We invited writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that affected them. We asked them to offer opinions and experiences on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. We're offering their responses here as occasional features on creativity that we're calling Still Life.
Our debut edition of Still Life features novelist Kim Edwards.
Edward’s first novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, was a Barnes and Nobel Discover Award pick and soon spent 122 weeks (20 weeks at #1) on The New York Times Best Seller list. Her second novel, The Lake of Dreams, was also an international best seller.
In “Gifts,” Edwards reflects on the creative process, news of budget cuts to the arts in Kentucky, and poet Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift.
When concern started spreading last month about anticipated cuts in the Kentucky state budget, artists and art advocates responded swiftly, launching a group called Kentuckians for the Arts and calling an emergency meeting in Lexington. I went to this meeting out of general concern—since 2008, funding for the arts in our state has already been cut by 40%—and also because of rumors that the Kentucky Arts Council was in danger of being eliminated entirely. The Kentucky Arts Council is a vibrant, long-established organization that has given countless people across this state crucial assistance in the early stages of their creative lives. I know how important their advocacy is: in 2001, I was awarded an Al Smith fellowship in support of my first novel. The money, of course, was very welcome, since I was vastly under employed at the time, working as an adjunct despite having published a story collection with W.W. Norton that had been glowingly reviewed.
Yet just as important as the financial support was the affirmation of having my writing and my vision for this novel vetted by a community of artists and readers whose values I shared and admired. Writing is a solitary art. It requires a great deal of time spent alone, grappling with problems of narrative form and giving voice to characters who initially exist only in the realm of the author’s imagination. To have validation and financial support from the Kentucky Arts Council was powerful affirmation when I needed it most.
The emergency meeting was held at ArtsPlace, in the performance hall, in a room that was originally a gym when the building was constructed in 1904. I got there a bit early and found it already packed, buzzing with energy, standing room only, the crowd spilling into the halls. A panel of leaders from the arts, business, and politics discussed the importance of art in our lives and how we could best advocate for its support. They also pointed out many statistics documenting the positive economic impact the arts have on our communities: the jobs created, revenues generated, tourists attracted, and tax bases expanded. Deftly, they translated the value of the arts in Kentucky into a strong financial argument, illustrating clearly how an investment in the arts ultimately results in a positive financial return.
When they asked for comments and questions, artists from across the state stood up one by one, approached the microphone, and told their stories. Painters, poets, muralists, musicians, novelists, actors, fiber artists, glass-makers, playwrights, photographers, and many more—all spoke passionately about the impact the arts have had on their lives. They talked about the challenges of running a small business to sell their art as well as make it, and the ways their communities have become more attractive places to live because the arts are strong. The argument about the bottom line kept resurfacing, too: there was a sense of urgency about the need to prevent any further cuts in funding by educating legislators regarding the financial benefits of supporting the arts. I appreciated the clear logic and eloquence of everyone who spoke.
Yet at the same time, I found myself resisting the fact that we were, of necessity, adopting the language of economic utility to talk about creative work. Looking around the room, listening to the stories being told, it was pretty clear that no one there had been drawn to the creation of art with financial profit as a motive.
I know for certain I was not. After high school, I put myself through two years at a community college by living at home and working part-time as a cashier in a grocery store. As a member of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union I made $3.88 an hour, quite a lot better than minimum wage at the time. I loved to read and I had always wanted to be a writer, but since I had no idea how to do that—since it seemed an unreachable dream—I signed up as a Business Administration major instead. I made it through nearly two semesters, checking off the required classes, which brought me no joy, and slipping in as many English classes as I could.
When a track in management training came open at the grocery store, the manager urged me to apply. No doubt it was a good opportunity, and the advice was kindly meant. By then, however, I had met my nemesis in Principals of Accounting II. I simply could not interest myself in the columns of numbers or the rules for moving them around. And so I decided to follow my heart, and I changed my major to English. My future prospects were suddenly wildly uncertain, but my immediate hours were exhilarating, rich.
The next year I transferred to Colgate University to study English, where I took a fiction seminar taught by Frederick Busch, a novelist and short-story writer, and the first published author I had ever met. A late afternoon September light fell through the high arched windows and across the conference table in the seminar room. He must have mentioned the course syllabus, grading, all those first day things, but I don’t remember them. What I remember even now is the passion with which he spoke about writing, which was, he said, except for his wife and children, the most important thing in his life. Late in the term, when I wrote a story about sky-diving and the downward spiraling of a family due a father’s mental breakdown, Fred liked it enough to suggest that I consider applying to graduate school in creative writing, an exhilarating possibility I had not even imagined might exist.
My family was soundly against this idea—creative writing was even less practical than English. Where would such a degree ever take me? I was smart; why not go to medical school? Why not study law? In other words, why not put my time into something useful and pragmatic? I pretended to listen, but I’d already rented the car I ended up driving through the night to Iowa, crossing the Mississippi at dawn in a fog lit with the colors of the sunrise, where I found a room to rent in Iowa City. I studied for two years with novelists and short story writers and poets, some established, some emerging, and most, like me, just beginning.
It was an exhilarating time, often difficult; I learned so much, so fast. In retrospect, it would have been a good thing if we’d talked about the nitty-gritty business aspects of publishing at some point—contracts and advances and international rights and beyond—but we did not. Instead, we talked about narrative arcs and epiphanies and how to make our characters come alive. We talked about the books that set us on fire, and we talked about word choice and language. Yes, we wanted to be published, to see our work in print, but even that desire wasn’t really about money. After all the solitary hours, we wanted to join the conversation, to communicate in a deep and profound way with people we might never even meet.
