Please join us in welcoming WU’s newest contributor, KL Burd! You might remember KL from his guest post this past fall, 7 Ways to Make Early Morning Writing a Reality. “Believing that words have the power to bring about healing and change, KL Burd’s work focuses on the intersection of race, equity, and hope for the future. ” Learn more about KL on his bio page. Welcome, KL!
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” — James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
What is art? For so many people, art is relegated to paintings that capture their attention or stoke their imagination. Art can be a twisted sculpture that draws your eyes to sharp edges and jagged concrete, or it can be a photo that begs the viewer to step into the life of a captured scene. Art can be many things, but can it be writing? Or the better question, can writing be art?
The Oxford dictionary has a definition of art that states:
The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
I love their definition, although I would argue that they are leading us towards a specific view of art when they say typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture. Let’s remove those leading words and look at it again.
Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
How many of us would like our writing to be viewed this way—as an application of human creative skill and imagination? I for one, would love this. We study our craft and improve on our form so that our creative skill can be best expressed on paper. We endeavor to work magic—not unlike the blues artist who has spent 15 years getting her guitar to sing every note it produces with the same tone and timbre that dances across her mind. And—in the case of the blues, along with many other art forms—this expression of creativity, of skill, of emotion is brought to life through the person delivering the experience.
Imagine with me two different artists.
The first one plays the right chords, hits the solos, and sings the notes flawlessly. They did well and you applaud their rendition.
Then you get the second artist.
She plays the same chords, hits the same solos, and sings the same notes flawlessly. But something is drastically different. This one rocks you to the core. This one gives you goosebumps. This one sends you into a spiral of relentlessly searching for everything that artist has to offer. Sure, the second artist sang the same notes and played the same chords as the first but they added something that the first one didn’t: They put their soul into it.
We can all recognize those moments, the moments that draw you in and make you want to share that art with someone else. If we let it, writing can be the same way. One person can take the outline to one of my novels and produce a completely different book that doesn’t look, feel, or taste the same as my own. So what’s the difference? What’s the thing that separates writing from art? The difference is you—and that is because we are the sum of our experiences.
These experiences not only make us unique but give us the elixir by which we cast a spell and bring the reader into our world. A world that they not only recognize but can relate to. There’s something in the way that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that can only be described as magical. It’s not just the choice of words but the arrangement of those words. It’s not just the depth of thought but the connection to the innermost being that creates tension between what is and what ought to be. What we have and what we hope for. What we desire and what we may never have. It’s birthed out of experience, transferred by letters on a page, and affixed to the soul as an homage to solidarity. It’s a voice that whispers, “You are not alone.”
There is a trap out there though—one we can easily fall into if we aren’t careful. If we fix our eyes on certain people, we’ll see and emulate writers who only put pen to paper because they own a mastery of the English language—a mastery that enables them to get paid for their work. But verbosity alone is insufficient.
The art is in creating order from disorder. The art is in connecting with the heart and soul of the reader. You must do as James Baldwin said and relentlessly pour every last drop, sweet or bitter, into your work. That way you produce something incredible that is wholly yours and wholly others’. You produce a legacy that will stand the test of time.
What does art in story mean to you, both as a writer and a consumer of fiction? We’d love to hear your perspective, and your favorite example(s). The floor is yours.