mining your emotional life for art


Photo by Vincent Erhart on Unsplash

Art, especially for us bluebirds, requires living.

In my last post I talked about how creativity is seasonal, and that producing requires deconstructing some of your past beliefs, artworks, or selves so you have new "building blocks," so to speak. In this post I want to think about actively cultivating emotional experiences and other building blocks to mine for your art practice.

Artistic living, and cultivating emotional experiences, is about opening yourself up to new experiences, and being able to translate your lived experience to your work. This means two things:

1. Go outside and do stuff

You don't have to go bungee jumping, unless that's your thing, but lived emotional experiences don't usually begin on the internet. This is the negative image version of the butt-in-chair rule: art doesn't get done when you're not in your chair, but you don't really have much to make art about if all you do is sit in your chair. (This becomes obvious if you read a lot of fiction by authors who work in creative writing programs: invariably they write a book where the main character is a professor in a creative writing program whose marriage is failing. DON'T LET IT HAPPEN TO YOU.)

So go outside. Follow your interests. Travel; go to museums; go on bad Tinder dates; go bungee jumping; go to cons. Make an effort to meet people outside your usual circle. Occasionally skip your commitments for something more interesting. I remember once I signed up to do three events at National Geographic's annual bioblitz, and went to the first two, and then skipped the third one because I had finally bagged my crush and we went out to breakfast instead. I mentioned I was skipping it and he said, "You should take your writing more seriously." I told him, "I am writing right now." (Rather unsurprisingly, we didn't last long.) But now I have a published story about that relationship. You know what triggers your artistic vision; follow it, and remember that it will be different for you than it is for other people. Bob Dylan dropped out of college because he was too busy making music, but for me college was stimulating and going to class allowed me to mine what I learned for creative inspiration.

A couple small caveats here: this only works if you are actually producing art; and also, sometimes following your artistic vision is a lot more wholesome-looking than you might think. Another important part of that story I got published involved going on a class field trip to look at stars through a giant telescope. Don't no-call no-show your restaurant job that allows you to pay your bills because you're too hungover to work. Don't drop out of college because Bob Dylan did it. Do occasionally stay out until 4am and stumble into work with a treinta macchiato and a thousand-yard stare the next day. Do allow yourself to get dragged to the concert of a band you've never heard of by your best friend's ex-girlfriend and then sleep with the drummer after you meet him in the hallway*. Do occasionally bail on your holiday visit home during your parents' horrible divorce so that you can drive to Vegas to see your old friend and while you're at it meet your future husband**. Know yourself and what you, as an artist, need. The truth is that mostly you need structure, food on the table, and exposure to lots of new ideas, but every now and then you need exactly the opposite. So go find it.

2. Use whatever you've already got

Some of the most frustrating writing advice floating around on the interwebs is the idea, "Write what you know." Newbies always have questions about this, starting with, "What if I am writing about dragons?" or "I am nineteen/Jon Snow*** and I know nothing."

I have always interpreted this advice to mean, rather, "Write what you emotionally know." Obviously you can't be like "I'm writing a book about a woman whose husband died of cancer, so I'm going to go marry someone with cancer so I can write about it." That just makes you a shitty human being. But, most likely, you can write about grief. You can think about the time your favorite golden retriever died, and you can go volunteer on a cancer ward, and you can remember that whole crazy business with your ex-boyfriend and what it's like to love someone in a complicated way. You can mine multiple experiences from your life and combine them into your work.

This is why it's important to go do lots of things outside, even if they don't seem directly relevant to your work right now. You never know what you'll be able to use in the future. You never know what will stick. So do it all, and then use it whenever you can, in whatever shape you can.

A final note: it's important to remember that failure and suffering are also important emotional experiences that can be used later. That guy from 127 Hours was probably not thinking about his sweet, sweet book/movie deal when he decided to hack off his own arm. But he was probably aware that this was an important, life-changing moment that measured his soul as a person. Look out for those. Don't drown them in alcohol and avoidance. Pay attention to them, and learn from them, and later, turn them into art.

*Yes, that's a real story of what really happened to me.

**Also real.

***That is like two Game of Thrones references in two posts which is like 200% more than I usually make. I don't know what it is about this season, guys. I'm so fucking into it.

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