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Helping Authors Become Artists

helping authors become artists pinterstIn view of this site’s title, it’s not surprising people often ask, “What’s the difference between a writer and an author?”

Usually, I admit it’s a cheeky sophistry, since there is no true distinction, save for the common connotation that an “author” is somehow more professional. A writer is just someone who scribbles; an author is someone who has arrived, probably by having been published. At any rate, the title has always indicated my intention that this site should encourage growth among writers—myself first and foremost.

Unintentionally, this blog has become the chronicle of my life. I don’t often write about my life, but as I look back through the archives of the last eleven years, I can chart not only my personal growth, as both writer and woman, but also the arc of my interest in the art and craft of writing.

The super-early posts were the ones about being a “writer.” When I wrote them, I was just grubbing it out, still learning how to put one word in front of the other. I was interested in mastering things like “show vs. tell” and basic ideas about the nature of subconscious creativity.

A few years later, I discovered story theory—story structure, scene structure, character arcs, theme—and my enthusiasm cranked into high gear. I consider the posts that emerged during these years to be about becoming an “author.” This was the period when I was embracing concepts and principles to which I would now point storytellers for help in taking that symbolic step from mere “writer” to seasoned “author.”

But… what comes after that?

After you’ve made the jump from writer to author, what’s left?

I’ve been pondering this for a couple years now, both in my own journey as a writer, but perhaps even more urgently in regard to the blog itself. What can I write about that I haven’t written about before? (After 11 years and 1,300+ posts, it becomes a poignant question!)

Recently, I think I’ve discovered the answer.

Helping Writers Become Authors Become Artists

No, I’m not going to change the name of the site. 😉

And, yes, this is a little bit more of that same sophistry. After all, if you’re a writer, you’re already an artist. (As an aside, I have always firmly believed the angst we sometimes feel about our right to the title of “writer” is misplaced. If you write, you are a writer. You don’t have to be a genius to be a writer. You don’t have to be published. You don’t even have to be any good yet. You write, therefore you are a writer. Same goes for being an artist.)

But as with the subtle distinction between “writer” and “author,” I believe the title “artist” connotes something a little bigger, a little grander, a little more dedicated, a little more responsible, and a little more accomplished.

As a reader and viewer, I desire art. I don’t want “just” stories—even ones told with proper form and decent style. I want art. I want transportation. I want to experience things I’ve never experienced before. I want characters who challenge me to rise and rise again. I want stories that are lovingly and consciously crafted by masters who understand the form, but who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.

Even in our story-saturated culture, authors are few enough and artists are rare indeed.

What an Artist Is—and Is Not

1. An Artist Is… a Master Storyteller

In my little hierarchy, the artist stands on the shoulders of the author—a writer who has dedicated himself to the craft. Although I’m sure there are a few artists who were born instead of made, they are truly unusual. Artistic masters, in any medium, are those who have toiled. They have taken to heart Ernest Hemingway’s suggestion that:

We are all apprentices in a craft no one ever masters.

Being brilliant isn’t enough. Having a unique vision isn’t enough. A story burning upon your tongue like Isaiah’s coal isn’t enough. It isn’t enough even to string words together prettily or to properly construct a convincing story structure. So many people out there today can check all those boxes. And some of them are world-famous and rich-till-they-die. But they’re not all artists.

Artists are those who have gone beyond what is merely “proper” to a fully integrated understanding of how story lives and breathes throughout history and in every moment of our lives. In his classic The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes:

What the young writer needs to develop, to achieve his goal of becoming a great artist, is not a set of aesthetic laws but artistic mastery. He cannot hope to develop mastery all at once; it involves too much. But if he pursues his goal in the proper way, he can approach it much more rapidly than he would if he went at it hit-or-miss.

2. An Artist Is… a “Poet Soul”

The “poet soul” is something special burning in the hearts of true artists. Actually, I think it probably burns in the heart of every person; artists are just the ones least likely to let the flame go out. By “poet soul,” I mean a quality that gives the artist an X-ray view of life. It is something within that resonates to Beauty and to Truth. It both feels deeply and strives to think clearly.

It is this that differentiates the stories of an artist. It’s the difference between Princess Mononoke and Shrek 3, between Persuasion and Twilight, between The Book Thief and Nancy Drew. This isn’t to say the latter choices are without value or that popular genre fiction can’t rise to art. Indeed, if a good fairy could pop down here right now and grant my top wish, it would be that the next story I experience could perfectly blend popcorn entertainment with true artistic sensibility.

