Lately, I’ve been applying for a lot of grants and artist residencies, and as a result, I’ve had to do a lot of writing about myself. Most of the time these exercises are actually pretty useful and even fun; the great advantage of working on a project that I deeply care about — in this case my novel and writing generally — is that it is often easy to talk passionately and at length about it. I also find that answering the questions in the applications gives me some insight into what it is I’m up to.
So recently I had to write an artist statement, and while it turned out to be pretty difficult, I’m happy with the way it turned out, and I learned a lot from the process. I’ve pasted it below:
I write to reawaken people to the beauty and tragedy of the world around us. The only cure for our social and personal ills is the actual world. Yet often we experience the world through media that has been manipulated for the benefit of other people. Language, by its own internal mechanics, is also to blame for diminishing our ability to connect with the world. With my writing, I try to break through these impediments and create experiences for my readers that enable them to experience the world with fresh eyes, so that they can connect with the boundless beauty and tragedy that gives our lives meaning and purpose.
I’m captivated by the awe-inspiring fact of our basic existence, the pure shock of awakening to a moment and seeing infinite interconnected rivers of energy flowing in and around and from and to us and to everything we perceive. This rich abundance can produce single moments of transcendent beauty for any of us at any moment of the day: the beauty of a New Hampshire mountain ridge, the gradient of red and green in a fall oak leaf, the vibrant spirits haunting Joseph Cornell’s boxes, a fluidly executed pick-and-roll, and so much more. The times when I truly perceive the world’s splendor are the times when I feel connected to myself, to other people, and to existence as a whole – in those moments, life has meaning, and I don’t feel alone.
Similarly, I’m drawn to the tragedies of the world, such as the September 11 attacks, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Haiyan typhoon, the rapid extinction of species over the last 20 years, the decline of our global environment, the genocides of the past, present, and future, and the gross global disparities of income and opportunity.
I am also pulled to personal and private tragedies – watching my grandmother descend into the frightening despair of Alzheimer’s disease, feeling a strong friendship dissolve, or even the minor tragedies of an unkind word or a thoughtless gesture. We’re never going to escape these tragedies, but we can choose to respond to them in creative, generous, and beautiful ways.
Inside and around all of these experiences, language insinuates itself to explain, to imagine, to connect, to relate, and to investigate these myriad phenomena. I’m enthralled by language, that we have a way to understand, reason, and communicate across the entire span of human existence – there is no human endeavor or experience which language has not been a part of. By working with words, I can be a part of any moment of history and arrive at any point on the globe.
But there is also poison inside language. By its own mechanics, language is often the means by which difference and individuality are suppressed. It is an abstract system that represents everything around us, but we do not live in an abstract world. Our world is rich with specificity and particulars; the specificity and particulars are, in fact, the elements that give beauty and tragedy their value. But words like “tree” or “flower” or “war” or “freedom” obscure the deep particular reality of each actual tree or flower or death or invasion. Living with language can contribute to the distance and disenchantment we feel with our own lives. We can begin to see ourselves as living in an abstracted world of flat and monotonous “trees,” “people,” “flowers,” “wars,” “loves,” and “pains,” separated from the power of each particular and unique moment.
We all yearn for some real and true experience of the world in the midst of what we often come to think of as our mundane lives. We long for a beauty and tragedy that is already around us, that is always all around us, but which we somehow overlook while we gaze lonely and lost out the window or look deep into our computer screens, wishing for adventure.
It is my responsibility to stay aware of beauty and tragedy in the world, to experience it, perceive it, and honor it as an infinitely valuable gift. Further, it is my responsibility to resist the widespread manipulation of words and image by commercial and political interests and to reclaim beauty and tragedy from those who hope to simply profit from them. I am called to defy these negative forces and offer readers a way to experience living that connects us in a compassionate way back to the world and people around.
And so, in my poetry and fiction writing, I try to subvert the received systems of language and communication that make conventional and common meaning; I want to reveal how bizarre and beautiful language is in and of itself. I want to help readers see the strangeness of language anew, while also offering them a chance to experience the exterior world with fresh eyes – a new way of seeing the word “tree” that allows them to re-experience, as if for the first time, the particular and unique experience of one solitary tree.
I write pieces that parody commercial and political language, that hold it up to ridicule and reveal it to be vapid and hollow. I use absurdity and comedy in my writing to model a way of resisting such manipulative language. Laughter can be the first step towards freedom.
Also in my writing I focus on the way that people’s interactions are shaped by their fears and desires – emotions that often have nothing to do with the situation at hand. Many of us feel emotionally disfigured and scarred, and we try to compensate for these wounds in wonderful and terrible ways; we use these wounds to justify both the beautiful and horrible things we do to each other. I explore the ways in which people both take advantage of each other’s wounds and soothe them, how our personal hurts can have global consequences. I’m drawn to the pervasive loneliness in the world, the deep need to love and to be loved as we are – how simple that need is and yet how complicated it becomes.
In my first poetry collection Key Bridge I set out to use language to create an alternative history and geography of Washington, DC. I wanted to present the city and its history with language that broke with conventional usage to reveal true but overlooked facets of the city and our experiences of identity.
With my long poem 24 Hour Breakfast, I took common expressions from the realms of slang, commercial culture, street signs, and the public sector and wrenched then slightly so that, while they might seem familiar, they became disarmingly strange.
In my novel-in-progress, The Accountant, I tell the story of the struggle that a deeply isolated and lonely man faces when he is suddenly given the opportunity to have extraordinary experiences and radically change his life. Living in a world that is similar but not the same as ours, the main character balances the extraordinary against his absurd job counting one million potatoes.
We need to see the world with new eyes; we need to perceive beauty and tragedy and deeply feel them. To experience the world this way – not in ignorance, not like a child, but with all of Eve’s hard-won knowledge of good and evil and in the presence of all the monsters freed from Pandora’s jar – to appreciate the beauty and tragedy and to be struck dumb, wordless, in the face of it all – to see each other as unique and beautiful creatures, to see the unlimited richness of the paradise that we are living in every day, to celebrate ourselves and each other, that is the goal of life, the goal of each moment, and that is what I pursue with my writing.