Our stories are already inside us, waiting to come out. All we need is a truly sympathetic listener who will allow that to happen.
Fifth in a series of how to use that 25 Random Things list to write your artist statement.
“They have ears, but hear not….” Psalms 115:6
I marvel every day how we listen–and don’t listen–to each other.
We may think we are listening. But how often do we jump in with, “Oh, that happened to my cousin!”. Or, “I know just how you feel…” Or, “Speaking of cancer, did you know the ancient Greeks thought cancer was caused by eating too many crabs, and that’s why the astrological sign of the crab is also called cancer?” I made that last bit up, by the way, but we all know friends who do that. We do that, too.
We can’t even bear to simply let someone cry. We jump in to soothe and comfort–“It’s okay. It’s all right”–even though it obviously isn’t. Sometimes a hug is appropriate, of course. But sometimes, we’ve cut the person short because their pain is more than we can bear.
Allowing someone to tell their story, giving someone the time and support to really think about what is in their heart, and letting that come out, without comment or interruption, is a powerful gift.
I learned about this technique of really, really listening to someone, from Deborah Kruger. I took a workshop from her called “Empowerment for Women in the Arts”, where we learned how to form small support groups for each other, groups where we could freely share, in safety and kindness, our highest vision for our art.
Interestingly, it looks like we’ll be practicing the same skill in my hospice training.
Why should we learn to be good listeners today? So you can get to the bottom of why you make the stuff you do.
It can be a little tricky of you’ve never done this before, but it’s a great technique if you’ve tamped down your passion for so long, even you don’t know what it is. It might take a few tries, but if you are willing to do the hard work of really saying what is in your heart, you will find what lies there.
This exercise works well with 2-3 people. You can take turns listening to each other. All you you need to be on the same page. You need to be a good listener, and you need to find a good listener. That’s why I move back and forth between “you” and “them” in this article.
Find someone who loves you and/or loves what you do. Someone who truly wants you to succeed with your art, who wants only good things for you.
Find someone who has not a shred of jealousy or back-stabbing or passive aggression. Someone who, if you say, “I once threw up on someone” they’d say, “Yeah, hey, that was me but I know it was an accident and I still love you” and not “Um…yeah…look, I just remembered another appointment, can we do this later?”
Explain what your working on. They are going to hold your feet to the fire until you confess what it is you deeply, truly care about.
And they are going to do it with perfect kindness and perfect support.
Make sure they understand they are NOT to tell you “what you should do” or what they think. There will be no giving of advice today. They can only ask questions that force you to step up to the plate, questions that probe deeper until you hit your inner truth.
Oh! If you have another trusted friend who can take notes, that would help. But in a pinch, you can either tape this conversation or let your friend write your responses down. But it has to be quick–the PROCESS, the conversation is more important than getting it down perfectly. Although, sometimes asking for more clarity, or repeating what you think you’ve heard before you write it down, is a good listening tactic, too. (see Rule #2 below)
THE RULES: (and these are important)
1) The only response the listener can make is signs of loving acceptance.
We often stood up and held hands, but the important thing is eye contact and a smiling face or a calm face. (I tend to frown when I’m listening really hard, and I have to consciously control that when it’s my turn to listen.) No hugs til the end. Tears are okay.
2) No dialog!
The only questions you can ask are to ask for more information about something the speaker has said. And do that minimally. Just use it to clarify, or to move the narrative along, or help the speaker refocus if they get off course.
The scribe/recorder can only ask a question, with the speaker’s permission, and with the same guidelines, and only if everyone really seems stuck.
But…(and this is really important):
3) Give them time to answer.
We’re so used to giving pat answers, or short answers, because we’re not used to someone listening so carefully, to being so fully present. Silence is okay. You’ll be surprised how many speakers will pick up the thread on their own, once they realize the listener is not going to jump in and take it for themselves.
4) All of this is done in safety.
What goes on here is private. The speaker must know and believe that what they say will not be repeated, nor even referred to again, without their express permission. We all know about attorney-client privilege and doctor-patient privilege. That’s how you’re going to think about this process, okay?
