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Worth

A while ago I received a phone call from a fellow writer and friend. She wanted to know if there was any value in the manuscript she’s been working on, mostly in isolation, for the last year or so. She’d had only occasional opportunities to share the work with others, and felt she lacked perspective, perhaps in part because she was also consumed with raising a child, and felt discouraged on professional fronts. She wasn’t asking for a critique, but she needed some sense that she should keep going. In other words, did it make any sense to keep working on those poems? 

How often have I asked myself whether what I’m doing is worth anything? Certainly no month goes by without the thought, though some weeks can bring it up every day. And when I ask that question, am I questioning the work, myself, or where it meets the world? 

Is this a female thing? Or just an artist thing?

I’m recalling this conversation the morning after beginning Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays, Men Explain Things to Me,’ and so of course I’m reflecting on why I, and many of my female colleagues, continue to grapple with the value (and perceived value) of our ideas: the worth of our work in the world. I have many thoughts about this, of course.

Solnit writes “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.” This I know and believe. What more is there? Well, it still requires practice, obviously. I’ve found that solidarity with like-minded people is also helpful. Total isolation is not, though sometimes one wonders who to talk to about these things. It’s not a conversation enough people seem interested in having, though it concerns our very lives, and it’s so much bigger than our art, which is simply one way to show up and speak and think. It’s about having a pluralistic society, in which a broad range of skills and contributions and ways of being can have a place.

Let me be clear: I’m not questioning the worth of art or artists, but for reasons I’m still exploring, there’s a stealthy voice (Voice of Society? Voice of Disinterested Friends?) that insists on asking what anything I do has to do with anyone or anything else. This is the result, in part, of working in solitude, of being a quiet and private person in a loud culture, of being a minor poet in a time that values celebrity and narrowly defines success, and maybe it’s the result of being unattached to an institution that would, in theory, make space for creative work, though my colleagues at colleges, for example, seem similarly engaged with versions of the inner dialogue I’m describing.

Solnit: “To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.”
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Which makes me think of the beautiful, radical, soulful June Jordan, who said: These poems / they are things that I do / in the dark / reaching for you / whoever you are / and / are you ready?

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I read my friend’s manuscript with these things in mind, and I read it as one who also needs, despite a deep faith in my words, some indication that I’m connecting to others when I speak or write.

After writing the poems that would become my book Pilgrim, I made a similar call and confession to a friend. Because I had done that work without a writing group or a consistent reader, I had had to learn to trust myself in order to keep working. Or at least I needed to trust myself in a new way. It felt powerful to write and not think about what a workshop would say, including the nice things I enjoyed hearing from my former writing group. Instead, I chose to focus on what I needed and desired to say, and I forgot about everything else for a while.

After my publisher accepted Pilgrim, and even after she’d started working with the book designer to make it a real book, I began doubting what I had submitted. I’d held back those concerns long enough to write the poems, but some kind of new-to-me anxiety caught up with me, and this shook me. I mean, Who am I trying to impress? Who cares anyway?

I wasn’t writing those poems to win prizes or to get somewhere professionally. They were, and are something else to me, but I had to clarify that, again, at that moment. My poems are what I make. I write them to create something with my own “dirty little hands”, as the late journalist, David Carr, encouraged the young journalists he mentored to do.

It’s not so different from my commitment to laying a beautiful table, using my grandmother’s linens and good silver, even on a Monday night. These acts originate in my commitment, my pact with myself, to pay attention to life—my one and only life—and the little world I inhabit. They also give me pleasure, make me happy, and provide a way to create beauty, through meaningful work, using really basic materials.

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Homemade peach jam by artist and writer Suzi Banks Baum. Antique linen from my grandmother. Photo taken at Millay Colony of the Arts, Austerlitz, NY

Finally, I confessed my angst to a friend, and she agreed to look at my poems. She didn’t dish up praise, or console me with empty words of reassurance, and to be honest, this wouldn’t have helped me anyway. Instead, she described her experience as a reader. She had read the poems, understood some things about what I had done, and valued them (and me) enough to put all of that into a few sentences about what it was like to encounter what I’d given her.

