikes me that her Introduction does some of the work that I’d like my introduction to perform. It establishes trust and intimacy with the reader, and it does so with humor and wit. My book has heavy subjects (wartime history, death, loss), but I don’t want it to be a “downer book.” I do want it to be helpful for people who have gone through similar situations, or who are going through similar situations, but I don’t want it to be A Grief Book. So I want my introduction to establish me as a narrator, but a narrator that will bring people into the story, rather than pushing them away or putting up barriers right away.

I’m also feeling how the Introduction can and should be longer than the blog posts that I write here. I began writing as a poet, really, and longer forms terrify me. So creative nonfiction lets me integrate some of the sensitivity to language and keeps me grounded (at least for now) in a reality. The idea of writing fiction terrifies me, even though I have an idea for a novel already in mind. Maybe I’ll need to start with short stories after this.

Some books that have helped me think about structure, in no particular order:

  • Anne Lamott’s writing advice book/memoir, Bird by Bird (juggling of many pieces, intimate, funny)
  • Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Birds of Paradise. This lovely novel uses multiple third-person viewpoints, but also surprised me towards the end.
  • Kim Severson’s memoir Spoon Fed. Each chapter here centered on a different “subject”, a woman who inspired or changed the author, but changed it up a bit, because it did not approach each subject the same way. To do so would have felt repetitive, and I’m glad she structured the book this way.
  • Rebecca Skloot’s biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. One of the very best nonfiction works I’ve ever read, frankly. Skloot juggles multiple time periods, jumping back from our contemporary present back to the 1940s, 1950s, and so on. She also juggles multiple subjects, including Henrietta Lacks, and her children. And—this is a move that I greatly respect, especially because Skloot is a journalist—she examines her own role in the writing of the book, critically and thoughtfully. Skloot has said, I think, that the novel Fried Green Tomatoes helped her to think about how to structure her book, so perhaps that’s a lesson for me to consider. (Outlining Flagg’s novel might be interesting, just in terms of timing.)

In the meantime, though, I am working on a grant application. Lots of people are applying, I’m sure, so I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high. But it’s useful to work on this application because it’s another step towards writer identity. I’m having to write down my goals as an artist, and to think of my biography as a writer. And those two exercises, alone, are also worthwhile for me to progress towards this degree, another step in the MFA.
Back with another post next week. In the meantime, if you can think of any books that would be interesting for me to read, because of their structure, I’d love the suggestions.

So you want to be a writer

As of this writing, Google generates over 81 million suggestions just for this phrase alone. I should take this as an inspiring sign that so many people want to write, or that so many people want to know how to write. Or, if I was so inclined, I could take this as a depressing sign that so many people have written about this topic already.

But, a happy person by nature, I’m not so inclined. Here’s a collection of links that have been on my mind lately when it comes to writing and the writing life. Since I’ve gone back to teaching last month, and started one daughter in kindergarten, I need to get back into a regular routine of creative writing, somehow. To clear my mind (and my bookmarks menu), I decided to start here.

In the literature/music class I’m teaching this semester, we’ve been talking about making mixes of songs. Here’s my mix of links and quotations that are running through my head, called “So you want to be a writer.” (Liner notes included: one of my favorite genres of writing, one that my students tell me is being lost with the IPod/MP3 playlist.)

Track 1: Dear Sugar, “Write Like A Motherf*cker” (Sorry, Mom.)
Dear Sugar (an advice columnist at The Rumpus) usually manages to make me cry, or gasp, or laugh, or all three. “I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.” This column is the starting gun for the album.

Track 2: Voices of Our Nation, Summer Writing Workshop for Writers of Color
Application guidelines for the VONA workshop. I’d never heard of this workshop before, but it sounds like a wonderful experience, set in one of my favorite cities in the world. It looks like something I could apply for, eventually: an abbreviated, near-private version of an MFA, in a supportive community.

Track 3: Michelle Hoover, “So You Want To Be A Writer?”
Michelle Hoover’s “so you want to be a writer” roundup of links and advice, recommended via Twitter by Poets and Writers magazine. Some useful, practical advice for writers here and now.

Track 4: Renee Shea, “The Taste of Memory: A Profile of Monique Truong”
Continuing the Poets and Writers track, Renee Shea’s recent profile is a wonderful read. One interesting piece here is not only Truong’s impressive track record of awards, but also her methodical, disciplined approach to applying for awards in the first place. “As writers we are socialized into a state of perpetual gratefulness-to receive a grant, a publishing contract, a book tour- as if we didn’t earn anything with our labor and talents. Lawyers don’t think that way. They know that they have a valuable skill and expect valuable compensation for it. I love my fellow writers, but I wish that they would think and behave –just in this instance-more like lawyers.”

