Brain Pickings

Lynne Tillman on What to Say When People Ask You Why You Write or Make Art

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“Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write… but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature.”

What compels writers to write, to trek to the desk day in and day out under the self-elective mesmerism of their unrelenting routines? George Orwell attributed the impulse to four universal motives, and Mary Gaitskill listed six. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis ascribes it to the necessary self-delusions of creativity. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. For Susan Orlean, it comes from immutable love. And yet there remains the unsettling sense that any answer is manufactured, the product of either overly self-conscious deliberation or the whims of a fleeting mood — the sense that no one quite knows.

Count on Lynne Tillman, one of the most fiercely fresh idea-jockeys of our time, to address this sidewise yet with profound precision in one of the twenty-nine fantastic essays in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — a collection of short meditations on art and literature, spanning everything from to New York to Kafka to the resounding silence of John Cage. In this particular essay, titled “Try Again,” Tillman recounts a question she received — a rather common question — after an event at NYU’s creative writing program: An aspiring writer asked her to impart the single most important learning from her writing career thus far. This invariably bleeds into the same old question of why a writer writes. Tillman reflects:

No one strong-arms you into becoming an artist or writer—most often you’re dissuaded—and volunteers who bemoan their chosen gig seem disingenuous. Visual artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to defend their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write, and many feel the pointlessness of their self-chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested.

Lynne Tillman (photograph by David Shankbone)

Tillman, who later invokes Samuel Beckett’s famous dictum — “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” — speaks to the value of failure in creative work:

A comic gets rid of bad jokes, or is a bad comic, though failures might make it into the act, since they’re at the heart of funny. Comedy wouldn’t exist without failure, especially that of other people. Writers may publish idiocies and artists make dull objects, and some of this work may be celebrated as good writing or art. Some write more and more books, hoping to get it right, often digging a deeper hole to fall into. Success itself can be a rut, since, it’s said, it breeds success, so might condemn an artist to doing the same thing forever.

She circles back to the original inquiry:

To the question about my best lesson for younger writers, I answered: “Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.” I didn’t mention the inevitability of rejection, luck, money, nepotism, etc. Before my first novel appeared, I’d naively believed that being published would compensate for every bad thing. In those pre-publication days, my writing was for me, I was its only reader, and I could believe it was without sin.

At dinner with my artist friend, I told him I didn’t know if artists owed anyone an answer or what a writer’s responsibility to readers was, if there was one. The ethics of these peculiar relationships remain conundrums. Notions of service to the field may not matter, if the proof isn’t in the pudding. Anyway, writers and artists are not voted in or out by an electorate, though institutions — including collectors, gallerists, publishers, art magazines, critics — do vote but not in a transparent manner, not democratically. It’s insisted there is a public for art, but those who remark on it generally presume themselves separate from it.

Working with words and pictures engages artists and writers in a world they didn’t make, to which they may or may not contribute.

Ultimately, Tillman offers not an answer but an approach, a strategy for addressing the question — one borrowed from tactful avoidance tactics of the British, which she marveled at during her time living in London:

I didn’t understand the British use of “I don’t mind” to mean “yes,” “no,” “maybe.” The phrase seemed to allow for ineffable negotiations between people, though. “I don’t mind,” I saw, opened a conversational door through which either party could leave, without embarrassment. But it was hard for a foreigner to use, because it’s part of a British dance whose subtle moves are learned from childhood. The British also sometimes avoided answering direct questions. I loved that, it was so un-American, and now I sometimes do it in New York, where people expect answers. I change the subject or pretend I haven’t heard the question, and watch surprise or chagrin appear on faces. It’s a liberation from others’ nosiness, a freedom I never expected. I recommend it, with reservations that will be different for each person, discerned only through trial and error.

What Would Lynne Tillman Do? is a wonderfully enriching, comfort-zone-expanding read in its totality. As an important aside, I noticed that the book has fallen prey to a man best described as a professional Amazon troll, who has authored more than 400 mostly one-star reviews that have received a 90% unhelpfulness rating from the community. Because Amazon’s star-ratings are algorithmically enacted, unmoderated, and don’t even factor in the helpfulness quotient — which would, come to think of it, offer a rather simple fix — such trolls end up hurting writers and in turn hurting readers by warping and skewing the community’s ability to assess a book’s true merit. So if you find yourself reading and enjoying Tillman’s book as much as I did, do consider leaving a rating that offsets this mindless trolling.

Thanks, Craig

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