“Do you consider yourself a writer?”
I’ve been teaching for almost two decades, and throughout this time, I’ve routinely asked this question on the first and last days of the semester (and often in-between). I’ve found my own strong YES to the question, asserting: “I don’t just study writing. I write. I am a writer.” And I hope that students, colleagues, friends, and family will similarly see themselves as writers, as people who write (who do the embodied act of writing). I believe there’s power in claiming this identity, as writers are positioned to speak up and speak out.
Writing and the relationships built around writing have the potential for countering injustice and bringing about more equitable relations. As I have explored in my dissertation and subsequent publications, writing has the potential to challenge and transform power relations. It has the potential to clarify and make actionable commitments to social and racial justice.
But what about art?
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of writing to art, and I’ve been asking myself a twist on the familiar question, contemplating: “Do you consider yourself an artist?”
This question has been lingering since I wrote “It’s Time to Go to Work—Time to Write from the Heart, Head, and Hands” for the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning (AEPL):
In this post, I respond to Toni Morrison’s call for action, call for art in tough political times: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”
And I think: artists … Artists go to work.
Early in my life, I was quick to call myself an artist. I loved painting, drawing, sculpting, storytelling, and dancing. One of my earliest memories (around the age of three) involved being in big, big trouble for decorating the apartment door with crayons. Throughout elementary and middle school, I loved visual art, photography, calligraphy, and clogging classes. I put myself in charge of constantly changing seasonal decorations. I created my first books—a novel and scrapbook—in fourth grade. My mom found the owner of local bait and tackle shop to teach me crocheting one summer. I designed my first science fair projects to focus on art: understanding the color wheel and visualizing rock sediments with layers of colored sand. I submitted photographs to 4-H youth competitions. And I learned to bake, to make bracelets, and to write poetry. My memories of youth are full of creation. (Growing up rural East Tennessee pre-internet days, creation came naturally.)
Yet, somewhere along the way, I began to struggle with this self-definition, as I internalized a sense that only some people could be artists, and those people were ones who produced “great works” recognized by others. Though I still flirted with art and briefly considered minoring in visual art, I let go of the self-identification of “artist.” I considered friends—those who really studied and perfected their crafts—to be artists. I learned to hold the identity of “artist” at arm’s length—likely for the same reasons that many of my students hold the identity of “writer” as something “out there,” something that others can claim only after recognized achievement.
Today I’m wondering if my reluctance to claim “artist” might be another form of playing small. Might this be another form of internalized inferiority, especially since my art was often feminized and I’d learned not to associate myself too closely with the feminine? If so, might claiming the identify of “artist” be another way to embrace feminine energy and feminist activism?
Recognizing the need for encouragement, I’ve started speaking to myself as I do when mentoring students, urging myself to claim the identity of artist. Since childhood, I have continued to create art—writing, storytelling, taking and editing photographs, designing cards, creating recipes, crocheting, and now blogging. I choose to believe the identity of “artist” is in the doing, just as I believe that one becomes a “writer” simply by writing.
As further encouragement and a great synchronicity (or “god wink”), I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and this week’s queued episode was titled: “Who Gets to Decide Whether You’re a Legitimate Artist?” As you might imagine, the episode made the sort of argument I’m making here: it’s important to focus on the doing—the verb—of creating, making, writing, artist-ing.
So, if I embrace this identity—artist—and want to answer Morrison’s call “to go to work,” I can ask some new questions:
- Where do I find inspiration, and how might I inspire others?
- What needs to be said now, even if it’s been said before?
- Whose voices need to be amplified, cited, credited, and made visible?
- What am I called to create, and how might I listen to and hear the call more clearly?
- How might creation help to imagine and enact visions of the “ought to be”?
I ask these questions on a day in which students and I have generated lists of the genres (types of writing) through which we “write for social justice.” We showed each other the work we’re engaged in and the possibilities that lie ahead. One student urged me to “blog about this class”; another suggested creative nonfiction; and still another encouraged me to keep working on my academic book project. This encouragement reminds me that students see me as a creator (a writer, researcher, and artist), even as I’m encouraging as them to step into and claim these roles—to become writers and artists for justice.
I also ask these questions on a day when a friend shares the article, “Finding Steady Ground: Strengthening Our Spirits to Resist and Thrive in These Times.” Of the seven behaviors outlined here for strengthening ourselves and taking strategic action, #5 pops out to me: “I will be aware of myself as one who creates.” How about this for an affirmation? For a reminder that art isn’t frivolous, but part of resilience and resistance?
As I create—as I write, teach, research, blog, and share my work with others—I must say, “I am an artist.” And as an artist, I encourage artistic activism. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you’ll claim the identities of writer, artist, and activist. I hope you’ll create and act in the world, countering passivity and taking up Morrison’s call.