Monday, December 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Art, Selfishness, and the Sinking Ship, by Anne Nesbet

I have just finished the draft of a new book, and so I am somewhat breathless and on tenterhooks. Or maybe this is a better way to describe my current state: somewhere in between sobbing with relief and trembling with fond worry (what will come of this story? will it be okay?).
Some of Anne's past, present, and future stories; that gray notebook there holds the notes for the draft I just finished.

 While writing this draft, I have also been watching myself write the draft--the way the story begins to take everything over--and so, as I became more consumed by the work & its world, I found myself mulling over a perhaps surprising question: selfishness. Is it selfish to make art? Is writing necessarily selfish?

You know, I flinch even writing that word, "selfish"! I think that is partly because as a female person growing up in North America, I have been carefully raised to think that selfishness is a pretty terrible thing--maybe just about the worst thing ever. I want to be a good person! I am someone who highly values selflessness and self-sacrifice; I try hard not to be selfish, generally speaking. The focus that writing a book requires therefore makes my well-trained and opposed-to-selfishness self uneasy.

Think about it. The very language we use to talk about writing (those of us who aren't full-time writers--or those of us who have families to take care of) is telling: we "steal time," or we "sneak in some words." Lurking in these phrases is the idea that we are somehow cheating when we write--cheating our day jobs or our children or our friends out of time and attention that rightfully belong to them.

But is that even true? A strange thing happens to me when I am not writing (or editing or working in some way on a creative project): I diminish. I am less alive. If the not-writing goes on too long, I start slipping into the mire. And I assure you that the version of myself that is Anne-in-a-mire is not a better teacher nor a better mother nor even a better friend than the Writing Anne. So then the question of selfishness begins to look a little different: perhaps it is actually all right to want to be alive in the way I am alive when I am working.

(I also suspect that the focus and determination that writing a novel takes are less often seen as selfish when it's a man doing the focusing and the writing. We tend to think of women's primary responsibilities as being to other people--not to creative projects. Or perhaps the difference is that the accusation of "selfishness" is less negative for a male writer than for a female writer. I would be interested to hear what the men in the room think about this: does creative work feel like a selfish activity? And how bad does it feel to be selfish?)

But there's another side to this problem, and that is that writing--however selfish an activity it may seem from the outside looking in--is actually not about me, not mostly. It is about saving the life of a story.

Because here's the thing: I am a sinking ship! (I am not unique in my sinking, of course; we all are taking on water, to one degree or another.) Therefore writing feels very urgent to me; it is the only way to get that particular story off the sinking ship before it goes under. When I complete a draft, I am desperately swinging a story over the rails into a lifeboat: now it has a chance.

Of course I don't know what will become of that particular lifeboat. Some are still eddying around the Sinking Ship; some will undoubtedly be lost at sea. But if the story isn't written--if I haven't gotten it into the lifeboat to start with--it can't be picked up by a passing steamer, can it? It can't be rescued and fed warming soups and taken back to New York Harbor and published and read by future children by flashlight.

So I want to encourage us all to figure out what most needs to be rescued from our sinking ships--and to get those stories, those paintings, those songs into the lifeboats while we still can. If the world hisses a sibilant "selfish" in our direction, up to us to stand tall (at least sometimes) and say, "Rescue Mission!" Let us think of this as the urgent work it is: saving the life of a story.

And I tell you a secret you may already know: sometimes saving the story just happens to save the writer, too.



16 comments:

  1. Anne, as a person who wears many hats other than that of writer (very demanding, tight-fitting hats that each prefer I wear only them), I could not love this post more. "On my way to a rescue mission, no time to discuss!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, my! The image of those tight-fitting, demanding hats! I know just what you mean. You do a beautiful job toggling between hats, though, Christina. My hat's off to you! :)

      Delete
  2. I love this, plain and simple.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is so so true. I struggle with these same issues and have come to the same conclusion: I am a better Me when I'm doing the thing I love and was put here to do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ....and sometimes it's hard to remember that being a "better Me" is actually a good thing for the world around us, too....
      I'm glad you are doing what you "love and were put here to do"!

      Delete
  4. Inspiring post! Oh, Anne, I relate so very much to all of this. Thanks for writing :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's so comforting to know I am not alone in these conflicted thoughts about writing!

      Delete
  5. Thank you. Lovely post. :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Darshana--and good luck with your current Rescue Missions!

      Delete
  6. Recognizing and communicating what you need and want is not selfish. Setting clear boundaries is not selfish. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally is not selfish. These things are healthy. And yet they can feel selfish, and be treated as selfish by the people and culture around us. I think you are right that women especially are taught that everyone else has to come first. But do we want our daughters growing up with that example? Don't they - and we - deserve more?

    Thanks for starting this conversation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Chris! Modeling a better way of life (less self-punishing) for our daughters seems very important, indeed. I wonder whether they will feel less torn? I certainly hope so!

      Delete
  7. Wonderful essay, Anne. I, too, am a sinking ship.

    “Selfish” is more easily lobbed at unpublished writers and under-published ones — and under-compensated ones, which includes most of us, since writing is not always as lucrative on a per-hour analysis.

    I think we are called selfish not just for the time we “steal,” but for the attention it takes. Writing is immersive in the way that many other pursuits like gardening or running are not — it takes our hearts and minds along with our time. On some level that is considered a worse betrayal — we shouldn’t want to escape. We shouldn’t want to create an alternate reality. And yet it does not divide our hearts and minds but grow them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is such a wise and wonderful comment--thank you!

      Delete
  8. I tend to suffer from writers' withdrawal after a few days of being away from my work over the holidays or on a vacation. A writing Kristin is definitely a better Kristin.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, it does feel like "withdrawal," going without writing! I hope you are able to fit in the creative work necessary to make you the best possible Kristin. :)

      Delete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!