Sunday, October 16, 2005

I emailed one of my best friends last week with a link to something I'd written. She replied:
"You know I read this stuff. I am, even if the only one, forever reading whatever the hell you throw at me. Half out of curiosity and half out of trust."
There's a scene in The West Wing where one of the writers (Richard Schiff) is sitting with a Poet Laureate (Laura Dern) and she says to him, "I love the way you write." He's sweet on her, so the scene has another dimension; but I promise you, every writer who heard that line felt his heart melt.

An artist would rather be a good artist than a good person. It's not even a tough call. I try to be loyal, honest, and kind; and if I reflect those qualities, I'm delighted. But it's like the legend of Robert Johnson, that he sold his soul to the Devil for his ability to play guitar. That story has lived for nearly a century because it carries a ring of truth: Given the chance, most artists would absolutely do that.

Hal Crook wrote an essay discouraging kids from becoming jazz musicians. Essentially, he said, "It's incredibly hard; it's constant and lifelong; and often you have to choose between eating and paying your rent. There are a very few people who have to do this. If you are capable of doing anything else with your life, do that."

I remember thinking he sounded like he was describing seminary, which is a great analogy. It's a calling. There are a thousand epigrams about what it means to be a writer -- someone who turns answers into riddles, someone for whom writing is pain -- but the best way to say it: "A writer is someone who doesn't have a choice." Charles Ives began his career as an actuarial clerk and eventually became a partner in his own insurance agency, and in the meantime he managed to become one of the most significant musicians in American history. That's an artist.

Phil Wilson told me his measure of an artist was the ability to make an emotional statement. If you can establish that connection, the rest falls into place; and without it, you may as well pack up your horn and go home. Art exists only as communication. That connection is crucial. I'd love if people enjoyed what I wrote; but if I had to decide between being reviled and being forgotten, I'd choose infamy. I'll console my hurt feelings with the knowledge that I've struck a chord. The highest compliment isn't, "I liked your stuff," but rather, "I'll be back for more."

That's why Johnny Carson, on his last night, thanked people for inviting him into their homes for thirty years. And it's why I've taken the long way around to say: The more I read it, the more I'm certain that's the most poignant compliment I've ever received. Thanks, Carolyn.


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