I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.
“All art is perfectly imperfect—like the world itself—and to some extent value judgments on art are largely subjective and beside the point. Creating art is about growing the world and increasing its reach, and it has more to do with the act of creation itself than what is actually made.”—Nick Cave
I wanted to use a quote that I could at least bend to the issue of creation in a time when it seems the world is, to vastly understate it, disrupted. This is something that artists come to again and again. How can my small personal imperfect work possibly matter when the world seems aflame? Am I selfish for even attempting it?
I hope what I write doesn’t make me look as if I’m avoiding the harshness in the world at this moment. The truth is, the world has always suffered from such harshness, as much as it’s always suffered from love and overwhelming beauty. The difference, and the problem that makes our time different, is there are so many of us now that the harshness—the violence, the horror, the poison—can’t be absorbed as it once was. The Roman Empire, after all, reigned over 1,000 years of violence and dominance, brilliance and vision. Odd as this might sound, and for all of the Roman Empire’s might and sphere of influence, they remained local compared to our world today where a problem on one side of the world quickly impacts the other.
Yet here each one of us is in our singular life, the only one we get, writing and trying to write while the world is aflame. Trying to create. Trying, and I think it’s worth saying this even if it sounds self-glorifying—to bring into the world some small piece of meaning, some small beauty, that wasn’t here before. One that could only come through us and no one else. One that would never exist unless we alone attempted it. Which is the truth of every work created, whether it’s considered “good” or “bad.”
I’m admittedly working out some ideas here, but more and more I’m coming to the position that art and artists provide a type of connective tissue, and also possibly something akin to a placenta, feeding the culture and, therefore, the world. I’m not the first to say this, but on some level culture and community is the opposite of fascism and confusion and despair. If our job as artists is to strengthen culture, then our individual energies spent trying to bring our piece of meaning into the world is not time spent “ignoring” or “looking away,” even if what we create has nothing to do with a current conflict, even if our work fails to enter the world. Because our job is simply to create. Or, as Nick Cave calls it, “growing the world and increasing its reach.” As we develop our personal material, we develop the world.
But if you’re so stirred and incensed by what’s happening in the world that you feel you must take direct action, then sign up for it. Don’t hesitate. Put some skin in the game. That will free you too. Then come back to your writing on the other side. Regardless, however you choose to address the world and your art, it’s important to remain aware of danger of the in-between space I see so many people get stuck in, where they’re too focused on the disrupting elements to create, yet too hesitant to join the action. It comes as an excuse to do neither, and be miserable.
For those of you who’ve been too distracted or rageful or worried to work on your art, take a break. That’s fine. Brain fog from all the stress is a real thing, and so is burnout. But no matter what you’re writing (or not writing, or avoiding writing), don’t accept that the act of creation is self-indulgent and has no relevance when bombs are falling across the world or the polar ice caps are melting. If you’re truly an artist, you need to create—it’s in your DNA. So all this is a long-winded way of offering you permission to do just that. And if you can, it will feed and support you, fortifying you so you can also take direct political action elsewhere. Yes, you can do both. And in doing both there’s a real possibility for finding balance.
I will now say what I’ve said before, as I’ve been blessed with first-person experience of it—there’s no way of knowing how your work will move into the world or how it might affect a stranger’s life, no matter how small-seeming the outlet. And if you affect a stranger’s life, you affect the culture. Further, the very act of creation, even if what’s created doesn’t move into the world, remains a type of worship, as well as a discipline. It’s a vote for hope, and life, and community. It’s investing your life force into the opposite of fascism. And feeding that opposite.*
* As an example, and in case you haven’t seen it, here is a seven-year-old girl named Amelia in a bomb shelter in Kyiv who decided to sing a song from a Disney musical, “Let It Go,” to lift everyone’s spirits. Of course, now it’s gone viral. Can you imagine the songwriters had any idea the political impact their song would take? They couldn’t have planned it; their job was only to produce their work and let the world take it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8U2qQxgBG4
Note: I’ve become a big fan of Nick Cave in the last few years. If you like this quote I got it from his newsletter, “The Red Hand Files.” It’s always good, and is sometimes amazing. It’s free, and you can sign up here: https://www.theredhandfiles.com/
Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. His debut novel, Remember This, will be published by The University of Wisconsin Press in Fall 2022. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.
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Thank *you*, Andrew.