5) Give enough time to answer, but timed so you have to focus.
The first time is rough, because the process is so different than any way we’ve ever talked with each other before. But half an hour should be enough time to some part of our story out.
This exercise gets easier with practice. If you can’t quite “get there” with your first try, then try again another time.
In the workshops I took with Deborah, we asked four questions that led to a plan of action. For the purpose of finding the heart of your artist statement, we’re just going for one really great question:
Why do you make the art you make?
Yep, it’s that “why? why? why?” thing again. Why? Because it works.
We are looking for your artist statement, your mission statement. Literally, your reason d’etre, your “reason to be”. Why you are here, on this planet, why you are here at this point in time, why you are living this life of yours, to make this art.
(Relax. It sounds hard, and it is, but it’s exhilarating, too.)
A good warm-up question is: “Tell me what’s special about your art” (Note to questioner: Almost every artist will answer this question with an explanation of their techniques. Take good notes here, because this is a way of waffling. But it CAN lead to some good, honest answers later.
Other questions you can explore:
How to people respond to your art? Why do you think they respond that way?
What kind of people love your work enough to buy it? Why do you think THEY respond that way?
When did you start making this work? (Questioner: If something traumatic started this, take notes and follow this thread. Because something changed in order for this to happen, and that’s important.)
Why did you start making it? Was it required for a class? Did you do it with someone else, say a relative who showed you how?
Why do you make that? Why do you use those materials, those techniques?
Any time you get some adademic-bs or artist-speak (“I love to explore the interstices that occur between the full saturation of colored edge and line…”) or a cliche (“I just love color!”) start applying pressure.
This is where it gets hard.
I can’t give your questioner hard-and-fast rules about where to press and where to back off. But a sensitive person will know where you are bull-shitting about your answers, fobbing them off with a glib answer or a smart answer instead of a deep, rich answer.
You may feel angry at the person for pressing you–that’s a good sign! You may be scared at first and get defensive. The questioner can decide whether to keep pressing or “move sideways”, anything to get you past those defenses.
Because what you are defending yourself against is expressing the thing that really means something to you, and you are afraid to say it because people might laugh at you.
Social scientists say we fear humiliation more than almost anything else in life. Sometimes we fear it more than we crave success.
I believe the reason we fudge our artist statements, and why we find it hard to talk about this stuff, is we are afraid of looking like an idiot.
What you must understand is…that’s okay.
It’s part of the human experience. And we are human.
So at this point, where you are fudging and avoiding and getting defensive and hostile, your listener needs to go for the big guns.
And bring out that WHY word, over and over and over til you give it up:
The real reason you feel compelled to make the work you do.
They’ll know it when they see it, and hear it. And you will, too.
Because you-the-artist will act differently, and speak differently.
You may stand straighter (if you do this exercise standing up). I’ve seen some people literally “step up” and take a step forward.
Your voice may deepen. You may talk faster if you’re a slow talker, or slow down if you’re normally articulate.
But the clincher is when you, or your listener feel a shiver run down your spine, or a thrill in your heart.
You will have spoken your truth.
And when you speak your truth, from your heart, people hear that. They FEEL that.
Congratulations! You now have the heart of your artist statement.
I’ve done workshops using this technique to get at the heart of artists’ stories. I could always tell when we’d struck gold:
“I had a baby, I nearly died, and everything changed.”
“My grandmother took care of me because my parents couldn’t, and grandma taught me how to do this. And when I make this work, I still feel her love and kindness in my heart.”
“I lost my husband, my job, and my house. I had nothing left, except this… And it saved my life.”
These are the moments in life where something important happened, whether we knew it at the time, or not. But these moments are part of who we are, as human beings. They may be moments of love, or joy. They may be moments of yearning. They may be moments of self-discovery and survival. Whatever they are, your art is a response, or an outcome, of these moments.
Other human beings will respond to that, and respect it. Other people will connect with that–“Me, too!”–and be inspired. Or consoled. Or empowered.
Telling your story helps others to discover their story. And the connection continues.
We’ll talk more about how you can edit this and round it out with other random, interesting things about you to make a powerful statement about you and your work.