The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, April 03, 2006

Back From New York

“If you want to know where a people are going, just look at the artists.”—John Oliver Killings
Just got back from New York (I’m sure ya’ll were wondering where I was) where I participated in the National Black Writer’s Conference held at Medgar Evers College.  Very, very nice, and an opportunity to share ideas, and to learn.  The sight of the eager young faces warmed the cockles of my heart.

The question came up again (as it often does) concerning the obligations of the artist.  Is the artist responsible to the audience?  The culture at large?  His editors and agents?

And I’ll give the answer I gave: First, we must define “Art” itself.  For me, “Art” is Self-expression, meaning the expression of the deepest aspects of Self, the true self.  That means that you must be willing to go into the parts of yourself that most people avoid like the plague.  Deep into what Harlan Ellison calls “The burning core.”  It is there that you find the magma, the lava,  the energy that you express to the world. 

This essence can be expressed in many ways, like water can be poured into many containers, and found in several forms:  steam, fluid, ice.  It is still water.  And art can be a piece of writing, a dance, a martial motion, a sculpture, an acting performance, a sexual interaction.  If it is expressed as a means of unleashing the true self, it is an act of art.

Now, SUCCESSFUL art is bound by further definitions, but I would think that primary among them is the issue of communication: did someone “get” what you said?  What you did?  What you created?

This is where craft comes in.  You must not only speak your truth, but you must communicate it in a language that others can understand.  The tropes and symbols of your specific discipline must be overlearned, if you wish to communicate with grace and power. This is why the LIFEWRITING YEAR LONG uses the Hero’s Journey as the core of plot structure: it is the only plot structure that mirrors life itself, and therefore can be absorbed far faster than other writing theories—allowing you to operate from “unconscious competence” more rapidly. And it is only in the state of unconscious competence, operating instinctively, that revelation of the deep self becomes possible.

Friends, we simply edit too much.
I am engaged in an effort to raise my own work to the next level of excellence.  To do this, I must be integrated on a deeper level than I ever have been. I must address my fears, weaknesses and failures.  I must befriend my demons.  I must heal my wounds.  To put it another way, infants are born into the white light of pure emotion.  Experience and thought fractures that light like a prism, into the component colors of the rainbow.  Conscious thought falls in love with the pretty patterns, forgetting that no matter what is created, it is less whole and organic than the originating energy.  Only by returning to the molten core can I find the energy that has powered every great artist in history.  How deep can I go?  Well, that will depend on how much of my damage I can heal. 

Those of you who have read these notes will have a pretty damned good idea of my process, and what kind of bog I am trudging through.  When an artist faces his demons, befriends them, tames them, and returns to the essence, THEN and only then does he have a chance to create something truly worthwhile, something representing the truth of his life.  All else is lies and opinions, shadows of the true reality.
But art is not just writing and painting and dancing.  It is also raising loving children, and working an honest job.  It is healing and teaching and digging ditches and pruning roses and taking tolls.  When done with love and commitment, a sense of immersion in the moment, a love of the thing for itself, not for what you can get from it, to celebrate the miracle of existence and the light of the Divine…then every act is a prayer, is a dance, is a poem.  And every poem, prayer, or dance is an expression of life.

“I am,” it says.  Not “I am a writer” or “I am a martial artist” or “I am a liberal” or “I am black” or “I am gay.”  Just “I am.”  And the “I am” recognizes the “I am” in others

On Horab, the mountain of God, God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” :  “I am what I am,” or “I am what I will be.”  Language never translates precisely.  This is the same “I am” to which the  Zen finger points, whether the locus is found within or without—because those distinctions are artificial as well.  Language is insufficient.  You must experience.

Go deep.  Deeper.  Deepest.  And at the point of greatest darkness and despair, you emerge to join with all the world.

We’re all in this alone, together.

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