Songs for the Struggling Artist


How to Be with a Grieving Person
May 8, 2022, 9:27 pm
Filed under: advice, grief | Tags: , ,

There are a lot of things I wish I’d known when friends and family have lost loved ones in the past. I wish I could have known them without knowing such grief myself but unfortunately that is how I learned it. I noticed that those who have experienced a loss like mine were the most adept at engaging with me in a difficult time. It is a skill forged in tears, it would seem.

I know people worry about what to say to someone who’s lost someone – so a lot of times folks just don’t reach out at all. The thing is, though, for all the fear of saying the wrong thing, there’s really nothing to say. There is literally nothing anyone can say that will make a death less painful. It is simply painful and words are unlikely to make much difference. Your words will not be the thing that turn someone’s grief around. Does that mean you shouldn’t say anything at all? No. You should say something but you don’t have to say anything original. You can say “I’m sorry for your loss.” You send your condolences. They won’t change anything but they will affirm your presences with the grieving person, which frankly, is all that is required. Show up. Give hugs if they’re wanted. Hold a hand if it’s needed. Pass the box of tissues if the person runs out. If you don’t have anything to say, just sit quietly. Flowers are really nice.

If you’re far from the grieving person, you can send cards. You can send care packages. You can send text messages. You can send flowers. You can send flower emoji.

People kept offering their ears if I needed to talk and maybe there are people who grieve in a garrulous way. But I did not need to talk. There’s just not much to talk about. He’s dead. It’s terrible. That’s it.

But it was really helpful to hear from people every so often. Honestly, just a little flower emoji was all I needed to know someone was thinking of me. I felt like my needs were so basic but they were rarely met by anyone outside of my immediate circle. Most people, if they did anything, wrote a condolence message on my Facebook post about my brother’s death and that was that. I have done exactly the same with my condolences over the years. I’d do it differently now. First, I’d send a direct message of some kind – an email or a social media message. If I could, I would send a card, if I have their address. Cards are nice because you can look at them again and feel as though the person that sent it to you is with you all over again. If the grieving person was nearby, I’d ask if I could stop by and give them a hug. Then, for the people I know well, I would check back in. How are they now? The loss doesn’t stop. It’s okay to send a second or third condolence/check in.

I think people worry that they’re going to trigger more grief by bringing up a loss but what I know now is that the grief is there whether someone is asking after it or not. I think mostly people are worried about making someone cry when they’re not currently crying. I don’t want to speak for every grieving person, I mean, I couldn’t possibly, but I will say for me, I’d rather be asked after than avoid tears. I really don’t mind crying. And I haven’t cried yet at an inquiry about how I’m doing with the loss. The loss (and the tears) are present whether you ask after them or not. It can be a relief just to acknowledge its presence. When someone brings up my brother’s death, I feel cared for because not everyone is willing to acknowledge such a thing.

In my particular case, the dominant response to the situation was silence. I’m not in a community where people bring casseroles. I did not receive a single lasagna. I think I might have liked one – as those rituals of care seem especially poignant to me now. Like, if you don’t know what else to do, bring food. But I really can’t complain. I received many kind messages (and two sweetheart cactuses) and I am so grateful for all the care. I promise I’m not writing this to get a lasagna out of the deal.

I’m really writing this for myself from before – like, all the things I wish I’d known before – when friends or family lost someone. There are so many things that make a difference that I would not have considered. Things like, checking in with someone more than once. Or, just sending a Thinking of You message. Or an emoji.

That’s all stuff I wish I’d done before for people who are dear to me. It’s fine. I didn’t. I didn’t know. And the vast majority of people don’t know, either – so whatever response they had is also truly fine. One thing death does for you is to clarify the stakes and scale of a thing. The really bad thing is the death, any response to it pales in comparison to that bad news.

A lot of people who’ve been through loss like this mentioned that people can say stupid things on the subject. I’m sure that’s true. – but I mostly didn’t experience anything particularly stupid. Honestly, I think something stupid would be better than nothing. If you say something really stupid at least we’ll have something to talk about. If it’s really stupid, we might get a good laugh out of it even.

I mean – the stupidest comments I heard at my brother’s memorial were of the “I didn’t know Will had a sister!” variety, which, you know, sucks for me, Will’s sister – but it’s that person’s truth, so, no big deal. That’s just facts for them.

What I’m trying to suggest here is that showing up for someone in grief is really just showing up, in whatever way you can and doing it in a sustained way. Send that “Thinking of you” text and then after a few weeks, send another one. It’s simple. But it’s effective. You’ll see. I hope you won’t have to see it for yourself.

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Advice for Artists

If I could offer one piece of advice for artists, it would be to be skeptical of all advice for artists.

After so many years of dedication to making art, I think I’ve heard most of it. Some of it might be useful. A lot of it isn’t. I started to think about this after receiving my copy of New York magazine featuring a cover story of advice for artists. I found myself confused about what it was doing there on the cover. Why should advice for artists be a front page story? I read the advice – hoping to uncover some clues as to what made this front page material but there was very little in the thirty three tips that I haven’t read before.

I discussed this article with another lifelong artist and realized that its presence on the front page probably mostly was a result of the author’s recent Pulitzer prize win. He won a Pulitzer so he gave some advice so they took some funny arty photos of him and put him on the cover. And when I received this magazine, I felt weird about it. Not because his advice is bad – some of it does accurately reflect my experience of making art – but because I don’t understand who this advice is really for. On one hand, it seems to be for “the young who want to” – and on the other, it’s for the veteran and also the one about to have the New York Times come to their first gallery show in Soho. Who is that? An arty preteen with super fancy connections and an old soul?

