Tough Love

Jennifer asked if I were going to post this to Flyover. I’m still not sure, so I’ll let you tell me if this was the right thing to do. From the Charleston City Paper:

Dear Charleston Arts Community,

You know me, don’t you? I’ve been the arts editor for nearly a year. You know my tastes, my writing style. You know my voice — one that’s for the arts, one that’s of the arts in Charleston.

A voice that’s lately appeared, some of you have said, to be overly critical, dismissive, superior, and a bit snobbish.

Maybe you’re right. I don’t deny it.

When it comes to tone of voice, sensibility, and other subjective matters, there is no accounting. Who am I to say you’re wrong?

I hope, however, you believe me when I say my intentions are good.

Some are surprised after getting to know me. How I grew up in a county with more cows than people. How my dad is a truck driver, my mom an old-fashioned homemaker. How they are severe, practical, stoic, and good.

We were death-oriented. Life was about saving one’s soul. Good and evil, heaven and hell — these were literal. The root of this knowledge was thrust deep. No will but God’s will.

We accepted this. Sometimes violently.

Not much was expected of me. A good and a bad thing. My first job was as a farm hand. I was 13. Baling hay, whitewashing, picking vegetables. A friend, who grew up nearby, calls it a Huck Finn existence. That’s about right.

In high school, I was encouraged to take vocational classes. That my dad drove a truck for a living was reason enough for me to take up a trade, like carpentry or automobile mechanics. Never mind that I wasn’t good with my hands. My parents believed my teachers had my best interest at heart. I’m sure they were right.

Music was a means to an end. I began playing trumpet at 9. I had ability, even talent. Nothing like a gift.

Teachers encouraged me to teach music. That’s what you did. Study education to be a teacher; study plumbing to be a plumber. If you study history, what are you? I didn’t know. Nobody knew.

I played classical trumpet in college, but eventually fell in love with jazz, in love with the promise of performance, of making that feeling the center of my life.

It was a moment, an epiphany, really, that I believe all aspiring artists have at some point — that moment when you get a glimpse at what could be after so much time accepting what can’t be.

There was more at stake in succeeding than ego.

Music, as I said, was a means. A means of escape. Not just from my childhood and the darkness there. Failure meant confirming what I suspected all along — that I had nothing to offer, that I didn’t belong where I wanted to be. I had to succeed to be normal. Otherwise, just give up. Go back to farm country, take up a trade.

I had my parents’ fear and self-loathing. But I also had my mother’s strength and my father’s courage. So I tried, despite myself. I tried for a long time. A long, long time. I wanted it so badly. I was willing to do anything. Eventually, I walked away.

It was my choice to abandon music. Nobody made me. I won’t go into the details, except to say my dream was in reality a quest to understand myself. It was hard. It was painful. I’m not sure it’s over. But I’ve moved on.

I’ve earned three degrees in music, literature, and writing. I’ve become a cultural critic. I’ve won a couple of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. I write about arts, culture, and ideas in a cosmopolitan city I like a lot. I’m really very happy.

I’ll not soon forget how close I came to allowing my passion to overshadow the truth about myself. I never stabbed my eyes with pins, fortunately, but I know how painful self-knowledge can be.

I know it can hurt. I know it can heal, too.

I run the risk of more criticism by letting you know more about me and about my lost love. I’m now vulnerable for writing so personally, which I’ve never done before. Some will take a stab at a Freudian analysis: that I’m a wannabe artist compensating by being overly critical, dismissive, superior, and a bit snobbish.

That’s wrong, but I can’t stop you from thinking it.

I can hope, however, that you know how tough love can be.

October 30, 2008 7:28 PM | | Comments (1)

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1 Comments

I'm curious about what kind of response you have received. I'm also curious about the response you want to receive.

For my part, I liked reading about you and your lost love. Now I think I know what makes you tick. But I wonder: Maybe talking about yourself isn't enough. Maybe your readers need to hear why the arts matter to you, why the arts specifically in your community matter to you and should matter to them. Even more than that: What's the spirit of your community? What transforms for good or bad your spot on a map into a thee dimensional place with a history? Are you chronicling that with loving exasperation or just reviewing shows and writing stories?

At any rate, artists have my sympathy over critics (almost) every time. Artists -- especially the acting variety -- really make themselves vulnerable, really pour themselves out into a role in a way that critics hardly ever do (even more than you've done in your essay). Part of the reason is the luxury of the medium: Written words aren't as immediate as live action; an essay produced in relative tranquility isn't the same as placing your own flesh and blood out on a stage.

That's one reason artists hate critics. Here's another: Writers are traitors. Betrayal goes with the job. People open themselves up to you (or let you review their shows) because they think you are going to tell their story the way they want it to be told. But you know full well what you are really going to do, what you have to do: Namely, tell things the way that you see them. Fairly, I hope. But according to your ideas about what's fair. Your integrity as writer depends on it. Indeed, the integrity of the arts community you cover depends on it. Lying praise stings most deeply of all.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on October 30, 2008 7:28 PM.

Musicians on strike in Madison was the previous entry in this blog.

The Partisan Imagination: Does being an artist make you a liberal? is the next entry in this blog.

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