Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Lesson from Meinrad

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story that Meinrad Craighead tells in the documentary Meinrad Craighead: Praying With Images:
"I couldn't decide what I wanted to be. A Trappist monk, so to speak, or Dorothy Day. So I wrote her a letter. “Dear Dorothy Day, I am a young artist,” I mean this kind of letter, “I want to dedicate myself and my work as an artist to the church and the work in the world and so on.” She wrote me a letter and said--and this was so fantastic--she said "My dear, the first thing you should do is think only in terms of doing your college education, and feed the hungry by being an artist.” And that was a massive impact on me because then it wasn't about me making pictures, it was about me making pictures that somehow were supposed to feed people!"
Feed the hungry by being an artist. That is what Dorothy Day told her?! I have felt the tension Meinrad alludes to here -- I have asked these kinds of questions about what I am to do, what I am to be. For me, vocation is a complicated notion. If pressed, I would describe myself as bi-vocational, but my work life actually implies something of a tri- or even quadrivocation (which is most certainly not a word, and shouldn’t be, because four vocations is too many).

This time last year I was, predictably, exhausted. The end of the semester does that when you’re an academic. I wrote this piece about longing for the freedom to create, and about the financial instability of the writing life. I have tried, in the year since, to make some changes to my work life to find a better balance (despite my continued reluctance to make “balance” a central value). I have continued to learn the fine art of saying “No” so that I might say “Yes” at the right times. I have become more of a hermit, because as Zadie Smith says, you must protect and the time and space in which you write, even from the people you love most. In that vein I am also learning to be more intentional about relationships, and the ways I want and need to engage with the communities in which I live my life.

I am trying to figure out how to survive as a writer, because I think, like Meinrad, this is one way in which I can feed people.

The crowd funding campaign I have going on right now has been a strange experience. I was hesitant to even do it for a couple reasons: First, I have not been socialized to ask, and you can’t do a crowd funding campaign without asking repeatedly. Second, the lefty part of me is frustrated that this has become the culturally acceptable way of funding everything from creative projects to medical bills to college education. I actually think that, rather, we should put policies in place that make college affordable. Also, that everyone should have access to affordable healthcare to begin with. And finally, that just as we pay for other goods and services, we ought to be willing to pay a little bit for art, music, writing.

That is not the world we live in though, so I have psyched myself up, and asked. Meinrad in the back of my head has helped me to do this, but I will not stand here and deny the feeling of shame attached to asking. I will not hide the part of me that still wishes deep down to be an island unto myself that needs no external support. I also know that impulse relies on a false sense of reality, and values I reject.

And yet there is also this: each email that comes in informing me of someone’s contribution awes and humbles me. My work as a writer has always been supported by my community in intangible ways. Without my family, friends, church, yoga group -- all the people who know and love me and keep saying to me, especially when I get discouraged, “Keep going, we need your words” -- I don’t really know where I would be with all of this. I feel, in the most simple terms, empowered -- I am empowered by your trust and commitment to keeping me fed and clothed while I go about my work. I am empowered by your participation in the messy economy of the arts. I am empowered by the simple fact that you read the words and sentences I string together.

I have been most struck by the fact that nearly every contribution has come from someone I consider a friend -- or, in a couple of cases, someone I hope I will be able to know as a friend in the future. It feels weird to receive money from friends, but it is a blessed weirdness. I have said before in various places that though I write for myself, alone at my desk -- though I crave solitude, though I love being lost in a sea of words on the page -- I also write for, and in some sense with, others. I am more aware of that now than I have ever been, and I am grateful.

[In case you were wondering, no, I have not reached my goal yet. If you want to contribute, you can do so here.]