The “poet soul” is not an excuse to get all hoity and esoteric. (If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)

Rather, the “poet soul” is a call to awareness and honesty—first as a person and then as an author. Combined with a solid mastery of the art of storytelling, this is radical leap to a new level.

3. An Artist Is… a Visionary Mind

I feel like a lot of wannabe artists skip right to this one. They have a vision for their story—whether it’s a catchy premise, a deep theme, or a unique style. By itself, this often and unfortunately offers little more than sound and fury. It starts off with great promise, only to fizzle out.

That said, having an “artistic vision” is a huge part of rising to become a true artist. When we are given the ability to step into someone else’s vision, we want it to be a good one—we want it to be a new experience, something at least slightly unique.

Willa Cather said:

There are only two or three human stories. But they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.

All writers are confined by this truth. But artists claim that word “fiercely” and tell their stories in that ever so distinctive way that makes even the most story-saturated audience see old truths in a new light.

4. An Artist Is Not… Someone Who Is Above the Form

Sometimes when we hear the word “artist” (usually, in these instances, pronounced “ah-tist”), the connotation is of a story that is utterly unique—perhaps even bizarre. The subtle suggestion here is often of someone of such brilliance he has no need, much less use for the rules of the artform.

Occasionally, I get emails from folks wondering if they really need to follow all these “rules” of structure and narrative. Almost inevitably, these are the same emails that randomly neglect capitalization and punctuation. Clearly, these writers haven’t yet put in the due diligence to even think about reinventing the form.

Very few memorable writers reinvent the form at all. Those who do, such as James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, tend to produce curious singularities rather than true reinventions. Instead, for the last several millennia, most of our most brilliantly artistic storytellers are those who have written squarely within a masterful understanding of storytelling—both classical and common. Even relatively “bizarre” authors such as Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner are riffing off the form, not ignoring it.

5. An Artist Is Not… a Hack

This is a tricky distinction. For example, the first person to pop to mind after I wrote that subtitle was Edgar Rice Burroughs—who created classic archetypal characters such as Tarzan and John Carter. Arguably, he was a hack. Arguably, so was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For that matter, might not serial writers such as Dickens and Dostoevsky be piled in there?

These authors will be remembered in perpetuity. Even the pulpiest among them created stories that have forever impacted the social consciousness. That’s art at its most powerful. If they’re hacks, then they’re awfully impressive hacks.

Now, I can hardly presume to know why all these authors wrote. Perhaps some had the basest of motives for churning out the stories that would end up imprinting the world. But I think not. And that’s my point.

Artists have something to say. They have the “artistic vision” and “poet’s soul” (sometimes in spite of themselves). Even if they’re writing for the money (because who isn’t?), they’re not writing just for the money. Even if they’re a ghostwriter or studio writer, telling someone else’s stories, they’re still pouring themselves into those stories—even when it’s a slog, even when the inspiration isn’t there, even when everything in life resists them—there’s always something in them reaching onwards and upwards.

6. An Artist Is Not… a Propagandist

Again, this is a tricky one—because doesn’t every author have something to say? Perhaps it might even be especially true if that author is striving toward artistry? We all have our truths to tell. Some of them are truly true. Some are not. But all are valid if they are honestly ours.

So what makes the difference between an author’s “truth” and propaganda? The distinction is subtle (and extremely arguable), as well as being deeply influenced by the artist’s range of storytelling skills. To me, though, it comes down to the author’s focus. There’s a special something in those most unforgettable stories. They have something to say, but that it is not the sole reason for their existence, just as they also entertain without entertainment being their sole reason for existence.

Story as a form is inimitable in its ability to say something about the world without needing to say it directly. As legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn reportedly quipped:

If you want to send a message, try Western Union.

To me, that’s the entire secret of great art. It always has a message—but you don’t always notice.

7. An Artist Is Not… Pretentious

Granted, I’m sure we could come up with dozens of brilliant scribes who believe God thumbprinted their foreheads. Certainly, all writers must believe, at intervals, that we really have a story and a skill worth all the work. But believing in the work isn’t the same as a narcissistic insistence upon one’s “artistry.”

I really, really want to be an artist. I want to write something someday that is everything I’ve ever wanted a story to be. It doesn’t have to be famous or even recognized. But I hope someday just to write it. That’s my goal. And I do everything I can every day to build my life around that artistic pursuit. In the practical sense of ink-stained fingers, I absolutely think of myself as an artist. I pursue integrity in my work. I hone the craft. I have a vision for what I do.

