That’s What an Artist Is: A Toni Morrison Quote

what an artist is a Toni Morrison Quote

Do you agree with this Toni Morrison quote? Is that what an artist is? What does she even mean by “a politician”?

What Does This Toni Morrison Quote Mean by “a Politician”?

Here are a couple of ways I think this could be interpreted (out of context like it is here, of course, because I honestly think that’s how most people are likely to read it). Brace yourself – some of these are a bit, shall we say, out there.

  1. To be a real artist, you have to be a lying, low-down, greedy excuse for a public official. (I warned you…)
  2. All artists artists are actively involved in promoting political parties and social causes.
  3. All artists have beliefs that they present and encourage through their works.

Ok. You’ve read them (Sorry). Now, let’s break them down. (Why? Oh, there’s a point. You can skip to the end if you’re that impatient.)

 1. The Connotative Interpretation

Is it just me, or is a string of insults the first thing that comes to mind when you see the word, “politician”? A liar. A thief. A selfish person who doesn’t do his/her job. Or uses it to benefit wealthy interest groups instead of the people as a whole. Those are pretty nasty, and I haven’t even used foul language yet (besides the word, “politician,” that is).

Whether those ideas are true or not, they’re what many people think of – politicians have such a bad rap that the word itself is imbued with extremely negative connotations (In the U.S., anyway). Which means that if you read the quote with that reaction to the word, she’s actually insulting artists.

By that definition, no way am I agreeing with that quote. Call all artists greedy liars who make unethical choices for their own gain? No way. Not gonna happen.

But I don’t think that’s what Tony Morrison meant, so I looked up “politician” in the dictionary. Which leads me to my second interpretation.

 2. The Literal Interpretation

To save you a little leg work, here’s a paraphrase of the definition for you:

politician: n. a person involved in the activities associated with governance of a country or area, especially in relation to the conflict between parties and individuals vying for power

Not really sure that’s much better. I don’t think artists are active in politics. Or vying for power. Maybe some of them are, but all of them? That seems unrealistic.

Granted, it’s nicer than the first interpretation, but it doesn’t feel right.

 3. The Inferred Interpretation

By this point, assuming that you’re still reading, you’re probably rolling your eyes and wondering why I even looked up “politicians” since what she meant is obvious – that every artist  has specific beliefs related to social issues, rights, and laws. More importantly, she means that every artist supports those causes through his/her work.

I struggle with that a bit. No, I don’t disagree with the first part. Everyone has specific beliefs, so, of course, artists do, too. But do we all support and promote those causes through our work?

If she meant deliberately, then, no. Not every book was written to make a political statement. Or to promote a cause. Or even to reinforce a point of view. Sometimes, we write solely to entertain, without trying for any deeper meaning or reaction. And the same is true for song-writers, painters, and every other artist.

On the other hand, I would agree if the interpretation changed slightly. If she said that the art was always political or that the art was a politician.

That every artistic work makes a statement.

Personally, I try very hard to avoid writing about current politics and social causes – mainly because I don’t like conflict; however, my beliefs do flavor my writing. And that’s true of every writer or artist.

Our work is so intertwined with what we feel that it is difficult to do something that contradicts our personal beliefs. It’s definitely possible, but when looking at a body of works, that contradiction is more likely to be the anomaly than the norm. Because it’s so hard to think in a way that is contrary to our own beliefs, to fully embrace that point of view. To write about something we disapprove of as if it is acceptable or positive.

So, yes, artistic works do promote specific world views and moral compasses. Sometimes, it’s even deliberate. Some artists are trying to change the world through their art. But not all. I don’t even know if all of us should, whatever Toni Morrison says. But all of us do send little pieces of ourselves out into the world where they could influence others.

Which leads me back to the first two definitions. If you combine them, they say that we are liars who are active in the government or social balance of power. So if you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and books can change the world, then maybe there’s more truth to them than we like to think.

Are you a politician? What kind?


SEO & Word Repetition: Does Using Keywords Have To Ruin My Writing?

If you’re trying to turn your blog into a business (or blogging for a business), then you’ve probably done some research on SEO (and run into some headaches in the process).  Something you’ll see over and over again in that research is keyword optimization and how you should be sure to use your targeted keyword(s) over and over again in your article (*cough* word repetition *cough*). Some sites and companies will recommend putting your keyword in your title, first paragraph, subheader, each paragraph after that, tags, photos, and more.

In other words, they’ll tell you to make sure your keyword is repeated every 4th sentence at the very least.

From a writing-style perspective, this recommendation can easily result in clunky articles with little value beyond their SEO appeal. It goes against just about everything we’re taught about how to make writing interesting. So when a writer’s told that much repetition is necessary to get readers, it can easily cause an internal conflict: I want more people to click on my site, but, OMG, this article needs synonyms!

