Making Art in a Post-Bowie World
As I’m writing this, it’s only been a few days since David Bowie passed away. I was online when the news first broke. I was chatting with some friends on Twitter – then, well. I didn’t really sleep that night. Instead I was up with everybody else: talking about Bowie’s life, sharing songs and grief.
But this isn’t a post about David Bowie. Not in the strictest sense, anyway. Better writers than me have already shared their fitting summations of his (admittedly complicated) legacy, and provided us with their touching farewells. I could tell you about the hours I spent as a teenager, in rooms in Florida and Texas, listening to his albums. I could tell you about the hours I spent in my 20s, doing much of the same thing. I could tell you about how much his work impacted me, both as a writer and a person, but I won’t do that, either.
Instead, I want to tell you about what it means to me today, sitting in my little room, with my little dog, to make conscious choices about art.
In the last year or so, I’ve been trying to make cognizant efforts to be more open about my life with others online. This blog has taken the shape of a confessional space, in a lot of ways. I try to talk about my writing, of course, but I also try to talk about myself. My family and my relationships, my mental illness and my therapy. My attempts – stumbling though they may sometimes be, like groping for purchase in the dark – to feel like a more complete person. To feel less like a patchwork of scars and broken pieces, and to take the shape of something whole.
I’ve taken up this kind of confessional blogging because it frees me, but also because it seems to – at least on some small level – help other people who read it. I’m by no means a public figure, but I’ve amassed something of a steady online presence through online writing. My platform is meager, at best, but I’m willing to use it to do some good if I can. I may not be famous, but I’m honest. If that honesty helps even one person on the other side of a screen feel a little less alone, then I consider that a check for the win column.
This brings me back to making art. As a writer, I’ve struggled with finding my niche. My voice. There is, as there always has been, a major tension between making art for the masses and making art for oneself. Even if we believe we’re creating art solely for our own benefit, we all want our work to be seen and engaged with by others. We all crave validation of some kind, even in small measures. This contention between what I want to do for myself and what others take away from me is further complicated by my critical writing. For a number of years, I was primarily known for writing about comics rather than prose fiction, as my creative writing took a back seat to what I felt was expected of me. What I felt I was valued for, as I began to feel apologetic for my original work.
After all, if people simply wanted to hear what I had to say in reflection on the work of others, by my estimation, surely what I had to say with my own work wasn’t particularly useful to anyone. The things I felt – about the media, about art, about subjectivity – could be better expressed through criticism. They could be more neatly packaged that way; a little less personal, a little more public. Even though I never really felt comfortable, or even effective, doing that kind of writing, it felt like a shield to hide behind. A way to write, and to express ideas, without having to be responsible for my own fiction and the potential for failure.
We would all like to be paid for the work that we do, as well, of course, regardless of its form and content. The economic circumstances of those who make art are often dour at best, and dire at worst. But with the idea of the niche comes the expectation to appeal to certain cultural, aesthetic, or sentimental values in order to be economically successful. And like many others who make art, my own economic circumstances hover between dour and dire on a regular basis. In the last year, I shifted away from criticism and back to creative writing. From creative writing, I’ve shifted toward publishing, and all of the uncomfortable realities that come with it. This forces you to become more business-minded, and I’m not particularly cut out for business.
As it stands today, I’ve made peace with the all-but-certain reality that I will never make a meaningful, livable wage off my writing. I just won’t. I’ll always need a day-job. I’ll always have to struggle to find time to write – stealing hours in the day around school, work, and other responsibilities. And that’s become freeing. Just as leaving criticism, for the time being, has been freeing. Without the expectation of fitting into a neat, tidy, and marketable mold – without the expectation of anyone actually buying my work and giving a shit – I’ve felt more free to write what I choose to write.
I feel more free to feel emotional and strange. I feel more free to try to make something meaningful, even if it’s only meaningful to a small group of people. I would like to make meaning for myself, out of myself, in the hope that it will someday reach somebody who needs to see it. I would like to try, even if I fail commercially – because I don’t expect to succeed commercially, anyway. So what difference does it make?
What I want to write, at least for the foreseeable future, is superhero fiction, in the form of The Crashers. You could say I’m buying in. After all, I’ve chosen to work within the genre at a time when superheroes are the biggest mainstream cultural touchstone since Star Wars. You wouldn’t be wrong for that criticism, I think. I’m not reinventing the wheel here or anything, and certainly superhero deconstruction is well-traveled territory.
However nakedly commercial my chosen genre is, I want to make things that make me feel the way I felt when I first heard Space Oddity, or Young Americans, or Lady Stardust. This is why this post is only tangentially about David Bowie. These are songs that have always made me feel less alone – sitting in rooms in Florida and Texas, feeling out of step with everything else. Taking some sense of solace in his work, and giving myself the space to feel that it was okay to be strange. To feel queer, and sad, and lonely, and connected to something outside of myself.
I realize now that I would like to write things that make me feel less alone, too. If I’m successful, other people might feel less alone with me. Perhaps we could all be less alone together, sharing something, even if it’s small. It’s a nice thought to have, anyway – a decent goal to strive for. Because that’s what art is about. That’s what music and fiction are about.
If anything, in these early days after the death of David Bowie, while we’re still figuring out how to make art in a post-Bowie world, that’s what I would like to remember most of all.