But to think of myself as an “ah-tist,” who somehow has a clearer view of art than anyone else is ridiculous. I’ve been at this for a while and, as this post bears out, I have decided opinions. I believe artists should have decided opinions.

But we must also have wide-open minds. Like Ernest said, we’re all still apprentices—in life as well as art. To forget that is, I think, to instantly dim our poet’s soul.

***

Wherever your honest estimation of yourself finds you on the road from “writer” to “author” to “artist,” I hope you will join me in fanning our creative coals. Over and over, on this journey, I find myself discovering a bend in the road that leads to new and exciting possibilities for growth. Even if the title of “artist” is one you already possess, I encourage you to join me in thinking of it as a calling all its own, one worth striving toward with every word we write.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think an artist is… and is not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think an artist is someone who does whatever they do with heart.

  2. I think artists are found in all walks, all ages, and on all sidewalks of life. I know a roofer who is an artist, because he roofs according to all the rules of his trade, but cares deeply about how the roof will hold up, perform, and please the owner. I am acquainted with an artist-mother whose children are her painting, her story, her garden. She tends each one with the tender brush of a painter, the daydreaming of an author, the hard sweat of the master gardener, watching in joyous anticipation as each child emerges from his/her shelter and reaches for the sun. Author-artists, in my humble (oh so humble) opinion are those who gently and subtly coax a truth to the surface, where I can see it and consider it, perhaps allow it to change (or set) the course of my thinking, my doing, and the words I slowly scribble into my story. I strive to write just one true sentence, and then another. I strive to tell the truth in the cleanest way possible.

  3. Sally Chetwynd says

    “… masters … who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.”

    I know you don’t ignore your characters, but I think for us readers of your blog post here, you ought to include them in this bit about “absolute honesty” and “total respect.” My recently published novel would not be anywhere near as good as it is if I hadn’t listened to my characters. In their journeys through the dark swamps of emotional metaphysics, they have taught me volumes about myself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Agree. In fact, I think a good deal of authorial honesty comes back to being honest about the characters we are writing.

  4. I just saw the new animated `Pilgrim’s Progress’ this weekend. It was amazing. And it got me thinking about John Bunyon, a man I know nothing about except that he lived during the reformation and spent time in prison for his faith. He probably had no idea that his story would still be around several hundred years after his death. And -I don’t know if I thought about this before- he was writing very honestly about a hero who does a whole lot of failing. Falls into the Slough of Despond right after starting out. Lets Worldly Wise lead him off the path. Then later, after fighting Apollyon and standing firm in Vanity Fair, the guy STILL wonders off the path into the giant Despair’s field and gets captured. Not to mention getting Hopeful, who looks up to him, captured right along with him. Bunyon was very honest in his allegory. He didn’t pretty things up. Christian is a hero because he gets up again and keeps going after he fails -not because he doesn’t fail (over, and over…). And the story is one that has lasted hundreds of years, even though for most of us the artist is just a name, if we notice the name at all.

    • I loved that movie!

    • Sally Chetwynd says

      I’ll have to check out this film (before it disappears from the cinemas). Besides its evergreen Christian message, it may help me in a project I hope to take on soon.

      My brother-in-law was working on a novel of self-discovery and familial relationships until his recent death. The body of the novel – its story arc – is complete, but it is poorly written. Its concepts, however, are allegorical, too, as is Bunyon’s work, and I find them astonishing and powerful. As soon as the family can “break into” his computer, I want to get a copy of his book. It doesn’t deserve to get buried in the digital dust. The rest of the writing group he belonged to (mine, too) is eager, too, to collaborate with me to see his vision come alive.

      Perhaps Bunyon’s vision is even farther reaching than his current producers will ever realize. Thanks for this reminder about the film. (I don’t get to the movies much at all and don’t keep up with them.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I often think about the artists whose works we still read. Most of them had no idea that their creations would literally shape the world.

  5. I love this. I write for entertainment, sure, but what I really want is to encourage people to think in new ways and inspire them to understand what makes them unique, important, and influential in their own lives and the bigger picture.

    I love that you’re making space for writers/authors to embrace that part of our passion. Thank you!

  6. Thought provoking post. To me, artists are people who strive for excellence no matter the cost. “Good enough” isn’t in their mentality.

  7. I’m not sure what to call myself. I think I prefer outlier. My book, The Internet President: None of the Above has been out for a year and I haven’t been sure how to describe it. One reader called it “its own thing.” Just a few days ago I realized that the goodreads review that said it was the most creative and unique story they had read in a very long time had rated over 1,500 books. That really makes what they said more impactful. I think the hardest part of being a writer is marketing. I still need to get my website revamped and all these things done. I was I could just do the writing part.

