An Artistic Practice
“How do you establish and sustain an artistic practice when the circumstances of your life seem to oppose it? Or, put more plainly, how do you make art when you come from an artless place?” This is the opening to Tanis MacDonald’s book, Out of Line: Daring to be an Artist Outside the Big City. I wish I had this book when I’d started out in my so-called writing career and I think it would be a real gift to anyone at that stage. But it’s also worthwhile for those further along, to know that they have company, from wherever it is they have left, whatever sized city, to find themselves part of the literary community.
I think that the circumstances of most writers’ lives are always difficult to mesh with the creative life. But MacDonald really gets at this particular question of how to make art from the “boonies.” I grew up in a smaller centre, an artless place, close to what was then a pretty small city, so much of what she says hits home. But of course, as she says these days, “There can be no question that technology has changed things...” She writes about meeting with students and talking about the “problems of small-place art creation.” She says, “the moment the students and I started discussing how to begin, the relative distance between our small place and the Big City ballooned, and the instantaneity of the Internet became largely irrelevant. My students saw right through the veil of accessibility provided by the Internet...”
Certainly, the internet is no substitute for real community, for people who are genuinely interested in your practice, in you. Finding your people, when you do, is heartening, and sustaining.
I have sometimes thought that my writing would be different if I’d moved to a large centre sooner. Or if I’d moved away from Edmonton. But there are always a lot of what ifs in making art. If we’d moved to a larger centre, we’d not have been able to afford to buy a house when we did, which is large enough for a painting studio in the basement. It might sound unromantic, but a lot of my choices have had to do with economics, that type of sustainability.
I sometimes find my thoughts wandering the following paths: My writing would have been better if I’d worried less about money, or if I’d had more money, if I’d travelled more, or lived somewhere with cred. My writing would have been better if there had been more silence, and a few more voices urging me on. If I’d had a bigger ego and more time to read, and if only I’d had just a bit more courage. If I’d gotten a few more grants or won a prestigious and lucrative award. If I’d troubled myself to meet more people and go to more galas. If things had been different I would have written more like Mary Oliver and my poems would have gone viral. If things had been different I would have written more like Clarice Lispector but for that I would have had to disappear completely which I wouldn't have minded. But who can afford to do that? I’ve worried about everything, which was a foolish thing to do.
But here, anyway, I am. (In my backyard garden, with tea in a yellow mug). And I wouldn’t really change much. Partly because it does feel mostly like I’m just starting out, I’m just beginning.