When I was growing up, my parents would throw legendary parties in the Cameron Park neighborhood of Raleigh, inviting a combination of journalists, artists, writers, professors, and what was rather euphemistically called “free spirits.” I learned a lot lurking in the corners of those parties. But the only time they ever had to send out an actual invitation to their iconic New Year’s Eve party was when they had to cancel it after 25 years because they had grown too old to keep up the shenanigans. That year, they sent out an invitation saying that the party would not take place and thanking their guests for years of debauchery.
Each year at the end of April, my parents would also throw a Walpurgisnacht party, which was a low rent version of a black-and-white ball. People would arrive dressed in black and white clothing, packing into our sprawling Victorian house on Park Drive, drinking punch that steamed with the smoke of evaporating dry ice, shouting above the loud music, sweating, dancing, and engaging in a whole lot of conversations and other activities that I’ve spent years in therapy trying to forget.
I often think about those Walpurgisnacht parties when I look around the world we live in today. It’s like a black-and-white ball, only without the fun. Everyone is forced to take a position on either one side or the other of any issue, with no room to live in between. Everyone is shouting to be heard against the background noise, drunk on either power or self-righteousness. There seems to be very little room for nuance or thoughtful original opinion. Meanwhile, smoke and mirrors abound and we’re all trying very hard to convince ourselves that we are having fun.
I’m not having fun. Are you?
Join me in the middle
My point is that, when you live in a black-and-white world like this, art becomes all that more important — because isn’t art all about the middle? About expressing feelings not yet being heard by the world? About inviting interpretation instead of hitting you over the head with how you should think or feel about it? Doesn’t art thrive on ambiguity and truly come alive by inspiring its audience to bring their own feelings and life experiences to how it is interpreted?
This raises an interesting question for me: what will happen to art as our world becomes increasingly more polarized into two distinct camps, when people become so used to being told how to feel and what to be outraged about that they lose the ability to understand how or what to feel on their own?
I would argue that art, more than ever, is a key weapon in the fight against the human race evolving into a murky gene pool of passive emotional robots, force-fed fake news propaganda and manufactured outrage.
It’s through art — of any kind — that we will keep the flames of creativity, originality, self-awareness, and critical thinking alive, not coincidentally the very abilities that set us apart from other species.
Which makes most of us in this room dissidents This is actually kind of awesome… until we look out the window and start seeing a barbed wire fence being erected outside around us. We here in this room today are all people with something unique and authentic to say, driven to add our own voices to the messy, loud, chaotic dinner conversation of human life—the one currently being dominated by a belligerent drunken uncle and his lifelong nemesis, the sanctimonious aunt who secretly visits internet chat rooms and pretends to be a dominatrix.
We are the children who dare to point out that our world’s self-appointed emperors have no clothes, who dare to claim our voices and express the hope, despair, and joy underpinning the ultimately undefinable experience of being human.
Art as service
What are our obligations under these circumstances? To put it bluntly — I believe we are obligated to view our roles as writers, painters, poets, musicians, and dancers as service to our world. By modeling individual expression, we are showing future generations that human beings do indeed have the ability and right to think and feel for themselves. So don’t apologize for not finding nine-to-five jobs and reality television enough. Start embracing your courage in caring about truth, beauty, ambiguity, emotion, and all the other evocative aspects of the arts.
Did only fifty people read your last book? Did three people attend your art opening in a cavernous room that could have held five hundred? Did only thirty people care enough to show up for a talk about the arts on a cloudy Saturday afternoon while everyone else as out shopping for more crap they do not need?
It’s okay. It is enough to want to be seen or heard. It is enough to want to feel genuine emotion. It is enough to have something to say and to say it through your art. All of these things are worth more in the world we live in today then the kind of mass commercial success viewed as the only legitimate validation in our Keeping Up with the Kardashians world.
How I protect my voice
I believe it is more vital than ever to preserve your voice, and to protect the unique you that is at the heart of your art. I would never tell anyone else what to do, or what to feel, because that is not my job. I am a writer, not a dictator or propagandist. But I will tell you what I do personally to protect my voice in this lowest common denominator let-me-tell-you-what-to-think world that we live in. If you find something in what I do, feel free to use it for yourself. And if you have your own techniques, I’d love to hear them in the comments section below. We are all in this fight together.
