What Do You Think You Are Doing?

Just after our own winter residency, I was a guest for several days in the VCFA Visual Arts residency. While there are too many wonderful things to say about that visit in this short blog piece, I find that I am often reminded of the visual artists’ statements that I read and the process papers I heard. The process papers usually dealt with the work done during that semester as well as planning for future projects. The artist statements, too, dealt with not only the media employed, but also the motivations and origins of the work produced. In the critiques, after the exhibit was viewed and discussed by other students and faculty, the artist had a chance to answer questions and to talk about the reasons, means, and objectives of their art. Often this involved consideration of what they’ve done in the past and what they hope to do in the future.

 

This got me thinking. I wondered if I could write an artist statement myself, perhaps one akin to a teaching philosophy statement. What could I say about my writing that would clearly state what I am trying to do both with my craft and with the content of my stories and poems? Could I write a statement that took into account where I’ve been in my writing life and where I would like to go—and where exactly I am right now? Could I investigate my motivation for writing in general and for each story in particular? Have I thought about the themes of the books I’ve written? Can I identify a thematic thread that runs from one writing project to another? What does that thematic thread say about me, about who I am, where I’ve been in my life’s journey, where I am headed, and whether that is my intended destination? Are the themes similar or varied?

 

When I speak to students about “the moral to the tale,” it’s usually to ask them to delete overt statements that come across as lessons meant for the edification of the child. I usually go on to say that we don’t have to impress preconceived ideas onto a story because if we are writing from the deepest parts of ourselves the themes of our lives will naturally come forth. But what about checking in on our deepest selves from time to time to make sure the themes that are flowing forth rather unsuspectingly are themes we espouse? How about checking in with our stories now and then to make sure that we aren’t inadvertently “saying” something we don’t intend? How about interrogating ourselves first to see where we are with the large issues of life and write with an awareness of them, allowing ourselves room to change and grow over time?

 

More than once in my life I’ve been asked to participate in generating a mission statement to guide a group’s course of action in the future. We decide what service we can provide and to whom, as well as what makes our group and this service unique and valuable for the target audience. I think this is a good place to start, writing one’s own mission statement, but I’d like to think that writers, especially those who write for young people, might take it further, more into the realm of the artist statement where we might consider not only our motivations for this work as well as our means of delivery, our craft, our techniques and skills. Every once in a while it might do us good to check in with that statement to see if our stories and our skills are living up to our goals and make adjustments accordingly, revising our statements over a life time of growth through language and story.

 

If you’d like to join me in this attempt, you might begin by writing a short paragraph that: 1) Describes your intentions as a writer, both in story and in craft; 2) States why you write, what drives you and what keeps you going; and 3) Sets forth what you intend to accomplish for your reader, your writing, and yourself.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “What Do You Think You Are Doing?

  1. Julie Larios

    Excellent advice, Sharon. One of the most productive things I’ve ever done is apply for a Washington State Artists Grant, because I had to do exactly what you’re recommending – I had to write an Artist Statement that articulated what I’d been attempting to do with recent poetry. When I had the Artist Statement ready, I was amazed to read through it and find my writing philosophy laid out in such a succinct way – I really had been trying to do something specific – I wasn’t just writing anything that popped into my mind! I had strategies, I had intentions, I had certain tools to get me where I wanted to go. That Artist Statement helped me clarify my goals not to any readers but to myself – a valuable exercise. Great post!

  2. Thanks, Sharon! This will be a thought-provoking and self-illuminating exercise, indeed.

  3. louisehawes

    I’m on it, Sharon: one mission statement coming up! And I’m intrigued to see how it will be different from what I would have written when I was, say, in grad school. Hopefully, like any intimate bond, our relationship with our writing will change and grow over time. Thanks! (I can’t wait to get a full report on the Vis Arts residency. It sounds amazing!)

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