THE HARDEST QUESTION

(N.B. I’ve been blogging about the business and spiritual side of art since 2003. Unfortunately, when I switched my website to another host, all the links to those articles (almost 500) were “lost”, invisible to internet search.

It’s been a slow, painstaking journey to reset those urls. And so today, I’m republishing on of the most important ones I’ve ever written: THE HARDEST QUESTION

I promise to find and republish that process, because it MUST be done with love, support, and respect.)

This post was originally published on July 31, 2006.

A reader’s comments on yesterday’s blog, on the process of getting to the “why” of our work, got me thinking.

Here’s a tip I’ve learned from doing active listening exercises I don’t think I’ve shared in my blog.

When a question makes you angry, go there.

I don’t mean the offensive or hurtful questions that come from people who are out to get you. I mean the questions someone asks you out of innocence, out of interest, out of caring or out of any positive place.

If those questions make you uneasy, or irritable, or downright angry, take a step back–and ask yourself, “Why?”

Because that anger, or anxiousness, means we’re getting close to something important.

Let me backtrack and explain.

I occasionally do active listening exercises with people I think would really appreciate and USE the experience. I learned the technique from one of my mentors, fiber artist and workshop leader Deborah Kruger. You can see Deborah’s work here, though as of today, it’s in the process of being revised: http://www.deborahkruger.com/

Deborah trains artists how to find and create support groups for each other. The formal structure of the support is offered through four questions that each person gets asked, one by one:

What is the greatest vision for your art?

What is your next step?

Where does it get hard?

What support do you need?

They seem like simple little questions. But I watch people struggle mightily with them. Sometimes one of the questions brings them to tears. Other times, one will make them angry.

I’ve learned, as a listener, to follow the tears AND the anger. Because sadness and anger are often what we use to protect our core. And often, the very answers we need are at our core.

Now you see why I only offer to do this with people I care about! It’s hard for me to deal with other people’s anger or defensiveness. I have to feel the process is going to be worth the crummy part.

I’m going to do a bait-and-switch today. I realize each of these four questions is an entire column’s thoughts. So I’m going back to the question I talked about yesterday:

Why?

Why do you make this work?

Why do you do it the way you do?

Why do you use THESE tools, THIS technique?

Why is it important to you???

When I am really interested or really care about someone or their work, I want to know the “why” of it. And if I don’t get that answer, if I’m determined enough, or care enough, I will keep asking it til I do.

And often people get angry. But if they are people who “get it”, I find they’re usually amazed and grateful later.

Because “WHY?” gets at the heart, the core, of everything we’re about as artists.

That can be a scary, uncharted place to go. Especially if we’ve never dared go there before.

But go there we must, if we are to create the strong emotional connection between our artwork and our audience. Articulating OUR connection facilitates our AUDIENCE’s connection.

Look, a jillion people on this planet have the technical skill and wherewithal to do whatever we artists and craftspeople do. The massive manufacturing industry in China churning out cheap replicas of our work proves that. There’s a thriving market for this stuff, too, and almost all of us are guilty of supporting it. We all love a bargain, especially for something that’s “good enough”.

But when your work speaks deeply to someone, when it is so beautiful or profound or meaningful or wonderful they just HAVE TO HAVE IT, that’s when price is almost no object. (Hint: It often helps to offer layaway!)

If you don’t have the foundation for that connection—if you don’t really know yourself WHY it has the effect it does—then you may be missing opportunities to create that connection.

I know many people might disagree with this. We can love a song without knowing anything about its creator, we can enjoy a meal without knowing how it was prepared, we can buy artwork without understanding anything about the artist.

But when you learn that Beethoven created some of his most powerful work even when he could not hear it, you may pay attention a little more to his music.

When you learn that Renoir’s final paintings were made with brushes strapped to his hands, because he was so crippled with arthritis he could no hold a brush, the soft blurry edges of his later nudes take on new poignancy.

When an artist tells you the story that generates their “ethereal, abstract” work, and that story is about the loneliness of a child who finds solace and control in during airplane flights–where all the confusion fades away and only serene landscapes and cloudscapes are left–the work now speaks to you in thundering whispers.

Because the “why” informs us more than the “how” ever will. An intellectual exercise is just that–from the head. An emotional leap into the abyss is from the heart.

The “why” is not an easy place to get to. And yes, it will morph and change as we let go of one “why” and pick up another. And it will change as life picks US up and drops us in another place.

But our job as artists goes far, far beyond achieving technical skill and mastery of our processes.

Our job is to look at the “why’s” in our life, to bring the questions—and—the answers—into visible or audible form. So that others can see it and feel it and connect with it in ways that enrich THEIR lives.

So get a trusted friend or supporter to play the “why” game with you. They start asking you the “why” questions. They have your permission to be persistent. They have your permission not to accept facile answers or technical jargon. If they feel you are deflecting, they have permission to persevere.

If it gets too heavy, or you get angry, that’s okay. Step back and take a break.

If you find yourself wondering WHY it got heavy, or WHY you got angry, well, now you’re getting somewhere.

Remember, you will know you’ve found your “why” when you feel the tears. Because whatever makes you cry, that’s where your heart is.

P.S. Again: If you believe this would be of service for you, or a friend, please act with love, kindness, and respect. ASK FOR PERMISSION to do this exercise, do it with others who have the same supportive mindset. Remember that we all have our deep inner truth we want others to respect, and accept. LISTEN to THEIR deep inner truth. It’s not for us to tell. It’s for THEM to discover.)