Track 5: Alexander Chee, “Getting Your Name Out There”
Alexander Chee’s series on author blogging. Chee is a gracious and generous Twitterquaintance, and I actually began to read his writing there. (And I just checked out his first novel from the library.) But his blog, Koreanish, contains helpful, thoughtful posts on the writing life.

Track 6: Junot Díaz, “How I Became A Writer
I started reading about this story from Chee’s blog, but went to read the full story from O Magazine. I am simultaneously inspired and terrified by the heartbreak behind the writing of Diaz’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One of my favorite novels, of all time—but, like so many amazing things in this life, it did not come for free.

Track 7: Jennifer Kahn, “The Art of the Perfect Pitch”
And speaking of free (and the need for money), here is some practical freelance writing advice from UC Berkeley School of Journalism professor Jennifer Kahn about how to sell a potential story to an editor.

Track 8: Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I don’t have a link, but a quotation instead. I’ve been mulling over the question of audience for the book I’m writing, ever since early last week.
“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this.”

Track 9: J.K. Rowling, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.”
J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement address at Harvard, her version of the famous Yoda mantra: “Do or do not do. There is no try.” Like Lamott’s advice above, some instructions on writing and life.

“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

Not the blue jeans, again

Here’s my claim for the day: good writers make the most out of the tension between structure and freedom.

My husband, who’s a composer, always tells me that the artist’s job is to play with tension and release. I’ll work with that idea in another post, perhaps even Assignment #2, but today’s lesson is about structure and freedom.

I was going to write another post tonight about fear (Internet trolls! Amazon reviewers!), but that topic is already starting to feel worn as the clichéd blue jeans. And I do know that creative writing’s not a linear process. Writing about fear for a few posts won’t clear away my fears forever, I’m sure.

In the meantime, what was originally a fun tag line has become a liberating way to think about this blog: as a private MFA. Heck, I’ve already applied and been accepted! With full funding! I get to decide when I’ve graduated! I can do whatever I want, whenever I want!


I can do whatever I want: the writer’s blessing and curse.

The teacher in me wants to begin with a syllabus, a reading list, a schedule of assignments, a final project. It’s an MFA, right? Semester 1: finish X. Semester 2, finish Y. Repeat for 2-3 years. Degree granted. Ah, the comfort of a schedule. I like schedules, and as you saw, I like lists. The Capricorn part of me wants schedules…and features…and regularly scheduled features, and featured schedules, and scheduled regularity. But phrased that way it sounds, well, boring, doesn’t it? Why do a private MFA if it’s where to buy ventolin inhalers boring?

Thus, because it’s against my nature, and I think it’s good for me, I won’t create a full structure just yet, to see how things develop. For now, I want to post several times a week. The posts will include these musings about my new writing life, and my self-assignments, and the results of those assignments. As a partial reading list, I’d like to revisit some books about writing, including Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I’ve been told to pick up Stephen King’s On Writing. (Other suggestions and websites welcome.) However, if it weren’t so mid-90’s, and so ugly, and so distracting, I’d put up those pixilated flashing “Under Construction” signs all over this site. You’ll just have to imagine them whenever you click anywhere here. Or not.

And so I told you that I didn’t want to write about fear again, but I think my desire to hyperschedule may be another way of trying to control the fear, to dance the Procrastination Waltz around the fear. Hitting “publish” on this post was freeeaky, let me tell you. But it’s that kind of fear that pushed me to write creatively in the first place, to start this blog, and it’s that kind of parachute jump fear that artists take whenever they share their work. You get a rush from parachute jumps—or so I’ve been told. It’s the ultimate metaphor of structure, then freedom.

Enough procrastinating! I’ll have an assignment for you next time.

Anne Lamott on parenting and writing

More later–with my first assignment!–but here’s my inspiration for the day.

It’s from the wonderful, hilariously comforting Anne Lamott, writing about her “Letter to a pregnant friend”:

“I couldn’t actually think of anything specific to share with her on pregnancy and parenting that didn’t also apply to writing — after all, both are elective courses in Earth School, and not things ventolin no prescription buy that everyone needs to do in order to feel fulfilled. But if you insist on doing either, you start where you are, and you let yourself do it poorly, you study the work of people you admire, and after some time, you’ll get better, and be insane for shorter periods of time.”