the artist as a lifestyle aesthetic: on trying on artist for size {long read}

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Diptyque candle holding a lone peonie {check}, aviators {check}, an Etsy mug filled with coffee + an expensive lens that’s able to capture the rising steam {check}, the gleaming MacBook Air and accompanying iPhone with a glittery case {check}, glasses perched on a head {check} and a lady preened to dishabille perfection {checkmate} — do these images seem familiar to you? Perhaps because you’ve seen it, or a variation of it, on countless blogs, Instagram feeds and on photoshoots profiling small business owners and artists. This look was a magazine photograph we once pored over, a page we ripped from from its binding and posted on our vision-cum-Pinterest boards. We wanted our room of one’s own (as instructed by Virginia Woolf), and we thought if our room was beautiful, the words and magic would invariably come.

We’ve seen this whitewashing of an artist’s life proliferating the online space, so much so that it feels practiced, carefully composed, and overtly stylized — yet devoid of any actual, substantive meaning. I’ve endured countless blog posts featuring bloggers turned authors who dress up, apply lipstick to puckered lips, and don Warby Parker glasses, as if intellectualism was an outfit that they wanted to try on for size. Perhaps they think, this is how an artist at work should look to my readers, and this puts me to thinking of an excellent piece I just read, which speaks of the dual masks we wear — our practiced online personas versus the real lives we lead. Rarely are these masks reconciled, rarely do we see the innards of one’s life, only the representation of parts of it. Never do we bear witness to the whole until we meet this person “in real life” {ever think about that term, “in real life”? As opposed to what? Our “fake ones”?} and then, after a time, we think, Wow, this is you. We curate this enviable life, down to the suns settling into the dark water and our tawny, lithe legs crossed at the ankles during a day at the beach.

Perhaps part of us regresses, thinks, I’m projecting a version of me that’s slightly better than you.

I remember a blogger I used to revere a decade ago. She was blonde, European, artistically inclined and seemed to live this magical life, jettisoning to castles turned hotels and living a life out of an Anthropologie catalog. My god, did I want this life. I wanted out of my sterile cubicle with its foam grey walls and a computer that required constant coddling from an IT specialist. I wanted my organic teas and ginger-encrusted chocolates, and I sought out her friendship because, frankly, I idealized her life and I was a wannabe. We became fast friends, but our friendship soon became a mirror that shattered into pieces, with each broken shard revealing a more nefarious aspect of her personality. She lived, breathed, and believed her own fiction, and I stepped away from that friendship realizing that what I was missing was the beauty in my own life, which I had so assiduously attempted to fill with hers.

We want, we covet, we desire, we need — this is our nature as humans, but sometimes the desire for another’s life becomes a burden that is too overwhelming to bear, and it ultimately threatens the one thing that is real: our life, as we live it.

Last night, my dear friend, Summer and I had a slumber party, and we both woke at 5:30 this morning and spoke for hours about art, words, and the lack of authenticity in the online space. I revealed the reasoning behind changing the title of my novel to Follow Me into the Dark because it’s the most powerful kind of love I could imagine, yet hardly know. A love that puts your heart on pause, and when the object of your affection is threatened, you don’t hesitate, flinch or think about sacrificing the one thing that is truly yours: your life. This is what I imagine most mothers feel for their children. You will follow your beloved into the dark, and attempt to sacrifice yourself as a means of rescue. This is real love, and I hope to one day be privileged to know it.

I offer up this fragment of our conversation because it elucidates something larger — most people are terrified of the dark. So much so that they tether themselves to anything that resembles light, figuratively and literally. Sadness, loss, ugliness, fear — these are countries most don’t want, or know how, to navigate. They’re myopic in terms of the media they consume, and talk about how desperately they need their reality television shows and fluffy books because they need to escape. But I think about this, and if they close their eyes to the dark so wholly, so completely, what is it then that they’re escaping from? Last year I suffered a tremendous loss, my Sophie, and I was SO MOTHERFUCKING ENRAGED by people’s responses to her passing {and the platitudes they’d throw out like wrapped sweets} that it drove me to write about it. Because that was a time when the two masks were reconciled.

My cat died, I relapsed, and things got really fucked up. And many people in my life {online and off} couldn’t handle it.

This is a circuitous way of saying that this practiced life, this projection of light and beauty, can be dangerous. If the online space is a means for us to connect with others, why is it that we create this severe delineation of self? Naturally, there are lines I don’t cross — I don’t speak of my love life, or the lives of my friends and family without their expressed permission — but as an artist I find it impossible to not communicate the light and the dark because we need both to live a real life. As a writer, I NEED both to create. There’s no other way.

