I can hear the collective groan from here. It’s so much easier for artists to just do what they do as opposed to talking about what they do. I can pen a 5000 word story, but if you ask me for a paragraph to describe my practice I make faces, squirm and have to wring out a couple of tries before I get something that doesn’t make me want to flip my desk over.
It’s not that I don’t know what I write about or some of the things that combined to manifest me, the writer. I mean, I talk about it with my friends who are writers – what things interest me as subjects, what moves me from the larger world, what I’m aiming to tackle somehow in my work, whose work is having an influence on me. Many whiskey fueled nights have heard these conversations, but having to write an artist statement is the only time I’m really forced to sift through my work, examine it and articulate something about it. Without the whiskey. And this is a good thing. Good in the way grape cough syrup tastes like shit, but might help you not sound like you’re going to keel over.
What is it and do you really need one?
An artist statement basically explains your work and puts it into some sort of context. It’s an introduction to you. It’s meant to show some sort of self-examination and self-awareness on your part about your art. Do you write fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poems? What moves you to commit such acts of lunacy? I wrote and submitted and published for years without one, but when it came time to apply for things like residencies and grants, there was no going around it.
Your first line of offense is your circle. When I had to write one, I turned to writer friends and asked them how to go about doing this. What information did they offer? Was it in a particular order? Was it personal in tone or more of a recitation of their resume or neither? How long was it? I had peers generously send me theirs so I could see in a very tangible way what an artist statement looked like. My writer friends were also the ones I asked to take a look at my attempts and offer suggestions.
Look at examples. Google is your best friend. Are there writers you like? Look for examples of how they talk about their work. In examples you look at, the artist is answering questions for reader. Try and imagine what question could have been asked for each sentence in their statement and try answering them as it pertains to you.
Look at your work. Look at it like an English major. What themes keep popping up? What social issues are you addressing? What subject matter?
Don’t worry about describing it in heightened language. I swear this is what freezes us up, worrying about it sounding artsy and writerly before answering the basics. Even if you’re just spitting a list or phrases to answer it. Get the bricks before worrying about the paint. The language can be tightened later.
It’s going to take a few tries. Do it in rounds. Take a pass at it. Put it away. Take another pass at it later or the next day. Put it away. I wouldn’t recommend sitting there grinding on something even as sparks are shooting from your brain.
I’ll share my artist statements with you. The first is a long version. I like to start with a fuller version because I find it easier to trim than to fluff. This was the one I included in the application for a residency I’ll be heading to at the end of this summer:
“I write stories like the ones I heard after Sunday family dinners when I was a child. When I remember those times, I see my father in the middle – a sun – and grandparents, aunts, uncles caught in the gravitational pull of his stories about women that carried pistols under their skirts and men that were thieves and adventurers. Cousins sat sprawled out on the floor around me – like stars – and everyone would be red-faced from laughing. For a few hours, the adults were free from twelve hour work shifts, bills, and the rising cost of everything in New York City. For a few hours, their lives were worthy of being talked about and we were our own universe. I write to rediscover those moments.
Through fiction, I explore why that woman might have hidden a pistol under her skirt, I watch the thief at work and imagine what made the adventurer leave his doorstep. I am intrigued by what drives any of us to overpower our fears of the unknown, of failure, ridicule or punishment long enough to change our destiny and what it means when our attempts to untie ourselves from society’s expectations are futile or only temporarily successful.”
In contrast, another application – for a residency I just completed earlier this year – asked me to describe my creative discipline in 100 words:
“I write stories like the ones I heard after family dinners when I was a child where for a few hours the adults were free from twelve hour work shifts, the rising cost of everything in New York City and worrying about us kids. For a moment, their lives were worthy of telling. Through fiction, I explore what drives any of us to overpower our fears of the unknown, of failure, ridicule or punishment long enough to change our destiny and what it means when our attempts to untie ourselves from society’s expectations are futile or only temporarily successful.”
Are these the most profound things you’ve ever read? No. (I hope.) It’s not meant to be. Is there room for tweaking? Always. But I feel you do get a sense of me as a person, why I believe storytelling is such a powerful force, what feeds me as a writer and what I’m aiming to look at closely through my stories. I take it as a sign that I’m being somewhat effective at communicating what I do, if I’m getting acceptances.
It gets easier once you do a couple of applications and get a feel for them. Residencies and grants all pretty much tend to ask for this and a few other basics even if they use different language to do it.
You can do this. You’ll look back and be relieved it’s done. You’ll get better at them and other parts of the writing life that aren’t really about working on a piece of art directly, but more about opportunities that’ll help you in that. You might even wonder what you were fretting about once it’s done, but I want to assure you the cough syrup goes down and as bad as it tastes, it won’t kill you.