This was the antidote. I calmed down. Not because she said that the poems were “good”, but because she articulated what happened when she approached them as an interested human, not a critic, though she has that ability, too. (Psychologists will remind us that it’s a fundamental human need to be seen.)

I wish more readers felt empowered to respond this way. Reflecting on what we read is not solely the domain of experts. Certainly we can speak of literature in terms of what’s good, and what’s bad (at least according to our particular taste and sensibility), and most people also want to talk about what they “like,” but reading is richer than that.

We’ll sometimes have complex responses to what we read, and sometimes this leads to arguments, or changes of heart, or Aha moments, and I really enjoy talking about these things with other people. It’s one of the best ways to get to know someone, as well; it’s not small talk, and it’s a kick to examine what moves in us during the otherwise private experience of a text. It’s a kick to talk about something that goes deeper than surfaces, too, which is what so much of our fast-paced world is focused on these days.

This shift—from negatively ruminating in solitude, to facing what I’d made and talking about it with  friend—did everything to change my relationship to that body of work. It also affirmed my belief that we all need at least one ally who gets what we’re doing, gives some sort of a damn, and can talk to us about it.

I say this with new conviction, even as I am known to quote William Stafford’s poem, “Nobody Cares,” which I happen to see as both hard truth, and a form of fundamental freedom. (In other words, if no one cares, I can carry on without worrying about what anyone else thinks, especially during the generative phase.)

Eventually, though, it turns out that I do need someone else to care, and so I’ve worked to cultivate a few people who want to have these sorts of conversations with me: about my work, about theirs, and about the other work that matters to us. All kinds of work—not just poems.

Now, when I finish something, I say “This is what I made.” It’s a way of honoring my effort, as well as my limits. It’s what I did, not what I could have done, or might prefer to have done. This idea has lead to a series of conversations with other artists and I’m looking forward to publishing some of those in a series for Culture Keeper . These ideas also inform my approach to mentorship and shape the material we cover in my apprenticeship program.

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60 thoughts on “Worth

  1. sejalshah

    I really loved this post– so much resonated with me. The simple and powerful way our daily acts–such as setting the table for Monday night dinner matter. The photo you used. The Solnit quote, “to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers…” Bringing up David Carr and his wise words. Perhaps I was especially moved by the discussion of your doubt and how you moved beyond it…”feel the fear and do it anyway.” And the strength and self-reliance that comes out of that, and also the real need we all have for allies in a world that does not recognize some of what we do, we make as valuable, as capable of having worth.

  2. Danielle Brugnone

    This is something I’ve thought about a lot, especially since I’ve been writing (and putting stuff “out there”) for years without being published, without much recognition. It’s easy to get discouraged & question the value of what I’m doing. But even if my poems just stay in my journal, I think they have worth, if only because when I go back & read them I experience a memory or a place in time/space in a more magical & powerful way. Of course, I would love to share that experience with others, otherwise I wouldn’t share them at all!

  3. newmoon88

    I believe “worth” is both an artist question as well as a feminine concern. Perhaps more powerful in the feminine spirit do to the past suppression we have undergone throughout history and judgements placed apon us. There seems to be a revival of the feminine in a big way these days! It manifest through our beings..especially as a female.. That’s not to say men do not feel this to.. Its been creating alot of changes within that are essential to a balanced harmonious life here in earth. For instance I have this deep sence of betrayal that I feel has been inflicted upon me..I’m learning how to trust ..who to trust.. Can I even trust?! In order to do this and begin healing, I connect to that center throughout you spoke of.. I find much stregth there..I must remain close to it.. I draw my new found strength from it.. I’m always looking for my worth..and reading this brought tears to my eyes in recognition to everything you wrote! I realize I must find worth First within myself befor I will see others apreciating the worth of my art.. I must however remember there will always be those who just can’t seem to connect..and there for deem me or others unworthy in some way(in their eyes).. Let me now ask you this..what makes the eyes that deem anything you create as unworthy..more powerful then those eyes that deem you worthy?

