The Artist’s Dilemma

Yesterday, a friend asked me if he could sit with me and read part of the manuscript for The Fields out loud.

The Fields is the novel that I’ve been working on for… about forever, now. I got the idea for the story back in high school, but didn’t come back to it until the spring of 2010, when inspiration stuck again. In the split second after my friend proposed the idea to me, my initial reaction was to silently panic — after all, I don’t typically feel comfortable watching someone watch a film that I’ve made, because it just feels a little weird. But actually, since it’s not a finished product, it ended up being really beneficial: I was able to get a glimpse of how someone reads the story, with different inflections than I intended, or not understanding certain parts of a chapter.

And it was also really nice to experience someone getting into a story that I’d written. I got to see him meeting these characters that I’ve gotten to know really well over the past eight years, and ask him what he thought of them. I stopped him after three chapters, because the new draft that I’m working on still needs some work in chapter four, but I still got to watch my friend step into Narnia, so to speak.

I’ve written several drafts of this manuscript over the past eight years or so, and in that time only about four or five people have read through and finished a whole draft to give me notes. I’ve probably given the story to about thirty people.

For artists, more than any profession, their work is a piece of themselves. Even if it isn’t auto-biographical, there’s always something that connects to the artist’s thoughts or ideals or backstory; so it can only be assumed that those who partake in or ingest their work on some level will understand the artist better as a person.

Obviously, you won’t always be able to see all of your friends’ work, especially in the theater world, and especially in the improv world (oh, the conversations I’ve had with improv friends who have been frustrated about people never coming to see their shows). Perhaps with writing, too, depending on the length of the piece. Hypothetically, with shorter works, like painting or poetry or blog posts or film, it becomes a little easier to see an artitst’s entire body of work, just because it’s a quicker and less expensive task… but “hypothetical” never translates well into reality. In college, my close circle of friends never came to the school’s film festival to see the short films I made — instead, I had to plop a laptop in front of them to get them to watch the rough cut of my senior thesis project. I felt a little hurt, but I also got it — there were other things going on at the time, things that I didn’t dare compete with.

But it is a point of frustration when your friends will not watch or read your work, especially when it is not just something you are participating in, but something that has literally come straight from your creative process.

I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. And I think that’s the point… It is incredibly difficult for us to incorporate others’ narratives into our own. It’s not that we don’t want to… it’s just that that’s a lot of narrative, and you can’t possibly catch up with everything. Surely they understand.

Still hurts a little.

Sometimes I won’t tell people about a thing I’m working on, because then that way I can’t get upset if they don’t come to see it, or want to read it. Or I’ll tell people they don’t have to come. This is the artist’s lot in life: to downplay their accomplishments so that they don’t feel so bad when they go unnoticed. I’ve gotten yelled at by friends before for doing this — apparently, you can’t force your friends to care, but you also can’t prevent them from caring, if they do. Which is kind of nice.

I’m getting better, I think (I hope), at being more assertive in requesting from friends the act of duty that surfaces when you finish a project. I don’t require that they like it; I just ask that they take it in. And to be honest, there are people who I care more about seeing my work — I of course want as many people to see it as can, but obviously the people that I’ve gotten close with are first priority in my mind. I want their honest opinion — something that is hard to get, since most people just assume you want them to tell you it was great — and in some respect, if no one else sees it, I’d be fine, as long as the people I care about did.

I want to clarify that this is in no way an attempt to guilt-trip you into seeing your friends’ art… it’s just a gentle reminder that there’s always another way to get to know someone, and those who do put in the effort are rewarded with a strange kind of intimacy… the opportunity to get to know someone by seeing them through a sort of refracted memory,  or the interpreted baring of their soul on the canvas of their choice. Maybe you don’t think it’s great; that’s okay. Art is a way to express ourselves, and that expression is best received by others.

One Reply to “The Artist’s Dilemma”

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for sharing, Sammi! It’s good to be mindful of the vulnerable place artists put themselves in when they share their art. We love you!


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