I See You

1. The man standing before me wore shabby Renaissance period clothing. His beard, his fingernails, his feet, encased in worn leather sandals, were all dirty. He carried in one hand a knobby wooden walking stick, and in the other, a broken blue crystal ball. He had summoned me to the hostess counter of the small semi-outdoor tea room where I worked as a waitress at the Georgia Renaissance Festival. It was a Saturday, early afternoon, and we were in the middle of our lunch rush. I was merely told that a man was there to see me. When I asked who, I was met with a shrug, so I made my way, with no small level of annoyance, to where this man, a stranger stood. He told me my friend, Liz, had sent him; Liz worked about twenty miles down the road in an air-conditioned music supply store where this man had told her that he was on his way to the festival. She told him to go to the tea room and ask for me.

I wasn’t sure what he wanted, so I said hello. Smiled. Waited. He recited a poem for me – I can’t remember now what the words were. When he finished speaking, he bowed, and I curtsied and said thank you. He walked away, and the show was over. Nearby customers went back to eating. I went back to my tables.

It wasn’t until a lull in service a couple of hours later that I wondered whether I should have paid him something. He sought me out and recited a poem from memory, possibly one he made up. I hadn’t thought about it in the moment, but as I considered later, I felt, yes, I should have given him something for giving me that moment.

2. I think there’s a dominant mythic image we have of writers, particularly old ones. Emily Dickinson in her white dress, reclusive in her attic, penning poems and letters. Thoreau in his spartan cottage on Walden Pond, writing and holding forth about the things he was passionate about. Hemingway cloaking himself in a velvety robe of alcohol to write. In the film Finding Neverland, the playwright J.M. Barrie has a fight with his wife. She says she foolishly thought writers went away to magical worlds where ideas grew on trees, that he could show her that world, and when he corrects her that there is no such place, she says yes, there is:  Neverland. That secret place an artist goes to create, to set him or herself apart.

I know, however, that many writers are present, accessible, and are very savvy with social media – Tayari Jones, Margaret Atwood, etc. – and it is becoming more commonplace. In fact, at the AWP conference in a few days, Tweet-Ups have already been organized, and a hashtag has been created so that our big community of scribes can plant our thoughts and ideas and communications like a field full of poppies to skip through on our way to a mythic writers’ Emerald City.

3. By now, Amanda Palmer’s TED talk called “The Art of Asking” has made its rounds on the Interwebs. My friend Leslie sent it to me and I finally watched it this morning. It’s brilliant. You should do yourself a favor and watch it.

The way that she talks about her community made me think:  her story is a testimony to the breakdown of that mythology of an artist living apart. When an artist is encountered as part of the community, as a person sleeping on your couch or in need of a Neti Pot in a strange city; when he or she is available on Twitter or Facebook; when the artist is willing to ask for help, then the myth breaks down. The gates to the Emerald City open and everything converges. There are no more legends in ivory towers penning masterpieces worlds away.

4. I explained to Amanda (my fiancee, not the musician) the other day that AWP is where I come closest to witnessing literary celebrity:  rooms overflow with people gathered to hear a cherished author read his or her work, people camping on the floors in the hallway outside just to overhear what’s being said. Thousands of people showing up for the keynote address, eager to hear what their favorite author will say.

Sitting in my room, writing.
Sitting in my room, writing.

But that is reserved for the few. What I love about AWP, and what I’ve finally come to realize after years of attending and angsting and feeling bad, is that for most of us, the expectation is much smaller. We are attempting to make art. We are working in a variety of spaces, with a variety of ways to make the ends meet, reading each other’s work, and trying to connect to one another. When the objective of a big conference like AWP is to make a few meaningful connections with fellow artists or readers or publishers, rather than to aspire to be the keynote speaker, then we get closer, I think, to what was really going on with those mythic authors I spoke of earlier:  we’re sitting in a room, wherever that may be, and we’re doing the work.

And now, thanks to social media and email and blogging and whatever other means of fostering community that we might access, we can really connect to one another while we do that work. We can feel less alone in the process. As Amanda Palmer says in her video, we can seem to say to one another, “I see you.”

5. The man who recited that poem to me at the Renaissance Festival likely didn’t know how badly I wanted to be a writer. I was in college, unpublished, finding my voice, just starting down the road to becoming a writer. But he chose to recite a poem to me. In that moment, I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t know yet to be grateful. I didn’t realize what trust he put in me and the customers around him, strangers, when he started to recite a poem in the middle of a restaurant.

But as I’ve grown and begun to pay attention, I can see now that I should have been grateful. I should have been still. I needed time to see the moment for what it was – a gift I would only come to appreciate in hindsight, years later, when I became an artist too.

I’m linking up with the other fantastic bloggers at Yeah Write for this week’s challenge grid. Check us out, then come back on Thursday to vote for your favorites!

26 thoughts on “I See You

  1. I am sort of blown away by how active some writers and musicians are on social media.

    If you look at how often John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, or Kimya Dawson, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, and a few others tweet every day, it sort of makes you wonder how they can do anything else.

    I picture them with their heads down in their phones 24/7…

    It’s great to have that instant connection, of course. I just find myself having to disconnect more and more often.

    1. So true! Neil Gaiman is super active – I usually can’t keep up, and I tend to find that I need to disconnect a little more than that. I feel a bit addicted to my phone at times, but especially when I have some down time, or when I’m writing, I just need to walk away from it. It’s nice to know it’s there when I come back.

  2. How wonderful it would have been to know at the time. But, I like that you gave tribute to the man here and now-it’s never too late! And, I doubt he expected anything in return but maybe he’s smiling somewhere because of this blog post.

  3. Yes! Let go of big expectations, we should. Find successes in the real, in the tiny bright lights we make as our energies connect and quickly spark, then move on.

  4. When I first started blogging I was doing it by myself, and, except for my parents and sisters, didn’t have very many regular readers. It was only when I joined a writing community, when I could say “I see you” and others could say it to me, that I really felt my creativity take off. And over the past year, that connection has become vitally important to me as I grow as a writer. I love this post so much.

  5. I think connection is now more important than ever in art. Many of the musicians and writers whose work I admire got their start on the internet, and have remained in touch with the technologies and the communities that brought them success. There’s no ivory tower – artists are people who want to share their stories and feelings with the world, and the internet is a wonderful way to connect with the people who want to hear (or read, or look at) what the artists have to express.

    I’m so grateful to be in touch with an online writing community now, even though I’m new and have much to learn.

  6. I love what you say about the myths we have about artists. I have them too, and assume what I create is not art because I do not go to a special place where magic flows forth from my pen or brush. It’s funny that I have to remind myself that art is created in life, between life and jobs and the people with whom we share them.

  7. I need to get myself to a writing conference. Or take another writing class. Or do some sort of more official networking. This post inspired me. I liked the evolution of your artist self in this piece – how you grew in maturity and awareness of what it means not only to be an artist yourself, but part of a larger creative community. Very cool!

  8. It is interesting to think of Emily Dickinson’s life as being as full of the mundane as all of our lives are. But we know it couldn’t not be. There is no magic about it. Thanks for the reminder. Also, I love the image of the wandering poet!

  9. I really enjoyed this. Lots to think about after reading. I do think it’s utterly amazing what community (including conferences, online and however else you can get it) can do for a writer.

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