  4. ASorrentino

    As a man, I can speak from my experience and say definitively that the question of worth is not just a “female thing.” Having spent much of my life and career being judged on the ability to produce results that had nothing to do with my core desires and values (that is, as a member of a capitalist society), I now find myself with the luxury of doing something just for myself by writing poetry. And yet the transition has not been as smooth as I could have envisioned. There are always and still the nagging questions of whether I am entitled to spend my days thinking just about my art; whether what I write has to have any value to anyone but myself (and should I care if it does or doesn’t); what friends and family will think of me if nothing I write ever gets published or seen–and so how will they know that I have not just retreated into solipsism and self-indulgence; and how do I as a person who sees myself as someone of substance grapple with the fact that I seldom write anything that meets my own high expectations. Giving myself permission (with all that entails) to become an artist has been far more of a challenge than I anticipated. However, at this point in my life I have no choice but to believe it is worth more than anything else I might be doing.

  5. ASorrentino

    As a man, I can speak from my experience and say definitively that the question of worth is not just a “female thing.” Having spent much of my life and career being judged on the ability to produce results that had nothing to do with my core desires and values (that is, as a member of a capitalist society), I now find myself with the luxury of doing something just for myself by writing poetry. And yet the transition has not been as smooth as I could have envisioned. There are still and always the nagging questions of whether I am entitled to spend my days thinking just about my art; whether what I write has to have any value to anyone but myself (and should I care if it does or doesn’t); what friends and family will think of me if nothing I write ever gets published or seen–and so how will they know that I have not just retreated into solipsism and self-indulgence; and how do I as a person who sees myself as someone of substance grapple with the fact that I seldom write anything that meets my own high expectations. Giving myself permission (with all that entails) to become an artist has been far more of a challenge than I anticipated. However, at this point in my life I have no choice but to believe it is worth more than anything else I might be doing.

    • Holly Wren

      Thanks for articulating this perspective, Art. It brings to mind a passage from Anne Truitt’s wonderful Daybook (mentioned in yesterday’s post): “The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

      This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.”

      Read more about this book at Brain Pickings (or better yet, get a copy): https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/27/anne-truitt-daybook-artist/

      • katherinejlegry

        I thought I was the only other person to have read this book…
        the quote: “Artists have to please whim to live on their art.” is wrong headed.

        Whim is not the correct word. I like your over all response but it has nothing to do with pleasing whim that makes an artist.

  6. hannahkenway

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts – I’m a sculptor – a reasonably successful – in material terms at least “creator” and yet I still feel a profound sense of unease when somebody pays me for a piece – and when other ask me what I do for a living.
    This has lessened somewhat with age – but it resurfaces every time I write or exhibit. Each of these acts involves showing myself intimately, my raw, sensitive tender underbelly. It’s a constant lesson in vulnerability.

    • Holly Wren

      HI Hannah,
      Are you familiar with sculptor Anne Truitt’s ‘Daybook: Journal of an Artist’? I read it last year and she has so much to say on this topic–as someone who seems to have made a radical sort of piece with her role as a sculptor in the world, which is to say, as someone who also sold her work in order to support her family. One of the best books I read all year.

  7. Xiomara Becerra Rosas

    Love this post. It’s very interesting and deep. I think the main question not just apply for artists or women…the question is for all men and women that make something no matter the profession. (Sorry for any mistake in English)

    • Holly Wren

      Xiomara,
      I agree with you–this is a not only something that women contemplate or deal with in their lives, whether as artists or otherwise. However, I think there is a gender component in specific cases, for example when a woman questions the time she spends on cultivating her art, or her inner life, but has a family, and feels tugged and often guilty about leaving dishes in the sink, or laundry to be done. I can’t tell you how many of my students and clients tell me about this sort of tension in their lives, and it’s not just an uncomfortable feeling: it holds them back from dedicating even 15 minutes a day to something that would make them feel whole and purposeful, if only they would trust in the worth of it. Not once has a man expressed this dilemma to me. Still, in the end, we share the fundamental questions that I’ve explored in this post. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  8. halfcupful

    “my pact with myself, to pay attention to life”
    Love this! And also it’s so encouraging to read about someone else overcoming self doubt! We all feel it, yet it’s so isolating! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Holly Wren

      Yes, and we also want to contribute to conversations and to be a part of shaping culture, I think. There are many reasons to make art–money is only one of them, and not as motivating for some of us, as it might be for others. Personally, I want to create experiences for others. I want to connect. To communicate. To share ideas. And to do these things, my work in its many forms, has to meet the world in some way. I’m not thinking about the size of my audience so much as I am thinking about how to reach those few people–maybe more–who want to have these particular conversations and experiences. The interaction completes the process.