  8. You know, I just read a book (in verse) that I think you might enjoy—Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Through her protagonist’s voice, she shares musings on art, the artist’s role in the world and how they can affect life and society. I found myself bookmarking and highlighting so many thought-provoking passages.

  9. —> “(If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)“

    *She dies laughing.* Brava!

  10. Katie, thanks for broaching this rare topic. Here’s my immediate thought: Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Laureate in Literature, talked about something called the “secret centre” of a good novel. It may never be actually mentioned in the story, but the story nevertheless hovers around it. I guess it’s what the story is “really about.” I love that concept of story artistry. Indeed, when I’m watching a movie or reading a novel, if I don’t get a sense early on that the story has a “secret centre,” I may very well bail on it. Likewise, I have an eye open for that “secret centre” in my own developing stories — knowing that that’s what’s going to (hopefully) turn this baby into a work of art.

  11. Oops, sorry, my comment got off to cyberspace before I finished it (or barely got started!) Can you please delete the above, as I can’t find any way to do it quite yet. I just wanted to say I loved your post. I’ve been thinking so much about this lately as I read so much that, as you say, starts out with a great premise only to fizzle out at the end. To me, a writer-artist is someone who can effectively combine excellent craft with great entertainment and an impacting take-away value. If I can’t remember the plot a week after finishing a book, let alone any message, then that’s definitely not memorable art. By the way, I wanted to tell you I’m in the midst of reading your book Dreamlander. I’m getting emotional about it, so you know it’s doing its job. I’ll write more later, but thank you for your efforts to do a great job and for actually being a help to us writers!

  12. Another great, thought-provoking post, K.M.!
    I think one of the loftiest challenges many writers (including myself) face is that we feel tags like, “artist” are imposed from others, not ourselves (“I’m an ah-tist!” Yuck, how sickly-saccharine and vain that sounds!). I think we look to others for that type of acceptance before we come to the conclusion that we are on the level of artistry. Most of us are desperately looking for the most basic of acceptance from our peers and from an increasingly difficult industry to break into. I feel that once we can find that basic of acceptance (“oh my gosh, I’m doing SOMETHING right!”) then we can come to the acceptance that we are growing and that we can take our cumulative efforts, skills, and talents to build ourselves up as artists, which have such a huge role in shaping culture. That said, I completely agree that we should find our own reasons to pursue writing or painting or whatever it is, because I think deep down we all feel like artists regardless if we’re being formally labeled one. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Bravo. I completely agree with this. There’s much to be said for outer justifications of our work. But at the end of the day, the opinions of others can be erratic and certainly are not an ultimate judgement of an artist’s worth. Art is communication, but it is first and foremost communication with ourselves. If we’re not pleased with that personal communication, then we can hardly expect it to properly communicate with others.

  13. I definitely dream of — and work toward with countless revisions — creating a story that will resonate and stick with the reader, long after they’ve finished reading it.

  14. This was my favorite part: “(If I have to watch one more color-muted, two-note soundtracked “auteur” film in which nothing happens beyond a talented actor mugging out her suffering onscreen, I might just start agreeing with the ubiquitous thematic insinuations that “all is meaningless.”)” Thanks for the awesome post!

  15. Abigail Welborn says

    Thank you for helping us level up to author and to artist! Your website has been invaluable to me in growing my writing skills. I look forward to leveling up again… or to putting myself on the ever-upward climb toward artistry. 🙂

  16. Kelly A Larivee says

    Great post, K.M.! I’m with the great Ernest Hemingway (to a point) in believing that “we are all apprentices along the road in a craft” (art) we’ll never (but maybe, someday) master. His statement was legitimate if you ask the question, How does one master an art when there is always something to learn as long as you’re living/breathing/writing? Hemingway didn’t stick around long enough to recognize his work for art. I’ve been writing stories since I learned to put pencil to paper and make words make sentences, so I’m writer. There is no distinction between writer and author in any thesaurus I’ve owned, and I’ve owned quite a few. And artist? A master at their craft. Yes, this is wordsmithing. But in the end so is pulling the writing apart into “craft”. It’s a crazy little conundrum that I believe every writer must meet and solve on their own, when someday they do write the book of their life/soul/heart. If Hemingway had been clearer in his head and not so heavy in his heart, I believe he would have seen this for himself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good thoughts. I admit there have been times when I’ve disagreed with that quote from Hemingway. I do think one can master the craft of writing. But, to me, the art of writing is more abstract, ever shifting, something that we may master in one piece, only to have to learn again for another.