It’s like a pitched battle in your psyche. The hardened pragmatist says to forget about style. Style doesn’t put food on the table (or clicks on the website). Stick that keyword in every other sentence – put it multiple times in the same sentence! Whatever it takes. To which, the inner artist picks up a pencil in the shape of a sword and attacks, crying, “I would rather get no clicks than sacrifice the quality of my work!”

Sadly, I’m not sure that’s much of an exaggeration. And both sides are right (and wrong). Writing well doesn’t do you much good if no one makes it to the site to read your stuff. On the other hand, no one wants to read a keyword written 500+ times.

Like regular publishing, these two sides may have to compromise.

Now, I’m no SEO expert, but personally, I advocate writing as well as you can while following the rules of keyword optimization – up to a point. The point where the quality of the writing is threatened. After all, getting people to the site isn’t the only goal. We also want to keep them on the site (and coming back for more).

If it helps, there’s another reason not to get so caught up in stuffing your article with keywords. Actually, there are two: 1. search engines can count that as spam and 2. the quality of your articles affects your SEO (at least, according to Google’s SEO Optimization Starter GuideMoz’s Begginers Guide to SEO, and BruceClay).

I don’t know about you, but that right there is enough to make my hardened pragmatist reconsider. What about yours?


The Stuff An Author’s Dreams & Nightmares Are Made Of

The greatest power and the greatest terror of being an artist is the amount of ourselves that we put into our art. As good as our imaginations are, they are powered by our dreams and our nightmares: experiences, hopes, wishes, fears, and more. Our lives. Our souls. We expose little bits of ourselves with each piece we create.

Yet at the same time, those fragments of truth are intricately mixed and woven through utter fabrications. For a reader to catch those revelations, they must sort and sift through every facet of the work. As readers, there’s a sneaky, superior thrill to that, a feeling that we are too smart to trick. The sort of feeling where you grin and chant, “I’m finding your secrets!” in a sing-song way. We want to think that we know it all.

But we don’t want to know that we know it all.

When a work of fiction is so close to reality that its personal nature is blatantly obvious, it becomes uncomfortable for the reader. We want the author to make the lies feel so real that it blurs the line between fiction and reality. When an author does that well, you have a great book.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop readers from thinking that they know it all.

To be perfectly frank, I’m not entirely sure which is more frightening as a writer: readers finding those secrets or readers being absolutely certain that some of the lies are truth. On the one hand, they’d have a microscope aimed directly at part of your soul. On the other hand, they would think they did, but what they saw would be a big fat lie (along with their impressions of you). Both ideas sound extremely uncomfortable to me, and I’m afraid that they seem equally likely to pop up in any artist’s future.

What do you think? Would it be worse for them to find one of your secrets? Or for them to believe that they did and continue to believe it no matter what you might say?


Blind Love & Letting Go

I’m sure that all of us have had an idea or a scene or a character that we come up with that simply makes us fall in love. We think it’s the best thing since sliced pizza, and we can’t imagine anyone disagreeing. And when we’re right, it’s magic.

Unfortunately, sometimes we’re wrong.

Oddly enough, a lot of the time, it’s the big idea that started the whole book (or other project) that stops working as the book goes on. Maybe, the goal was to make an allegory or use a particular style of symbolism. Then, as we write, we get more great ideas for the characters and the plot, and they take on a life of their own.

But they don’t work with the original idea anymore.

Singer and songwriter, Anne E. DeChant, talks about a song that started with a phrase she heard. If I remember correctly, she worked on it off and on for several years but simply couldn’t get the song to jell. When she finally got the song finished with the help of a friend, she had a very good song.

And the original phrase was nowhere in it.

Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to finally accept that the phrase wasn’t going to work in the song? That was the whole point, right? But they obviously made it to a stage where the song was stronger without the phrase than with the phrase.

I’ve had similar issues with projects before, and I honestly think that one of the hardest parts of being an artist (of any kind) is to accept that something isn’t working and let it go*. Sometimes, you simply have to because if you don’t, you’ll ruin the whole project. And that’s a tragedy.

It’s heartbreaking to see a person on the verge of having a great story who can’t sell it because he/she won’t make the changes needed to fix the problems in the way.

That’s when blind love for an idea becomes dangerous. And it’s mainly the blind part that’s the problem. A certain amount of love and confidence in a project is good – let’s face it, it’s necessary, or we’d never dare show our writing to anyone. But we cannot afford to be blindly in love with our work. We have to be able to step back from it and look at it as a whole.

And sometimes, we have to be able to let go.

*My apologies to everyone who now has Frozen stuck in his/her head.