The question of why we are drawn to the page popped up this week in my writing workshop. It comes up at least once every session. We could be anywhere else right now, I tell my students. With a few free hours we could be taking a walk, playing tennis, cleaning a closet. Okay maybe not cleaning a closet. But here we all were, in a room with no windows, talking about personal essays and the process of writing them.
Why do we do it? I’ve thought a lot about this. I remember the moment I realized I was one of those people. Eight years ago, when my eldest daughter and I were driving into the city to visit liberal arts colleges, she noticed a city wall covered with graffiti and remarked on its beauty. Her response wasn’t a surprise. She had been drawn to art all of her life. But when I reminded her of this and asked why she wasn’t considering art schools, she said, “Mom, I’m an art appreciator, not an art maker.”
It was an interesting distinction. There are people — like my daughter — who utilize music, for example, as a soundtrack for their daily activities: dressing and undressing, driving and falling asleep at night. They cover their bedroom walls with collages of magazine cuttings, stop to study a sculpture or abstract painting and note the loveliness of graffiti on a wall. My daughter is a gifted improvisationalist who is very comfortable on stage. Though they surround themselves with the creative artifacts of human beings, art appreciators are not necessarily compelled to make art themselves. They prefer instead to allow the art to shift their mood, to bask in the emotions it stirs, to immerse themselves in the beauty or powerful messages.
I, too, am moved by the art I experience — but I am drawn and pulled toward the process of making it. Artists see the world through a possibility lens, asking themselves: What if I took that idea and stretched it this way or that using sound or paint or clay or film or texture or landscape? They are insatiably curious and want to dig deeper to explore an idea or a feeling. Often they are not so good at letting these go. They get stalked by them. Sometimes haunted.
Making art is what some people do in response to living. Artists are interested in the act of expression. Making art is how they make sense of life. I believe that virtually everyone is creative – but I’m talking about the overwhelming desire to respond to life by taking a Sharpie to a hard-bound journal or yellow pad; use horse hair dabbed in paint to spread onto textured cloth; to make words and images pop on a page, to plant seeds or transplant plants into a configuration to bring out the best in a piece of land, to visualize a handbag or blouse from piles of collected fabric. The artist seeks quiet to absorb life’s stimuli. Time to process events so that she can rearrange them in her imagination and respond in some form and then put something artful and tangible back out there for others to absorb. It’s a dynamic thing. An in and an out. A back and a forth. I’ve often thought that artists seek something very much like a conversation with the Divine; they want to visualize, to make something that isn’t there yet. To imagine something different. And leave their own personal mark.
My daughter’s comment stirred something inside of me that day. I remember that it brought up a feeling that I’ve had ever since becoming a mother who is also a writer: That the need to make art was sometimes so strong that it felt as powerful as another child calling, tugging, cajoling, wanting to be attended to. And when I ignored the feeling, it felt something like a tantrum. Because the artist answers to a powerful voice outside of her loved ones: the one inside.