      • I’ve always taken the `always apprentice’ to mean don’t plateau out. Don’t say `I’ve arrived!’ and get all comfortable and fall into a creative rut. There’s always going to be some way you can stretch and grow, just like you’re always going to be stretching and growing as a person.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I think that’s exactly his intention. Stay hungry.

          However, I do think the craft of writing is concrete, with certain concrete boundaries, and therefore it can be mastered. “Story” can’t be mastered, if only because every story is different. But the principles of good writing can be.

  17. Wonderful!

  18. The truth of your observation that we don’t need more stories, we need transcendent artistic ones is born out by recent experience. I meet weekly at our local library with a group voracious readers who conduct brief discussions of what they read the past week. Of the sixteen or so regular members, most have recently confessed that they are having trouble finding anything compelling to read. We’re floundering! You have hit the nail on the head.

    On a related note, when I first began writing many years ago, I visited an art gallery with my artist mother and one of her friends. The owner turned to me and asked, “So, are you an artist too?”

    “I’m a word artist!” I intuitively shot back, though I’d never thought of that before.

    Mother’s and Fran’s jaws dropped. “I suppose you are, at that,” said my mother. I’ve been refining that artistic element ever since. That’s involved much of your journey, learning structure and story telling basics, but it’s always been the art in the heART of writing that’s intrigued me.

  19. Jenny North says

    Wonderful post! Even though that next level is still way beyond my meager talents, it’s nice to have something to aspire to!

    Though it’s interesting to me how the term “artist” evokes mental images of free spirits who are unbound by the rules, which has the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like they operate unaware of the rules. It’s easy for people to imagine that Jackson Pollack was haphazardly spilling paint on the floor, and that E. E. Cummings was just writing sentence fragments.

    I know the term has become polluted by mass marketing, but I always liked the term artisan because it implies craftsmanship. A master artisan needs discipline and experience to create his or her art. It has an unfortunate workmanlike connotation, but I like how the term reminds you of the hard work that goes into creating art!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Artisan. I like that too. I absolutely believe art is the form of being order to chaos. Aside from a few flatout geniuses, most of us achieve art only through dedicated workmanship.

  20. Joan Kessler says

    Lovely post. These questions, musings, yearnings, speak to all of us, and about all of us. They are our life’s companions. They can be answered only by ourselves, but we are not alone in answering the call. Thank you for sharing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I love the word “yearning.” It is one of those “infinite” words that encompasses a poem all to itself.

  21. A propagandist presents an answer to examined (but not questioned) by the audience.

    An artist presents a question to be examined. An answer may be found or it may not, but we learn something about life and about ourselves in that examination.

    This requires both humility and daring and above all, a harsh honest look at oneself. An artist presents a new view of what is or could be, but you can’t do that until you challenge your own view of…well…everything.

    Knowledge, truth, _everything_ first begins with asking the right question.

    • J.A. I really think you’re on the right track here!
      I think a narrative has a special opportunity to examine deep questions about the human condition. The nature of excellent narratives are structured in such a manner that two points of a view clash on a particular topic and one particular approach proves itself to be either the right way to go about things or the wrong way. By beaming a light of perspective on the main character and watching them either fail their personal journey and reach their goal (or not), or succeed in their personal journey and reach their goal (or not), an effective truth has been revealed. A compare and contrast approach by examining all points of view inherent in the story’s thematic topic can do exactly as you said, “an artist presents a question to be examined. An answer may be found or it may not, but we learn something about life and about ourselves in that examination.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always liked the quote that indicates stories are not about providing answers, but rather about asking questions.

  22. As I always say, not all art is visual. 😌

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very true! Art comes in many forms–everything from gardening to cooking to dancing to writing.

  23. When I think of an artist, I think of someone who can grab me with their work. may not always know why, I just feel it. It makes me think. Particularly when it comes to paintings, when I look a a painting I don’t care who painted it as much as what it does to me inside. Paintings grab me. They become something I think about a long time and return to n my mind frequently. I remember one painting that struck me, I don’t know the artist, and I wrote a several page essay about what it said to my soul. I think writing should do the same. It should reach out and touch your soul.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are many excellent pieces of art that I have grown to appreciate only through time and repeated exposure. But I love those pieces that are so visceral they grab you right from go and never release you.

  24. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    Your great essay has provoked and maybe have answered some of my questions.

    I have over the years considered (and not considered) myself a number of things.

    One of the things I deem myself as is a musician. Is it because I can play all twelve chromatic keys (which I don’t)? Or can play in any genre you can name? Or can I distinguished a C from a C# (which I can’t)? I consider myself as a musician because I will try to make music even when no one is around to hiss or applaud. Not to do so is to kill or stifle a part of me. A music maker who needs an audience is an entertainer not necessarily a musician.

    I also enjoy doing watercolors and pen and ink. In this department I am reluctant to call myself as an artist. My renderings aren’t innovative or say anything. They are not in the same class as Rubens, Da Vinchi, Rockwell, or Neal Adams. For some reason (unknown to me) I lack the intellect or the imagination of these great masters.

    Presently, I consider myself a writer and not as an author even though I have a published book. I am aware that even as a writer I have a number of short comings that need correcting. However I feel that there is an artist inside of me that needs getting out. Nonetheless, this amateur needs to pay his dues first.

    One item your article has answered for me is: I want to be an artist. I will never be content until I reach that level. Unfortunately, there is a problem in this thinking. A true artist is never truly content with what they have achieved they are always scrutinizing the next mountain.

  25. Saja bo Storm says

    I have been away for awhile. What a perfect time to return. An artist is anyone who creates a vision which originates from the soul to share with the entiworld or no one else. I am happy to be on this journey with you to evolve from writer to author to artist. Thank you K.M. I’ve missed you and also me writing. Time to reinvent my purpose.
    Saja

  26. Another great post! I also like Jordan Peterson’s idea of artists being creators that never really know what the heck they’re really up to. They work on a piece or story because something unexplainable inside them itches to get out, and they can’t take it. Even when they’re finally done they look back at it and still wonder what it means. It’s as if it embodies a part of them they don’t understand. … or something like that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Another topic I’ve been studying a lot lately is that of archetypes and how they arise from the subconscious. So much of storytelling comes out of that deep well. I’m going to post on it later, after I’ve organized my thoughts more, but I find it a very exciting and fascinating look into the heart of creativity.

  27. I love your post.

    When you wrote, ‘I want to write something someday that is everything I’ve ever wanted a story to be. It doesn’t have to be famous or even recognized. But I hope someday just to write it,’ I picked up my pen and wrote:

    I want to find someone, someday, who sees the world the same as I do. Then I won’t get so many blank or quizzical looks and have to spend so much time explaining myself.

  28. ingmarhek says

    “Artists have something to say.”
    Thank God I am strongly opinionated.
    There is still hope.
    Another great article, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah! Yes, I sometimes think creativity is born from the balance of being opinionated while still being open-minded.

  29. Totally, 100% behind you on this Katie!
    I’m trying not to froth at the mouth as I try to express my passion for writing and this topic.
    I know I’m not there yet, but I strive every time I write towards that artistic goal.
    Like you, I want to someday write that piece that will somehow satisfy my thirst. Sometimes the trek feels like I’m in a desert with art a mirage in the distance. It can be devastating. And still I stumble forward.

    Regards,
    KC

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Many of us start writing because we want to “write the story we want to read.” That’s certainly why I started. I don’t know that I’ve completely fulfilled that mandate yet, but I’m working on it!

  30. Wonderful post! This is something truly applicable to any true writer.

    … Although honestly, I was a little caught off guard when I first saw this title. I like to draw/paint art too, so… 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think cross-media creativity is fantastic. My talents don’t lie in many areas outside of writing, but I think it’s amazing for those whose talents can cross over!

  31. I /love/ where you’re going with this.

    You’ve given me vocabulary for something I’ve felt as long as I’ve been a writer.

    There is a certain type of writer (like you mentioned, Zusak or Dostoevsky) who is so realist, you feel like you’ve awaken from a long sleep, and, startled, you find yourself to be human. They are holistic thinkers who know exactly what they want to say, and weave it into the fabric of every sentence.

    This is exactly what I want to be. I’m excited to take this journey with you.

    *draws sword* “Excelsior!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “They are holistic thinker.”

      This is actually something I was musing on last night–how the master storytellers are those who approach the story via holistic, inclusive systems thinking, rather than mere reactionary, causal thinking. You can absolutely tell the difference in the quality of story that results. I think I’ll have to do a post on that soon too.

  32. catherinepryan says

    “I want art. I want transportation. I want to experience things I’ve never experienced before. I want characters who challenge me to rise and rise again. I want stories that are lovingly and consciously crafted by masters who understand the form, but who have ascended above mediocrity with absolute honesty about themselves and total respect to their audiences.”
    Yes! And this is what I want to produce. I appreciate your clear distinction between writer, author, and artist. I understand my position on that scale and am encouraged to push on. Thank you.

  33. I’m a recovering artist. For forty years, I painted and sold my art throughout North America. But I never considered myself an artist. I thought of my art as illustration.

    This particular myth is promulgated in every art school and makes most art students doubt the value of skills development and artistic discipline. After all, if it looks like what it’s supposed to look like, it’s “only illustration”.

    We’re told that true art is incomprehensible and therefore expensive. Patrons pay the big bucks for art they don’t understand. And art students realize that learning how to paint really well doesn’t pay, so they sell out and become graphic artists. Or, they learn to be experimental. They learn to be self-indulgent. They learn to be “artistes”.

    I eventually quit painting because I couldn’t figure out what was missing in my work and I wasn’t going to start flinging paint at canvas and calling it art. Technically, I could reproduce anything with photographic accuracy, but it wasn’t until I began learning how to write well that I finally got it. What was missing was story. I was, indeed an illustrator, not an artist. And ferdamnsure not an artiste!

    It’s the classic unanswered story question, isn’t it? Curiosity is a disease that infects all of us, some more than others, so if you can’t understand it, it must be profound.

    Bullfeathers!

    It’s the same with writing. Some writers/authors have settled. They’re the graphic artists of the writing world. They find a genre that works or is currently popular and write the same story over and over. Robert Heinlein comes to mind. He wrote the same cast of characters for every novel. Great novels, great characters, but still…

    Other writers/authors have gone the discipline route. They’ve learned their craft so well that artistry has become instinctive, inherent in the work. They craft pure story, based on the thousands of hours they’ve spent learning how to do it.

    On the ceiling of my bedroom, where I see it every morning when I wake up, I have an old poster from the ’70s. It depicts a Dalmation surrounded by a clowder of spotted cats. The caption reads: “In a world full of copycats, be an original.”

    I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to live up to that sentiment.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “They’ve learned their craft so well that artistry has become instinctive, inherent in the work.”

      This. Just this.

  34. Nice post. My comment: An artist is not necessarily a master craftsperson, in fact, few are. Almost all “great artists” are and the few, that make the ranks without craftsmanship, do so by political machinations. (and probably will not still be in the ranks in a hundred years!). I have been a painter for almost twenty years and a physician for thirty years prior to that. Medicine was for me, an art, the science was important, but the art was essential if the science was to work. As a painter, I had to call myself an artist, and I became quite a good craftsman, but I always felt, that “artist” was beyond me. Others called me an artist, so I went along. Now that I am writing, and like starting all over again, I am more comfortable with the word as I know that I am writing with the same motive that drove me to paint and practice medicine. I had, and have, a vision of what love looks like. Perhaps I will communicate it better with words, than with paint, time will tell. In the meantime, thank you for your efforts to support us in this struggling community. Dr. Robert, Dr. Robert’s Fine Art Studio, Los Angeles

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks for sharing this. There are definitely different connotations to the word “artist.” As others have commented, sometimes the connotation is “effortless genius” or “obscure profundity.” But I agree that these unfortunately perpetuate the idea that art and discipline have little in common.

      • Usvaldo de Leon says

        It probably took Michelangelo a millisecond to conceive the Sistine Chapel; it took 3 years of back breaking work to achieve it. We are too enthralled with the former and dismissive of the latter.

  35. I liked the Isaiah 8 reference when you compared having a story burning to be written to when the angel placed a coal in Isaiah’s mouth. I always love reading Isaiah 8 because of the beautiful imagery and sense of holy awe.

  36. Beth Farmer says

    I recently read The Girl on the Train, and I enjoyed it. However, right now I’m rereading Jane Eyre (with your commentary). My sense of enjoyment is so superior that I’m tempted to vow not to read any more current bestsellers. Yet I can’t define what makes Jane Eyre so much more of an artistic endeavor. I will be interested in your articles on this subject.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      After reading the classics faithfully for many years (with the idea of reading them all before I die), I took a break for a year or so. When I finally went back (to Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence), it was like drawing a full breath again. We become so used to “fast food” fiction that sometimes we forget how amazing the really good stuff is.

  37. DL Fowler says

    Great article! I’ve been teaching a workshop on this very subject —- I try to offer techniques for turning first drafts into works of art that provoke emotions and fulfill readers’ needs. We all have so much to learn about restoring craftsmanship to storytelling. Glad to see i’m not alone. And if anyone was going to light this fire I figured you’d be in the vanguard.