I certainly wasn’t unique in this desire to live a creative life, to discover it step by step, or in the willingness to grapple with financial unknowns to pursue an artistic passion. Making money has rarely been the primary impetus for artists. There’s never any guarantee of commercial success, and most writers and artists have long years of apprenticeship when they earn little or no money, working at other jobs to support the creative work they love. At its source, art is not at all a capitalistic venture, but rather an expression of a gift, one mind and soul speaking to another, seeking connection, seeking beauty, giving shape and meaning to our time in this world.
Which is to say that art is of immeasurable value, even if it generates no revenue at all.
In 1979, the poet Lewis Hyde published an unusual, beautiful, and important book called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, in which he explores the place of artistic expression in our lives by studying the stories of ancient and contemporary cultures in regard to the exchange of gifts. Hyde identifies artistic creation as a gift, saying:
“We rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of the creation is bestowed … a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist is not fully engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that ‘I’ the artist, did not make the work” (p. xii).
While I cannot speak for everyone, Hyde’s description of this creative experience is immediately familiar to me, and I think this sense of entering a space where the work takes on its own life, where the characters change direction and do something unexpected, where disparate pieces suddenly cohere in surprising ways, is common among those who work creatively, whether they are writing a novel or making a scientific discovery. It is not something that can be forced to happen, which increases the sense, whenever it does happen, that it’s a gift. I’ll work for days on a passage and feel I’m running straight into a wall, over and over, making no progress at all. I’ll start to wonder why I’m doing this—it’s not as if anyone is forcing one is me to write, after all—and I’ll even find myself reflecting on what a strange way this is to live, spending hours each day alone in a room, grappling with characters who exist in the world only as marks of ink on a white page, black letters on a pale screen.
The characters and their dilemmas, their frustrations and desires, have taken on an urgent life. I’ll make notes about them, even dream about them. On those days, charged with the pleasure and excitement of discovery, I am reminded of why I took this path in the first place, and why I always come back. On those days, there is no other way I’d want to live.
Then, inexplicably, a door will appear in that wall, and I’ll walk through it into a place I hadn’t known existed. Time will suspend itself; the imagined world will become almost as real as the one in which I’m standing. I’ll look up and be surprised to find that hours have passed, and I’ll have a hard time pulling myself away to go downstairs and make dinner or pick my daughters up from school. The characters and their dilemmas, their frustrations and desires, have taken on an urgent life. I’ll make notes about them, even dream about them. On those days, charged with the pleasure and excitement of discovery, I am reminded of why I took this path in the first place, and why I always come back. On those days, there is no other way I’d want to live.
This state of mind, the place where I can enter the story, is what I’m always seeking when I write. I never think about what will happen to the work when it’s finished. Indeed, for the many years I went unpublished, the idea of financial gain was completely abstract and theoretical, and yet I kept on writing.
Even so, I don’t believe that writers and artists should work for free. Opera singers have to eat, find places to live, send their children to college; painters have car repairs, electric bills, and canvases to buy. Artists enrich our communities in a multitude of ways, and their creative work should be supported and compensated. So how then do we reconcile this tension between making art and selling it? In The Gift Lewis Hyde argues that for commodities such as bolts or computer chips or paper clips, the transaction between buyer and seller is fixed and finite. Art, however, is different. Art, he suggests, exists simultaneously in both a market economy and a gift economy. Hyde notes that only one of these is necessary: “a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.” So, for example, if I buy new shoes, I may be very happy with them, but the transaction is finished. If I buy a book, however, acquiring the bound pages is only the beginning. Inside, the story awaits, and if the poet or the novelist or the essayist has been inspired in the writing, chances are that I, as a reader, will be, too. To quote Lewis Hyde again, “The art that matters to us—which moves the heart or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living—that work is received by us as a gift is received” (p. xii).
The Gift is a meditation of nearly 300 pages on the nature of art. It’s so wise and thoughtful that I read it again every few years. While I can’t justly summarize it here, I can explain another essential argument Hyde makes: art is not really complete until it is passed on to another person. The welling up of the creative force cannot be hoarded, kept secret. To stay alive, art must be shared; it must move. And in this motion, this passing from person to person, the work of art establishes connections and relationships between people, contributing to cohesiveness in the community.
The night after the emergency meeting of Kentuckians for the Arts, I watched these dynamics being lived out at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. That night Bobbie Ann Mason was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, along with four writers from Kentucky’s rich literary past. After each inductee was announced, readers came up to give voice to their work. The room began to fill with humor, keen observations, stories, vivid settings, glimpses of the past, and with the marvelous voices of the readers. When Bobbie Ann was inducted, she spoke beautifully about writing; among other things, she talked about the way authors don’t seek out stories as much as the stories just show up and take over.
Yes, I thought: gifts. The stories these authors had discovered in their days of solitary writing, weeks or years or decades ago, had risen from the pages and traveled through the crowded room, touching the lives of all the people listening.
The last person inducted into the Hall of Fame that night was Jean Ritchie, the internationally renowned folk musician, songwriter, and singer, who died in 2015 at the age of 92. We heard her words, first, read from her memoir Singing Family of the Cumberlands, about the way songs and music had been woven into her days from the time she could remember.
And then three of her nieces got up and began to sing.
The Ritchie nieces stood together as they must have stood hundreds of times before, the songs as familiar as their own heartbeats, songs that had once entered the world in Jean Ritchie’s voice, songs that flowed through time and through the nieces now, their voices weaving close in harmony. The notes rose, clear and haunting, moving everyone in the audience so deeply that, by the end, we were singing, too.
~Kim Edwards, March 2016