  9. inspirationforgood

    Thank you for this post. It really resonated with me — I also often question if the work I am making really matters. It is nice to know I am not alone in this struggle. I try my best to position my thinking more positively now, with less doubt. I try to just go and create and be content with whatever may or may not come of it.

    Thank you!

  10. katrinagarrison

    This is exactly what I went through a few weeks ago. After writing in a closet for so many years, it was wonderful to hear a response from a friend that was thoughtful (not just, “good” or “that’s nice”). While improving one’s craft is important, I don’t want to know if my writing is good or not. I want to know if it related to someone. Thanks for your thoughtful essay.

  11. A Life Answer

    I loved your post, I like the way you put sentences together, there is no questions you have talent. When I write it is about getting to the point and not keep it sound good. Maybe I should take class of creative writing or something.
    Great job.

    Love and Health,
    Alex Moses
    https://alifeanswer.com/

  12. jiisand

    We each are allotted a specific time to be alive and discover who we are and what the very tiny portion of the universe we inhabit is about. Since we humans live in a society that makes demands on our limited time to be aware it is important to sort out what is valuable to us personally and what is valuable to society so that it is willing to keep us alive. If the two match well it means we are lucky or perhaps we are so personally impoverished that we lack any values beyond social values that our lives amount to very little on a personal scale.

    I grew up doing graphic art and some sculpture for fun and became a commercial designer to make a living. I am somewhat older than average and still spend my time with these things and for the past forty years or so played with the disciplines in poetry. Most artists experiment with copying other artists and gradually evolve their own personal styles. One cannot help comparing one’s work with other works but I do these things for elementary confrontations with techniques and materials and, strangely, and wonderfully, discover myself doing things serendipitously with no consciously directed understanding of where I am going. And what results many times is something surprising even to myself. This is my reward. Commercial value is irrelevant because I am too old to entangle myself in that aspect and I live on a rather satisfactory minimum income. Admittedly, other artists do not have that luxury so I am privileged.

  13. uma197

    This so relates to me, as a new writer I am always wanting that validation. I so want to publish my book, but really don’t know where to start. Thank you for this. If you have half a minute read my blog on “the dreaded C word and give me your two cents. And wouldnt mind publishing a book tips as well.

  14. irisvqk

    I happened to agree with some of the points you mentioned. I think we all as writer face this problem no matter sex or skill level. I think we want to and as humans find and want to know what do is worth our time. This encourage to this more often because tend to thrive off positive or at times negative responses.

  15. a user

    Love this. And I really needed it right now. The worth of the work you do within a creative society can be lost still, when the comparisons with others become stifling. To be so proud of friends and those who have succeeded, but feeling like your own work doesn’t match, doesn’t live up to that standard, can restrict the creative essence. But the personal value of the work, and that concept of resonation with others, is something to be reasoned with and accepted. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  16. Joel Mueller

    I too have questioned the value of a life focus on artistic endeavors. To my logical “high school” brain that started to recognize patterns in society about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s a waste of time and what has impact, what seems foundational and what floats around, being an artist didn’t make much sense to me.

    Artists didn’t seem to be the ones impacting communities and becoming leaders that matter. They didn’t seem to create jobs or be providers for families to sustain themselves. The lucky ones made a living by becoming rock star authors or painters, but the chance of that happening seemed as good as becoming a basketball star in the NBA.

