Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Being Thankful for the Arts

WomenArts asked one of our favorite novelists, Susan Stinson, to write about why she persists in the arts in spite of the financial hardships. We loved her response below, and hope you do too.

Like Susan, we feel blessed to have the arts as a central focus in our lives and to have the opportunity to work with so many thoughtful and talented people. We are grateful for these precious gifts at Thanksgiving and all year round.    Happy Thanksgiving to everyone from the WomenArts Team!!!!

Art in Hard Times
by Susan Stinson

Twenty-five years ago, when I was in college, my father warned me that a livelihood as an artist would be hard to come by, especially for a woman. I spent the next couple of decades throwing everything I had into making the strongest art I could, working around practical constraints – like jobs—as necessary. Now, four published books and one wandering manuscript later, during a year in which individual, national and global economies are all shaky, I’m facing the unpleasantly specific realities of being close to fifty and far from financial stability. My father was right.

He was right, but so was I. I persist in keeping art central to my daily life, no matter how badly it pays, both because I have a strong sense of vocation and because having a regular practice of making and seeking out art generates relationships, skills and experiences that get me through hard times. Attending to the work – in whatever fractured, imperfect way I can – saves me. This has happened again and again. It is happening right now.

Today I’m working in a coffee shop with another novelist, who is wearing earphones and a serious look. I feel the pulse of her typing as it shakes the table. There’s a whirr from the juicer drowning out a song by Ella Fitzgerald. Yesterday, when I had just received a rejection from a publisher with my name misspelled (petty signs of inattention gain sting at such moments), I worked here with a different friend, who is a novelist, too. Before we sat down and started writing, she consoled me with an ice cream cone, extravagant with chocolate sprinkles.

Both friends read my work again and again. One of them and I have been critiquing each other’s writing since the eighties. These are friendships with staying power and active depths, built on the fact that we are writers. That’s not to say that there are never challenges. Sometimes I’ve been jealous when a writer I know achieves something that I’ve been thwarted in. Figuring out how to move through that is uncomfortable but intensely rewarding. The relationships I have with other writers and artists are not dependent on material success, but on shared commitments to doing the work. They make my life larger.

Even without the companionship of someone working on another story across the table, the practice of writing (and, I think, of doing art in any form) cultivates skills that are useful for negotiating tough circumstances. For instance, as a novelist, I have to be able to offer sensory details in order to evoke convincing worlds for my characters to inhabit. This forces me to pay attention to small moments of bodily experience. The novel I’ve been working on is set in the eighteenth century, so I’ve had to figure out which parts of my sensory knowledge might translate across time. If a flying bug hits my shoulder with a thud like a hollow acorn, it gives me an experience that might have been shared with someone who sat at this spot in a previous century.

The imperative I have as a novelist to accurately reproduce the minutiae of physical sensation has the effect of forcing me into intense observation of ordinary moments. The concentration calms and empties me, like dance or meditation. At the same time, I employ my worry, grief, and confusion in the inner lives of my characters. Capturing moments of awkwardness and clumsiness goes a long way towards depicting convincing human lives. Giving a book shape, movement and meaning in the form of a plot is an extended exercise in discovering what I think matters most, both to me and to the readers I want to pull and hold. If I am under strain, writing becomes difficult, but I know that finding my way back to it will let me use even my most harrowing experiences and vaguest fears as elements in creating a story that is compelling and meaningful to others.

In addition to nurturing useful habits of mind, being a writer surrounds me with opportunities to experience art made by others. My friends and I lend each other books, and then talk with heat and collaborative excitement about what we think of them. We get up at four-thirty in the morning to travel to another city to see a play by someone we know, offering each other paper fans, band aids and little boxes of animal crackers if exhaustion kicks in. We organize readings and conferences to create outlets for each other’s work. We comment on each other’s blogs and click each other’s links. We know we need each other.

Beyond that, exploring art made by others leads me to insights I could not have found on my own. I have unforgettable surges of change and witness with art by people I will never meet. I try to stay with work that scares me, to let it help me discover my own secrets. Art leads to more art, to cultivating a willingness to be startled, to be nervous and also open, to ride out discomfort in service of discovery. I turn to art to get through small changes, such as the involuntary realignment of ambitions for a book, and also big ones, such as aging, illness, and mourning.

Now, there’s a click as my friend puts down her earphones. She’s got a look of abstraction on her dear, familiar face, but she’s gazing at me. Still absorbed in the very different stories we are each telling, we don’t speak for a few moments. A counter worker wearing pointy glasses comes up the stairs with a bin full of carrots. I can see through the glass door to the lights coming on in the sign for the bank across the street. A woman on the sidewalk, shaved bald, looks alertly behind her. It’s time for my friend and I to leave the coffee shop and go different ways. I need to buy dental floss before I head home. It is an ordinary evening. I haven’t finished a novel or found the next publisher, but I feel changed by the process of working, prepared to move or wait, to do the things I need to do. This may not be a livelihood, but it’s a life. My friend is ready to talk, and so, packing up our computers, gathering the cups, shifting our common world in tiny increments of art closer to the one of our fiercest desires, we do.

About Susan Stinson

Susan Stinson's novels are Venus of Chalk (2004), Fat Girl Dances with Rocks(1994) and Martha Moody(1995). Spider In A Tree is her novel in progress. Belly Songs, a collection of poetry and lyric essays, was published in 1993.

Her work -- which has appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Seneca Review, Curve, Lambda Book Report and The Women's Review of Books -- has received the Benjamin Franklin Award in Fiction as well as a number of fellowships. She was born in Texas, raised in Colorado, and now lives in Northampton, MA.

For more information, please visit You can also read a WomenArts interview with Susan Stinson from 2005 at: