My mother is a realist. "You'll have to study law or medicine if you want to make it in this world," she says soberly at the dinner table. "I'm not going to pay all that money for college for you to major in some artsy-fartsy subject. You'll never find a job."
I start to get defensive, but know that's true and does not necessarily mean that film, music and literature are any less vital than optometry and engineering. I suppose it makes sense that only a select few get to make a living from their passions. We see practical work as necessary and art as luxury, taking it for granted that the best creative expressions come from pure human need. There are tools that help us survive, but there are others that are defined by living, or the desire to really live, to participate in the great tug-of-war between comedy and drama, heartache and joy, that is life and community at their most complete.
Art is about giving and receiving, but the motives can be hazy. As a writer, I've birthed poetry with the intention of taking revenge, teaching a lesson, uplifting a friend. If they are any good, my poems are real, with flesh and heartbeats and vertebrae. I know the creators I cherish, whose fruits of love and labor send a yearning from within me, and I can only hope to contribute bits and pieces of my heart and soul, shavings of my reality, to the pile they began.
I have a list in my head of moments that woke me up, that reminded me of this craving to be understood and transmit my state of mind. I remember first hearing Aretha Franklin's classic "Going Down Slow." It was a winter night; I was eating chocolate and surfing the Internet, slumped in a chair with my feet propped up. This song made me uncomfortable, pushed my body into a right angle, and sent a shiver through me, as if I had looked a ghost in the eye. It just built, verse by verse, block by block, into a tremendous catharsis I wasn't prepared for.
The character in the lyrics must be the deep South offspring of an ancient tragic heroine; she speaks of some mysterious illness that will lead to her death, and she makes peace with the people she loves. In a blues format, the lines repeat and work up to a hypnotic crescendo until the listener feels as if he is looking down from a mountain and can see all this woman's life, spread out like terrain rich in romance, suffering and complex history. Aretha's performance strangled the December chill and breathed a fiery heat. The song is a cold sweat and a feverish dream.
This is what I mean by expression, this outgrowth of reality shaped by an artist's imagination. You can feel the dirt on your skin from that song; you can see the sun, orange and merciless, in her interpretation of the words. I love a lot of music, but only a handful of songs have felt so transcendent, so achingly beautiful. I envy the vocalists who can bend their voices, slap them like whips, curve and seduce and cry out these sounds from their throats. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding - they are all singing for their health. You know they live to get that itch off their chest just as much as we hunger for their music.
Emily Dickinson wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." People with deep love tend to think in hyperbolic terms about the object of their affection. I have always romanticized the arts, as Dickinson did, as one violent, aggressive, ultimate force that can knock you off your seat. I see little distinction between the realms of creativity; they intermingle for me. When I'm writing, I may be trying to incorporate the rhythms I have heard in a jazz or hip-hop track, or pinning down the atmosphere of an image I saw in a movie. Everything feeds off something else, and creates this feeling of connection. Not only do the different arts unite, but a whole community of listeners, readers and viewers join to share in the feeling. An artist is cleansed when he has spoken the truth and been heard.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.