Do you consider acting heroic? What about singing? Playing guitar? Writing poems?
When I think of heroic work I usually think firefighter, paramedic, ER doctor and the like. But an experience at a theater several years ago made me think differently.
I had a chance to see the one-woman show based on Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking. The book and play cover Didion’s grief journey in the year after her husband’s death. Linda Purl played Didion, and her performance was riveting.
After the show, the theater’s Artistic Director, David Ellenstein, facilitated an audience Q&A with Purl. One woman asked her something on the order of, “How do you do that?”
Purl was nonplussed1, and didn’t seem to understand the question. After some back and forth it seemed what the woman wanted to ask was, how do you immerse yourself in this intensely emotional material and do these performances night after night?
When Purl still wasn’t sure how to answer her, Ellenstein jumped in and said, “Well you see, we have these heroes that we call actors who do this for us.”
I still remember the jolt that ran through me. I’d never heard anyone refer to actors as heroes before. It seemed audacious. But I instantly understood what he meant.
Recently, I read Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being as part of the Feminist Foundations book club. The book is a collection of Woolf’s unpublished autobiographical writing, the only nonfiction she wrote about her own life. Among many insights on writing and the artist’s life, one line jumped out at me:
… I might be walking, running a shop, or learning to do something that will be useful if war comes. [But] I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.
Heroic. Necessary. Not words we hear a lot in our culture when talking about the arts.
Linda Purl had transformed herself—using her voice, her expressions, her body— into another woman, had taken the audience on an hour and a half journey through unimagined grief, and then brought us back safely. She would do it again the following night, and the night after that.
And isn’t that heroic?
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Yet when it comes to thinking about my own work, it’s so hard for me to apply those same words.
The other day got a form rejection for a short piece I had submitted to an online literary magazine. After notifying me the piece wasn’t right for their current editorial needs, the email said, “We appreciated the chance to read it because we believe that making art is such a daring, wonderful act.”
I am all for raising up others for doing heroic, necessary, wonderful, and brave artistic work, but I feel squirmy when thinking about my own efforts in those terms, and constantly struggle with feeling my creative work is worthwhile.
Notice how I have a hard time even saying my writing is art, skittering off into “creative work” instead. So what is art, anyway?
To me it’s art if it’s a product of your creative imagination and involves some feeling of risk, some laying yourself on the line. And that might not be the same for everyone.
Does it feel like art? For some, cooking a gourmet meal may feel like art. It doesn’t for me, but I’m not going to tell you it isn’t if it feels like art to you.
I know writing is my art form because it both compels and terrifies me.
I’ve got piles of unfinished essays that I’m too scared to finish because I don’t know if I’m up to the job. I know I’m no Didion or Woolf. What if I do the best I can and it still isn’t any good?
I guess I need to ask the question, is it still heroic, brave, daring and wonderful to make the attempt?
And I’ve gotta say yes. Yes, it is.
What I’m reading
I recently read the poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz. She is a queer, Indigenous, Latina poet from Needles, California, who teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Arizona State University.
I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not a metaphor.
When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle of my body.
— The First Water Is the Body
Poems such as Ode to the Beloved’s Hips; Isn’t the Air Also a Body, Moving?; and Exhibits from the American Water Museum use the vehicle of the body to explore themes of desire, erasure, and the experience of being Indigenous in America.
Despite feeling for most of my life that I am “poetry challenged,” I’ve been making the choice to expose myself to more poems over the past few years, and worrying less about whether I “get it” when reading them.
Because that’s another thing about art — you’re not always going to feel like you understand it, especially on first exposure. When I first read The Year of Magical Thinking, it fell kind of flat to me, probably because I wasn’t in a place in my life where I could be receptive to it. It wasn’t until I saw the play that the material really resonated.
I guess that’s the other part of being brave around art — being willing to put yourself in front of it and feel what you feel, or don’t feel, without judgment.
Bookshop Transparency Update
In 2022, any proceeds from the shop will be donated to the Strong Hearted Native Women’s Coalition in San Diego County. The coalition works to bring awareness around sexual assault, domestic violence, sex trafficking, and murdered and missing indigenous women in Southern California, providing shelter, crisis intervention, and emergency food and clothing for victims, as well as training and education for the community. I also love that they are proactively inclusive with the Two-Spirit/Native LGBTQ+ community.
So there you have it, my friends. I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. Do you also have unfinished artistic endeavors tucked away in a real or metaphorical drawer? Let me know in the comments. Let’s make this the year we are brave enough to dust them off and do that daring work of art-making.
Did you appreciate this issue of Be Your Own Hero? If so, I’d love it if you shared it with a friend. Thanks!
Usage note: Nonplussed means to be surprised and confused so that one is unsure how to react. It is sometimes mistaken for meaning its opposite. One way to remember what it means is to think of “non plus” meaning “no more” (which actually does in its Latin root). It means no more can be said or done. Okay, lesson over :-)