Weekly Edgework #21 - Nov 22, 2004

Writing as Art

Recently a number of persons have referred to me as an artist of sorts after reading something I have written. In a way that surprises and frightens me at the same time. For most of my life I have thought of myself as being anything but an artist. I dreaded art classes in school. I could not draw or paint, period. The only way to tell whether the animal I had drawn was a horse or a cow was by the oversized udder I drew on the cow’s underbelly to help the viewer interpret my “art.”

In my mind you were born an artist and that would be self-evident. I remember Art Harder (Art was his real name) coming to our school as a practice teacher when I was in grade six. Now to my way of thinking at the time, he was an artist. When the real teacher left the room we would cajole him into filling the chalkboard with his spontaneous drawings. They were so realistic and full of life. You could tell a horse from a cow even without reference to an udder! We were mesmerized.

Early on in my teaching career I had an aboriginal boy in my grade six class. For the life of me, I could not get him to complete regular assignments. But when I went to check his notebook it would invariably be filled with page after page of exquisite pencil sketches. I almost felt embarrassed about encouraging him to leave his art to do the assignment I had given him. In retrospect, I think I now understand why he probably considered doing mathematics to be frivolous compared to sketching his masterpieces.

As you can tell, my view of art was quite limited in my early years. It included drawing, painting and perhaps sculpting. Gradually I came to see that music was an art as well. But since I was not musically inclined, it only confirmed my identity as a non-artist. Somewhere along life’s journey, however, I discovered that I enjoyed writing, but I never considered that qualifying, even potentially, as art.

My first awakening to “writing as art” came through Eugene Peterson who spoke of writing as “word-crafting.” Good writing, he said, is more than placing information on paper. It is a process of crafting words into position in creative ways – ways that lift the writing above the page to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. Peterson helped me to see that much of my education had trained me to write in a utilitarian manner, putting information and ideas on paper to prove that I could think logically. I know educational institutions now offer courses in “creative writing,” but I must have been through the system before such classes were started.

I find it interesting when I think about it now, that writing which involved detailed outlines and precise logic never really fit my style. I gradually discovered on my own that the process of writing itself opened new doors to a larger world. And when I walked through those doors – or should I say pried them open with a pen - more doors came into view. Writing was becoming an adventure because I really didn’t know where it would take me. At first I almost felt guilty about not first lining up all pertinent information, as I had been taught, and then transferring that onto paper – kind of filling in the blanks. Many times it seemed to me that I was coloring my world outside established lines. But I kept stumbling forward in my writing life, regularly breaking many of the rules of writing I had been taught.

This past year I came across a delightful little book, The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard. I knew by then that Annie Dillard was considered to be an artist, a word-crafter of exceptional giftedness. As I read, my pulse quickened and on occasion a few tears rolled down my cheeks. Dillard was speaking about writing as art and she was describing my experience. She spoke about the loneliness of the blank page. How writers discover the story line only after they commit themselves to the page, new vistas appearing in the process of writing itself. She agreed with me that creativity can not be scheduled. And in sync with the passion I often feel when I write, she said, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case” (68). Maybe, I said quietly to myself, if Annie Dillard speaks for me, I am an artist of sorts after all.

In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes about talking to an artist about her painting. He noticed, however, that whenever he complimented her on some positive quality of a particular piece she always had a disparaging comment to make about her work. Either she excused herself for not having studied art in the right school or with the right teachers, or that she had not yet mastered painting as she would like. In other words, she was not at home with the image of herself as an artist whose work had value. Moore states that, ”I suspect that if she had an image of herself as an artist, and loved it, she would be able to forget about her inferior feelings about herself and concentrate on her work” (72).

Maybe that is my problem. If I can accept the fact that I am a word-artist of sorts after all, perhaps I can give myself more fully to the word-crafting I enjoy. My early training taught me “…not to think of myself more highly than I ought to think” (Romans 12:3), so I am inclined to depreciate what I have written. Perhaps I have not yet learned the meaning of what follows in that same verse, namely: “…to think with sober judgment.”

I am aware that with this writing I am taking a risk by exposing some of the inner stirrings of my soul. But, as Albert Camus says, it is impossible to be an artist without taking risks. So today I am allowing it to be okay to think of myself as an artist - joining words to make a piece of art worth more than the sum of the individual words used. That does not say anything about the quality of the artwork I will do in the future, but perhaps it will allow me to concentrate on my work as an artist should.