What it means to be an artist

When I meet people and they find out I’m a writer, I usually get one of two responses. They look at me as if I do something magical or they tell me about the novel they will write someday in their spare time. Neither response accurately portrays the realities of a life in the creative arts. My poems, stories and plays aren’t gifts from the muse or something that I toss off in my spare time. My work is the result of concentrated effort, intense study and hours of revision.

My stepmother, Betty Layman Receveur, a writer of historical fiction about Kentucky, used to say writing was like digging a ditch. You’d write yourself into a hole and you’d have to keep digging until you found a way out. Given the dedication it takes to create art, not to mention trying to sell it, the key to success is to enjoy the digging.

As I child I saw my father, John Birkett, sitting at the kitchen table pounding out stories while the sun was shining outside. It looked neither easy nor mysterious. He published two mystery novels set around Kentucky racing, “The Queen’s Mare” and “The Last Private Eye,” which will be reissued this fall as e-books.

I interview authors for a website for writers and several of the authors have credited their success to the fact that they refuse to quit writing. They stay committed to the daily practice and improvements of their art.

Of course, we all have dreams of fame and fortune or recognition from our peers, but more often the reality is that our readings and performances are populated not by adoring fans, but by our friends and neighbors. So why write, draw, sculpt, sew, and play music?

We do it because we can’t help ourselves. We do it because, when we are working alone and things are coming together in just the right way, there is no better feeling.

I had the chance to interview three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Alice McDermott on writing and success. To write, McDermott said, is to recreate the world in your own vision.

“It is lovely to have lots of readers and hear that people have been touched by your work. It is great to sell lots of books, but that is fleeting and not enough of a reward for all the sacrifices you will have to make. At the end of the day, I put my best effort forward. The satisfaction of that is the only reliable satisfaction.”

Alice is right.

EBMorris HeadshotEBMorris Surrender Cvr

Ellen Birkett Morris is a writer who lives in Louisville. She is the author of “Surrender,” a poetry chapbook. Her fiction has appeared in journals including The Antioch Review, South Carolina Review and Notre Dame Review.

 

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