- First of all, I make supporting the arts a priority in my life because that is how I fight the machine. Every chance I get, I abandon the couch, turn off the television, get out of my own life, and head out to a book reading, art opening, dance performance, festival, play, or live music performance. Congratulations to those of you do the same and who are here today to support the arts. You don’t have to be an artist to fight the tyranny of lockstep thought. Just witnessing someone else’s artistic statement and respecting their vision makes you a foot soldier in the fight against group think.
- I keep an eye on the stupid. And trust me, with all the information washing over us each day, there is a lot of stupid floating around out there. I don’t lock myself away and ignore the world. I force myself to face the stupid daily, in measured doses, as a reminder to myself that I have an obligation to rise above it.
- I limit my news. I waste no time reading fake news or rebutting those claims. I speak through my art and I need every precious moment I have for it. Let other people tilt at windmills. I have more important work to do.
- I left the siren song of daily social media for personal purposes behind a year ago and now only pass through that plastic world to check on what my friends and family are up to. Why did I do this? Because, to be a good artist of any kind, you must be authentic. There must be truth at the core of your art, if only the truth about who you are. Social media represents overwhelming societal pressure to be like everyone else, to present yourself as perfect, to pretend as if disintegrating marriages, disappointment, bad hair days, holiday weight gain, and children behaving badly do not exist. I stopped posting to my Facebook page soon after the presidential election last year, when the stupid grew too strong to stomach, and the morning after I had gone to a play and realized that, instead of actually being there and enjoying the performance, I’d spent most of the two hours figuring out how I would describe it on Facebook. No. Just no. I want to actually feel and live my life, I don’t want to always be crafting a sanitized version of it for other people to judge. How can you truly express what it is to be human, If you’re never actually out there, being there, in the thick of things, living your real life?
- I practice letting my freak flag fly these days. In a very unSouthernlike change in my behavior, I am no longer Miss Sunshine & Roses. In fact, I’m more like Guns & Roses. I disagree with people on my own so-called side, sometimes just because I feel I need to force people to think for themselves. I even stopped looking at my fictional characters as prototypes for good and evil and instead I’m experimenting with making them behave erratically at times. I embrace the idea of heroes behaving badly because we need to acknowledge that all us, whether so-called good or bad, are human. I want to show the world that none of us are all good or all bad, and that to continue to believe in a black-and-white view of the human race is both foolish and inhumane.
- I avoid talking politics, not just at the dinner table, but with anyone. Bringing up a political issue these days is like throwing a bomb into the middle of that family dinner. It does nothing but fling us all into the chaos, forcing us to spend a whole lot of time picking up the pieces afterward. That’s a really gross metaphor, isn’t it? But there are so many other things to talk about while the clowns pile out of the clown car and vie for media attention. Just because the media puts those clowns in the center ring day after day doesn’t mean that we can’t pay attention to what’s going on in the other areas of this circus we call life. If we change anything about this world, and god knows there is plenty that needs changing, it won’t be by shouting or waving protest signs during our 30 seconds on the evening news. It will be by concentrating on what we all have in common, by talking about what unites us, by acknowledging and empathizing with others, even when we do not believe in their viewpoints. It’s hard to do, but that is the way out of our madness.
- Which brings me to my last point: I seek out connections. Ironically, I think the thing that now helps me to preserve my unique voice the most is concentrating on how I am like other people. These days, my connections to other people are what I look for, and what I feel, and what I strive to put into my books. Because, ultimately, isn’t that what art is all about: connecting us to each other?
I wish all of you well, both as artists and as people who respect and understand the importance of acknowledging other people’s voices, no matter how they are expressed, through words or colors or music.
Let the years ahead be full of creativity and productivity for us all, and remember: in the battle to save ourselves from ourselves, there is no more powerful force then an army of artists. So choose your weapon — be it a computer, or paint brush, or dancing a wild fandango — then go out there and fight the battle your way.
This is the transcript of a talk I gave November 4th at an event sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council one of many wonderful arts organizations in North Carolina. The event took place at Wine & Beer 101 in Youngsville, NC —a very cool combination wine and beer shop, neighborhood bar, and intimate music venue that represents a whole new level when it comes to community watering holes. Thanks, good people of Franklin County, for a great event.