Cried But Did The Thing Anyway is a weekly(ish) series of blogs detailing my various experiences as a freelance writer, translator, and general runner-around. You can take a look at some of my personal favorites (so far), like Why I Suck At Teamwork, Dealing With Story Roadblocks, and On Perfection and Perfectionism, or, if you’ve got some time to kill, click here to read the entire series.
In the meantime, in this first post of 2015, I’d like to talk about vulnerability.
The other day, I read a post titled Things People Say When You’re A Blonde Engineer At MIT, written by Alice Zielinsky, who is, indeed, a blonde engineer at MIT. (Hint: things people say in such a situation are depressingly-predictably sexist.) But it was the follow-up to that post, written after substantial backlash to the original, that got me thinking. Specifically, one of its points.
Alice writes (bolding mine):
“[…] 5. Vulnerability is the most underestimated human experience. I know that the Internet is a turbulent place, that anonymity extends to unaccountable behavior, and that people will be hurtful sheerly to be hurtful. I would like to request that each person be permitted to share his/her/their experience and perspective without judgement and without degrading commentary; it’s a simple courtesy that can and should be afforded to all people. In short, life is about how you feel about yourself and about how you make others feel about themselves.When we share our thoughts, feelings, and experience with others, we render ourselves vulnerable. It is that very vulnerability that encourages others to share their thoughts, feelings, and experience with us, in response rendering themselves vulnerable. It is this honesty and openness that enables one to make impossibly beautiful connections with another human.”
This struck a deeper chord with me than I’d expected when I started reading the post. The truth is, I’m acutely aware of the power of vulnerability and honesty, but I’ve always tended to look at it predominantly from an artist’s point of view. Perhaps that is so because art (specifically, music) was the first medium in which I experienced the impact that honesty can make. I got to see and appreciate the courage it takes for an artist and a public person to speak openly about their faults, flaws and problems – especially when done with the purpose of encouraging others to do the same and face their demons.
Now, with this thought in mind, I decided to think about the artist/fan relationship in more depth. My conclusion? It’s a relationship that gets the more fascinating, the more you examine it.
On the surface, artist/fan is a simple vendor/consumer arrangement, where a product (art) is offered for the consumer (fan) to enjoy, usually in exchange for a donation. But even at this seemingly superficial level, the product in question always contains something that reflects on its creator. A little speck of the artist’s soul that is shared, like an irremovable digital signature, whether or not the artist wants to give it, whether or not the reader is interested in receiving. This is an exchange that happens by sheer virtue of creating, sharing and receiving art.
Many artists go beyond this basic-but-actually-quite-advanced communication level, and address fans directly. Maybe there’s an afterword in a book, or a note in the lyrics booklet, or a brief speech between the songs on stage. Maybe they share things during an interview – which, to my mind, also counts as near-direct communication, because the words are delivered from person (artist) to person (fan) virtually undistorted. (Let’s all pretend there’s no such thing as unscrupulous editing and out-of-context quoting.) Or heck, maybe speaking to people directly is actually part of their art form, as a performer and motivational speaker.
This is where things get really interesting. Because if an artist we like shares something about themselves that we can relate to, there’s high chance that our rapport with them goes from zero to
sixty eighty hundred miles an hour in a heartbeat. Suddenly, we feel like this person – someone we probably haven’t met beyond a five-second exchange of greetings/hugs/autographs (if that), someone we only know from what they chose to share with us, basically a virtual stranger – is our best friend. Or at least someone we are positive we’d be friends with if we got to hang out for an hour. It’s like love at first sight, but worse. Because the fabled “love at first sight” is frequently good old lust, whereas this lightspeed rapport is an actual emotional connection.
Scary, no? But practically unavoidable. Think about it. First, they provoked an emotional response in you, by means of their art. (In the words of one of Neil Gaiman’s readers, quoting their young daughter, “Mr . Gaiman is evil! HE MADE ME FEEL!”). Then, when you were already happy or sad or moved or otherwise emotionally primed, they barged in with their confessions that hey, you and I are actually so much alike, here’s a belief we share, here’s a similar experience we both had, and what about this idea, and have you heard of the time when I… etc.
BOOM. Empathy. That bitch of a feeling that forges one of the strongest emotional bonds between humans. Suddenly, you CARE. What’s worse, you get the feeling that they, the artist, care about you too – and whether they know you in person has nothing to do with it.
Chances are, you’re going to share this newfound feeling with someone, wishing to tell them all about this amazing artist who just seems to… get it, you know? Chances are, the ones you’re telling this to aren’t getting the same it, and will sweep in to save you from yourself. If you’re anywhere under 30, that is. (If you’re over 30, you know which people in your circle can be trusted to get the it.)
At best, they’ll say something like, ‘aww, that’s sweet’. At worst, they’ll suggest you’re crushing on an attractive celebrity. In the words of many a tumblr user…
Well, I’ve got two things to say to this.
First, I’m an artist, and even though my own career is still budding, I already know that my best work is usually work that I’m scared of. A chapter where I pause and think, ‘Can I really write this? Is this too much? Should I soften this?’ – and then end up writing it anyway, because writing anything else would be a lie. A song that makes me feel broken by the time I’m finished singing it. A blog that- oh, for goodness’ sake, it’s called Cried But Did The Thing Anyway, how much more honest do you want me to get? So, if someone’s art makes you experience emotions, it’s a sure bet that they weren’t cold and dispassionate when creating it. And if their art makes you feel like they care about you – that’s probably what they wanted you to feel.
Now, the second bit. I’m too old to be accused of being an impressionable teen. In fact, I’m just a few years away from being old enough to have teenage kids of my very own, and you know what I’ve got to say to all those well-wishers who want to explain to the poor delusional you how you can’t POSSIBLY have an emotional attachment to a person you haven’t personally interacted with at length?
You can too have real feelings for and a genuine emotional connection with an artist by knowing them through their art and through what they share with the world. They put a part of themselves into their art, they shared a part of themselves with you, they showed their emotions to you, and made you experience emotions of your own.
They made themselves vulnerable. For you. For hundreds, thousands, millions people like you. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s a fucking effort. It’s a fucking SACRIFICE, and don’t you let anyone, ANYONE cheapen it for you.