    Although this “high school” logic still echoes in my head, two people in my life planted seeds at different times that have taken root in my heart:

    1) My first mentor, Josh, a philosophy major quoted a top cardiologist who said, “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living.” Josh has one of the most beautiful minds of anyone I’ve gotten to go deep with and get to know. He’s a musician. A philosopher and theologian. He’s excels in logic and his artistic passion is overflowing.

    2) Steve Jobs, a person who impacted my life in such a way that even after his passing, I cannot bear to enter a movie theater and finish a movie about his life, nor pick up a book written about his impact in this world. Steve said that when he asked people what they would do if they didn’t have to work for money, most people would answer that they would become writers, or painters, or find a way to become creators of expression.

    I also love this:

    “If Einstein had not written down E=mc2, another scientist would one day have done so, he claimed, but no one else could have written Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

    Wow.

    So who cares. Some people might agree that artists may never contribute much to an economic society. Many will probably seem like they are writing works that, although written on paper may as well be sent out into infinite space where no one reads them. Like a blog with no comments. 😉 No measurable impact = no value, right? As important as economic contribution can be, sometimes the (immeasurable) impact that artists can have on people like myself trying to be community leaders and economic drivers is important. Why? Because it gets really hard building companies and solving the problems of “science” day after day. And integrating art into our lives helps make that life worth living.

    😃

    -j

    • Holly Wren

      Hi Joel, I started reading your comment without realizing you were the author. When I came to the quote from the cardiologist who said “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living” I thought “Exactly! Now, why does that sound so familiar?” Well, it’s because you shared that the last time we met, and I have to agreed on that one. I’m so glad I already know you because I want to keep talking about these things with you. I’ll be back in Michigan by late next week. Let’s meet and keep the conversation going about what makes life worth living, and how our sensibilities and concerns and values overlap. It heartens me to know someone like you, who’s in the world of science and business, shares this view that we need beauty, ideas, and forms of thinking that only artists and philosophers can contribute.

      • Joel Mueller

        I do not but I’ve toyed with the idea with Holly to start writing things more. I like that you’re using your blog platform to test the waters and get feedback on your ideas. Also, very cool that you’re from Sri Lanka, now living as an Aussie! I stayed in Byron Bay for a month surfing, lifting and had my first liking of sparkling wine from France there!

        Thanks for your comment, I’m flattered and maybe more encouraged.

      • uma197

        Even I haven’t been to Byron Bay. Then again I don’t surf. Moved from Sri Lanka to here 26 years ago. My next story is about the troubles of Sri Lanka and the beauty of that country etc. Hope you get a chance to check my blog, you may find it interesting

  17. Misty Kiwak Jacobs

    This post makes me hurt in a strange why. I’ve been querying agents over a year, and face the subject of “Worth” when I see books by reality t.v. stars on the shelves at libraries and bookstores. Going off to find that poem, “Nobody Cares,” heart aching. Thanks for writing.

  18. teapotterton

    This is a fantastic piece of writing – thought-provoking, sincere, unabashedly original – and it covers such a pervasive topic of concern, too. It’s certainly made me think, as I would love to make a living through writing, but will probably never manage it.
    Thank-you for writing.

    • Holly Wren

      Charlotte, I should clarify that I actually do make my living through writing (and editing and and teaching of writing) but my poetry is not a source of income. I think that most creative people find that certain things or projects are done for the sake of something that has nothing to do with commerce, and then there are the things we do to support ourselves, which in my case is related to my art. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. And best wishes with your own writing.

  19. iamrinap

    I completely agree. You have the same mind as many other artists, no matter their media. I really relate to your post because you discuss what is obviously on so many of our minds. You’ve brought me an angle of comfort I didn’t know I would receive until I read your post. It’s natural to need that “antidote” and it’s comforting to know you crave it as well. So many times I think we lose ourselves in our own words making it difficult to understand the method our madness especially without concrete recognition. We have a method. You’re doing a good job. You’ve got the right mind for it.

    Thoroughly enjoyed your post.

  20. Geo Sans

    connecting voices
    ~
    our inner and outer
    dialogue
    is the richest catalyst
    for further
    creative explorations
    ~
    art blooms with people
    listening, looking, learning
    together
    breathing joy
    to the discovery and process

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