By Rosa Sugarman
Image by Kurt Vonnegut
When authors come to SUNY Purchase for a reading, one questions always seems to reappear during the Q&A: What advice would you give to young writers? The answer is always different and often contradictory to other writers’ advice. Some say to treat it like a 9-5; work tirelessly to perfect your craft. Some say don’t study it at all, let it be your private joy and keep capitalism out of your artistic pursuits. While it’s difficult to reconcile this mishmash of artistic practices, there is a way to allow your inner artist space to breath while putting in the hours necessary to honing your craft. You need a second art.
I practice two other arts: painting and drumming. I’m no Louise Bourgeois and no Tobi Vail, but I feel no pressure to perfect my secondary artistic pursuits. These arts are strictly for me. When I feel due dates and criticism discouraging my natural urge to write, it can be humbling to return to an untarnished medium to remember why exactly I make any art at all. Then, I can take that same energy over to the page and finish a piece I’m proud of before the deadline.
A second art form should always be low pressure. Novelist Susan Minot told Donald Friedman (creator of book and art exhibition The Writer’s Brush) “Sometimes when I’m feeling a little burnt out with writing, [painting is] a pleasure…It’s never something I feel, ‘Oh, I better go do that,’ which is what writing sometimes has become, because it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.” For Minot (along with the 90 other career writers whose paintings are shown in The Writer’s brush) painting remained a pastime long after she started selling books. One can imagine having too many projects going at once would cause an artistic stalemate, but if treated with levity, juggling projects can bring pleasure back art.
There’s also something to be said about getting into a creative state of mind and staying there. When writing is associated with school or work, it can be tempting to completely shut down after class. Rather than binging netflix or scrolling endlessly through instagram, take out the watercolor set. The same meditative state of mind one gets from consuming media can become productive if it’s channeled towards creation. If the artistic mind is a muscle, there’s no shame in finding low pressure ways to strengthen it.
A writer can also learn about writing from working in other forms. For me, it’s a matter of seeing the same principles passing over. For example, it’s a good idea to sketch an outline before you begin painting. It’s also alright to not stick with it if your vision evolves, simply erase and redraw. An outline for a story can benefit from a similar treatment. In drumming, the pace will stay the same throughout a song except perhaps in key moments. The pacing in a story should follow the same principle.
The best part of adopting an art form you’re not committed to is if you don’t like what you’re doing, or feel you’ll never improve, it doesn’t matter.You can keep a stack of ugly paintings under your bed and never show anyone. You could disassemble your drum kit and sell it on craigslist. Or, you could show off what you’ve done and push criticisms aside with “this is just something I do for fun.” It doesn’t matter. It’s all yours.