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The Invisible Artist

I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.

Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.

It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”

“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.

It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.

From “Among Elves and Trolls,” John Bauer (1912).

What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.

Learning.

Creating.

Forging new opportunities.

And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.

GOBLIN 1:    The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.

GOBLIN 2:    But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!

GOBLIN 1:    It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.

The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).

So if not for fame and fortune, why write?

Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.

From “Cinderella,” Arthur Rackham (1919).

But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.

At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?

I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—

“How Sir Launcelot Fought with a Friendly Dragon,” Arthur Rackham (1917).

Then the fight is already won.

-KT

What I’m Listening to This Week

I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.

The Raspberries are Gone: Nature and Rhythms

So I had a visitor recently that did the whole, “Don’t you wish you lived in the 1800s?” thing, and I gave my usual response of enjoying twenty-first century plumbing, medicine, and women’s suffrage. But then he asked,

“Is there anything you like better about the past?”

And I had a think. Because, yes—there is something I like better.

I appreciate the closer ties to the natural world and its rhythms. I passed our raspberry bushes today and the raspberries are all gone: their season is over. It’s a sign that summer is winding on. Conversely, the hops are developing later than they ought. The vines themselves are fairly lush (one seems to have become particularly virulent) but the blooms aren’t as far along as I’d expect.

But hey, the Queen Anne’s lace and thistles are coming into their own, and soon enough the leaves will turn (the maple by the front gates first—always—probably in another three weeks if it keeps to schedule), and then I’ll be able to get good Ontario apples again.

The geese will fly south; the frogs and turtles will disappear for a little while. The Summer Triangle will dance offstage, and we’ll all greet Orion before the winter holidays. Then sometime in March, I’ll be on robin-watch.

I live in Canada’s largest city.

While I like indoor plumbing and heating, the insular nature of modern living is something I do regret. For many people…well, it doesn’t matter what season it is, does it?  Turn on the lights, adjust the furnace/fan/AC, and it can be a bright and balmy 25 C all year around. There’s a convenience to that, but it also fills me with a vaguely horrified, un-moored feeling.

I need shape to my year. I need it as surely as people did centuries ago, with their patterns of saints’ days and agricultural markers. The raspberries are gone, and that means something to me. Being aware of the greater tapestry grounds me. It brings me outside my head, and I’m learning—if I’m too much within my own thoughts, I burn out. My nerves wind too tight to create, to write.

Beyond my day job, I’m trying to find ways to keep this contact with nature and its seasons. Whether it’s slipping out into the ravines more, or finding more of Toronto’s parks and gardens, or actually heading up north next summer.

Until then…

I’ll be waiting for the hops to bloom.

-KT

What I’m Listening to this Week

The liturgical calendar also structures my year quite nicely. And we’ve hit the part of summer where I dearly miss my choir. “If Ye Love Me” is a delightful old chestnut. Particularly love the altos’ harmony around 0:30, and the cascading repetitions of, “That he…” around 0:40.

I feel like if you’ve sung this piece, you fall into one of two camps: “E’en the SPEERT of truth,” or, “E’en the SPRIT of truth.” (I am the latter.)