American, born 1928
Four-Sided Pyramid, 1999
I visited Washington DC last week and, as usual, took the opportunity to visit the Mall and some of my favorite museums: The American History Museum, Air and Space Museum, Museum of Art and a stroll through the Museum of Art Sculpture Garden. A mom with her six year old walked a few paces behind me.
“Mom, I want to climb that mountain.” I assumed he referred to the pyramid sculpture in front of us.
“No, you can’t climb that.”
“Its sculpture. Its a piece of art called sculpture. You don’t climb on sculpture.”
The boy walked alongside his mother silently for a few steps, then said, “It doesn’t look like skupper to me.”
As a writer and a reader I’ve come across novels that I know raise the art form, true sculpture. And like you, I’ve also read twenty or thirty pages into a book and had the same feeling that little boy had, “It doesn’t look like skupper to me.” So who gets to decide what is art and what is not?
Reviewers come to mind as guardians of sculpture vs. skupper. They give us a detailed and hopefully thoughtful perspective on a work. I often find future reads by checking out reviews in the NY Times and other publications. However, I can’t say the reviewers always hit their mark for me. Sometimes the recommended read just doesn’t resonate for me. Nothing against the author, more a statement of who I am and my interests and passions.
Contests — Many writers put their work in contests, not so much for the thrill of competition, but more to get some objective feedback. I haven’t won one of these contest yet, though I’ve been a finalist. And I have to admit that the external recognition “oh, maybe my writing isn’t crap after all” provides some energy for the continuing journey.
Market Share — In cold, hard business terms, market share should be a good sign of a successful writer — right? I’d say significant market share is the sign of a writer successful in the business. Quality does not always sell, whether we’re talking about novels, music, power tools, cars or beer. Sometimes folks just want a cold one and don’t care about the craft of beer making. And sometimes folks just want a simple, predictable story.
Agents & Publishers — The Holy Grail for many of us. I’ve heard many times, “If only I had an agent.” We line up, anxiously awaiting a five minute conversation with these professionals hoping to sell them on our book. If an agent wants to represent me, then my writing must be pretty decent, right? But what do the thousands of writers, many of them creating good work, tell themselves if they don’t have a publishing deal?
Critique Groups — I have a love/hate relationship with my critique group. We have committed to speaking the truth to each other, but sometimes, after I’ve poured my life into a few pages of text, I really don’t want to hear the truth, unless its something like, “This is the finest piece of writing I’ve ever had the good fortune to read.” How often do you think that happens? Right — never. A scene can always be improved, tightened, the conflict made more intense, the characters more developed. Which is why writers join together to critique each other’s work. If you’re a writer and you’re not in a critique group, I’d urge you to find one. You will, like me, love them some days and hate them on others, but you will always be challenged to raise your craft from skupper to sculpture.
You, the writer — Looking over the list above, the one key data point of feedback missing that determines whether my writing lives up to my standard of art is me. While all the other data points out there combined give us a sense for the validity of our work and the quality of our craft, the artist is the only one who decides if its sculpture or skupper. We’re all probably familiar with artists who created a body of work during their lifetimes only to be recognized for their art after death. Phillip Dick comes immediately to mind. A writer who produced many stories in his day, but only recognized for his unique creativity after death as his stories became published and turned into screenplays for movies like Blade Runner.
I believe that if I start to think the purpose of my writing is to be famous, wealthy, read my millions and a guest on Opra, then I will have lost focus on my art. All I can do as a writer is to create the best work I can from my unique voice and perspective. Yes, I want to take in all the feedback from all of those external sources listed above because I want to continually improve my craft. But the source of recognition, of affirmation that I am an artist and that my work has value and meaning, comes from within.
I’d love to hear from you. What’s your perspective on determining the art of your work?