Above is a picture of my writing space. It’s cleaner than usual because I had a guest over, but know that it’s normally an atrocity composed of paper, books, magazines and random plates of half-eaten cake. My writing space is messy, unattractive, and you might notice my uncapped bottle of allergy meds, but I don’t think about styling my space to create — I just think about the act of creating in and of itself. Of course there are things I need — a comfortable seat {my sofa}, liquid {so I don’t pass out after hours confined to a single seated position}, and a remote {for those moments when I need to see The Twilight Zone because I can’t write ANOTHER GODDAMN LINE} — but I’m not attractive when I write, and when I’m in the thick of a story the outside world recedes. There is no other world other than the one I’m creating, and that’s the magic. Not the composition of what is perceived to be magic.

Someone once told me that my blog will never be “big” because I wasn’t mass market. I don’t appeal to a wide audience of people because I don’t constantly present pretty and my writing is sticky, messy, dark and strange. At first, I wanted to punch her in the face, but then I realized that she paid me the greatest compliment. I don’t want to be like everyone else. I don’t want the staged photos snapped with a Canon 5D Mark II camera.

I just want my work.

19 thoughts on “the artist as a lifestyle aesthetic: on trying on artist for size {long read}

  1. Wonderful post, and so true. I often feel inferior to the task of blogging because I see all of these sites that are so carefully styled and curated – and then I look around at the pile of papers to grade, the haphazard PDFs of articles, my husband’s electronics equipment, and realize that’s just not going to be me. Then I stop and realize that my favorite blogs are the ones full of writing and information, written by people who live fascinating and rich lives outside of their online presentation, and I realize – that’s a better goal.

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    1. Michelle – I always believed that if one had something to say they should choose from a plethora of vehicles or channels in order to share that message with others. I remember in the old days of blogging, folks didn’t care about how pretty their blogs were (because the technology was so limited), they just cared about connecting with others. I often thought of it as the “friendship book” equivalent for the online set. Never feel inferior!

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  2. Absolutely! Life is full of the light and the dark. I have to admit that I’ve been finding it increasingly hard to talk to people because I want to discus BIG issues. That’s where I’m at in my life- I’m dissecting everything, why I am the way I am, what am I going to do with the years to come, trying to be a sponge and soak up knowledge. I feel like people don’t like to discuss the big and want to showcase the pretty, the aspirational life they have (even if they don’t have it) and my blog, while I like pretty things, will never have a perfectly styled coffee table or a picture of peonies, glitter phone case, and green smoothie.
    Also, I love the photos that show the snippets real life, just like your workspace above. That’s what I find the best on instagram, though it’s rarely shown and even less rarely liked.

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    1. I agree! This is what makes the online space so special. While I have friends {online and off} with whom I can’t talk about these larger things, I seek out those who will. I feel as if by my writing about the things that matter to me it’s attracted a certain kind of reader who will make the investment, be inspired, or often some sage words of wisdom on their own.

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  3. You know, I roll my eyes at what the whole “mom blog” community has become, but, in its early days, years ago, I read because it shed light on the dark parts of parenting. The dark was shared, and acknowledged, and it comforted. But that community has become much like what you describe above – and I’m not sure why. There was once courage there – but it was overshadowed.

    FWIW, there is power in the small blog. It’s not so small in the scheme of things if people find meaning. So you just small away, my friend. xo

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  4. I subscribe to a number of blogs on a variety of subjects. I don’t always have time to read them all and end up deleting a bunch of posts just to catch up. I save all of your posts and read them in bingelike doses of time. The reason that I enjoy reading your blog is because you write compelling, real posts that hit the reader in the gut — and conversely, you don’t pull any punches. Reading about your relationship with your father especially resounded with me. Don’t underestimate those of us that follow you. You provide an interesting and compelling corner of the world when I may not want to think about my problems or issues. Thank you for your efforts. It is appreciated.

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    1. Connie -When I read this comment yesterday, in the middle of the street, I beamed. Thank you, thank you. I’ve always used writing as a means to work out what’s going on in my head, to sort through my life, and it feels good to know that folks care and read.

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      1. Glad that it helped to make your day a little brighter. :) Your writing reminds me of Domencia Ruta’s writing—her biography last year was With or Without You. I could see you writing from a similar place. Take care.

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  5. this is a beautiful post. I’m with you. there is some sort of authenticity missing from all our lives, online or off. and periodically I get really frustrated with it either. but I don’t know what to do about it. so I just struggle on. it’s a learning curve. a steep one. the kinds of lives we are living didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago. we have no one to look to for guidance. we just figure it out as we go. and that kind of living always brings out extremes in people. I do believe [hope?] that everything will balance out eventually, and that we will go back to less but more meaningful connections and to a less beautified but more real life.

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    1. Petra – I was actually telling my friend Summer about you — I honestly feel you are kindred spirits. She said to me that all I need to create is a pen, paper and life, and that the world will always be this way. There will always be people who try on artist for size, people who copy what we do and appropriate it as their own, but it’s important for us to keep creating, keep carving out our space, and be surgical about who we read and whom we connect with. Warmly, f.

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  6. well said. you write about life with a realness that few people manage to capture. life is not pretty all.the.time. it’s messy, hard and full of frustrating experiences. I’m glad you highlight the inconsistencies of the online world vs. the real world. it’s refreshing.

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