That’s when I realized how bound by our own experience any advice is. Jerry Saltz, the guy who wrote this advice, is a critic who just won a Pulitzer prize for writing. He’s a hotshot. He may feel like he has his finger on the pulse of the art world – that he’s seen the range of the super star artists and the strugglers. But the fact is, Jerry Saltz only sees artists who are in the mix. For some artists, Saltz coming to their show is their one big shot. If he doesn’t respond positively to their work, it will become the story of the time they almost made it. But the art scene also includes artists who will not only never get Saltz at their art show but will also never get a show. They’re not in the mix. The artists Saltz is seeing, and therefore advising, are in the mix – which means they have already experienced a level of success or privilege. This doesn’t negate this particular critic’s advice – it’s just to contextualize it.

Likewise, any advice I’d have to offer anyone is going to come from my particular point of view. To me, the most salient bit of information in Saltz’s advice, was his perspective that it only takes 12 people to create a successful career. That’s something he’s seen happen a few times I’d wager and probably seems relatively easy to accomplish from where he’s sitting. Why, he knows at least 12 well connected people! And he knows a lot of people who know 12 well connected people. No problem.

But the good news about this guy is that he also understands that not everyone has access to well connected people. And that is one of the things that makes him a valuable voice for the arts. Sure, he may have used a photo of (notoriously terrible family-man) Pablo Picasso to demonstrate that being an artist parent is possible but his advocacy for museum space and artists is incredibly important for the cultural life of New York City so I’m glad he’s out here fighting.

But if you’re an artist looking for useful advice, I regret to inform you that no one has the answers. There isn’t a right way to do this. Living with that sort of ambiguity is sort of what it’s all about.

If you find little bursts of information inspiring for your art, yes, please read them and make your work. If Saltz’s article encouraged just one artist to dig deeper into her work, then it was worth it, in my view.

But if this sort of thing left you a little cold and confused as it did me, take my advice and forget all advice. When it comes to making art, yours is the only advice to follow. Not your teachers, not your parents, not some guy in a magazine and not some struggling artist on the internet either.

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You know what I don’t need?
August 19, 2015, 11:09 pm
Filed under: advice, art, business, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , ,

Advice.

There was a stage in my artist development when I soaked up all advice like a sponge. It was a period when I’d take everyone’s suggestions. And the great thing about that period was that people love to give advice.

But after so many years of running a non-profit arts organization, I’ve grown so incredibly weary of hearing, “Here’s what you should do – “
Because I have plenty of things to do.

What would I like to hear instead?
“Here’s what I can do. . .” or “Here’s how I can help. . .”
Instead of “Have you tried. . .?” I’d love to hear: “I can try this. Would that help?”

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to those who would like to assist with their ideas. This desire to assist is probably coming from a good place. But there comes a point wherein unsolicited advice ceases to be helpful.

Fourteen years in, I can say that I have tried just about everything I can think of and just about everything everyone else could think of, too. I have no shortage of ideas – what I don’t have are extra hands. I’m a one woman show with a whole lot of ambition, ideas and the wherewithal to chase down only a handful of them. Other people’s ideas just add to my list. Odds are that I have tried whatever it is that’s been suggested or that it is well out of the realm of possibility. (Like, when folks tell me I should just get my show on Broadway or people suggest to my composer boyfriend that he should just write for films, like John Williams.)

Also, I’ve gotten some advice over the years that was really just criticism in an advice jacket. It has usually sounded like: “You’re going to have to. . .” and “If you want to do X, you need to do Y”. And there’s often a strange aggressive tone under it.

For years, I’ve struggled to understand this response to me and my work, especially from people who know me. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Generally, it comes from people who know me and have seen my work. They like me. They see an intelligent, ambitious person who they would have placed a bet on for succeeding. They saw work that was good and full of potential. They’re confused by my lack of success. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance for them. They want to believe that good work will find a place in the marketplace. They want to believe that the world is fair and just and that success comes to those with talent, intelligence and rigor. And when they see me not fitting in to that belief system, they start throwing shade. I would like to believe in a world like that, too. But we’re not there yet.

I think people look at me and my trajectory and try to explain for themselves why my career doesn’t look like they imagined. They search for flaws in me. They make things up if they have to. And once they feel like they have an answer. (“She’s not aggressive enough.” “She didn’t focus on the right thing” etc.) That’s when they start giving “advice.” Which is actually just criticism and feels lousy to receive.

I get it. I would like to believe it was just some simple thing I’m not doing, too. Then I would do that thing and pull myself out of the artistic ghetto. But it’s just not that simple.

And it’s not just me, either. The many many extraordinary intelligent, talented, rigorous artists I know who are all just as unacknowledged as I am, show me just what a crapshoot an artist’s life is.

I once believed artistic success was a meritocracy and the good and committed rose to the top while the lousy and lazy sunk to the bottom. It is not so. I know a brilliant unacknowledged artist in almost every art form. What I’ve come to understand is that the system is flawed, and rigged and unjust. And I know it causes cognitive dissonance to deal with that. Believe me, I’ve been readjusting for years to take it in. It’s troubling, I know. But – you want my advice? Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.

If you want to help, I thank you. Really and truly. I appreciate the impulse to be of assistance. And I have gotten some amazing advice over the years for which I am very grateful. But what I could use most is action and support, not criticism or more things to add to my very long list.

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