  38. I am Vincent at the moment, and “The sadness will last forever.”

  39. Thanks for highlighting yet another goal! (:

  40. I enjoy your posts. You have a way of explaining and communicating that speaks to me in a language I can understand. I have so much to learn about writing and being an author — even after five books, some short stories, and quite a few newspaper articles. You have helped drive my quest for more. If I have written one thing that inspired another person or helped them understand their world a little better, I feel like my efforts have been rewarded. Thank you for sharing your journey through a writing life with me and the others who read your posts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I feel so blessed to be called to the artistic journey, and to get to walk it with so many other people. 🙂

  41. I am reminded of the time when baseball player John Kruk was caught smoking a cigarette by a fan.

    “You’re an athlete! You shouldn’t be smoking cigarettes!” The fan chastised him.

    “I’m not an athlete,” Kruk replied, “I’m a baseball player.”

    Well, nobody cares much if an artist, an author or a writer smokes cigarettes or abuses alcohol, takes drugs, frequents whorehouses or endulges any number of sins of the flesh. In fact, in a weird way, we expect artists to overindulge in any manner of ways, which makes the presumption of calling oneself an artist more dangerous than calling oneself an athlete.

    But, perhaps we can learn something from the humility of Mr. Kruk, who reached the top-tier of athletes in his sport and competed at the highest level.

    So, should someone say to me, “You’re an artist! You should be smoking, drinking, and womanizing!”

    I will respond, “I’m not an artist. I’m not an author. I’m not a writer. I’m a storyteller.”

    I think if we focus on telling good stories, the artistry, the authorship, and the writing will take care of itself.

    K.M., you’ve helped so many people write better stories. Don’t go getting all
    highfalutin on us now 😉

    Just kidding. You are capable of greatness and you will write a great work of fiction one day. There were flashes of brilliance in Behold the Dawn. But, it does come down to having a great story to tell, and telling it. Create characters that live on the page and wander past the confines of your outline. Start with a very big lie and a very big truth. Think big. Have something big and important to say, and then say it. If you are doing it right, it will nearly kill you, but you will have to keep going until “it is finished.” I don’t know if my book, When the Wood Is Dry, is great fiction, but that is how I felt writing it. I’m still recovering…

    You may find the structure of When the Wood Is Dry interesting. I have a background in musical composition and I compare it to a stretto, where the musical theme is played over itself in staggered timing. I describe it as an intersecting character study. There are multiple stories layered on each other around a single event and thematically entwined. I may have broken some rules in an interesting way. I’ll send you a copy…

    I apologize if I’ve sounded full of myself; I’m really not.

  42. Katie, this post is art.
    You’ve brought a high and lofty subject down to a reachable shelf and I really appreciate the skill it takes to do that.
    What is an artist but one who allows their true selves to be reflected in their work. What does that mean exactly? I’d be hard pressed to tell ya! But I think this post is a great place to start.

  43. Josh Patrick-Riley says

    Love this article! This is what I needed right now, especially since I’ve now written drafts of my first two novels. I want to do what it takes to bring them to the next level and share my truths…while still being entertaining, of course.

  44. Such a weighty and important discussion, here. Isn’t the tug of war between art and productivity interesting? If I spend too much time worrying about art, I feel paralyzed. If I focus on productivity, I worry my work is lacking the poetic prose and expansive emotion I crave in others’ books. Let’s keep talking about this 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s a tug that never ceases, I think. Just one of those beautiful dichotomies of life. 🙂

  45. Anton Teichmann says

    Thanks for this one! Again, hell of an article.

    To give my humble opinion to the table, I think that the road from writer to artist is not a joureny from A to B. I think it is a circle or better a cycle we are traveling around or experiencing.
    I think the artist is the core instance that thrives us from writer to author to artist and motivates us to go another round of the artistic experience. Maybe the born artist or genius artist is more aware of the artistic thriving force in him but has to experience the writer or the author in order to shape the artist and give his creativity something like focus. Maybe the writer has to become an author to unleash the artist to its full potential and vice versa.
    But I think the artist is there anyway, I think it is nothing to become, I believe it is something to become more aware of. Maybe the artist is not a skill or a habit or a gift, maybe it is a sense. And like other senses it is more or less developed from human to human.
    The cycle of writer – author – artist is maybe a tool that helps one to shape, wake, evolve or cultivate that sense.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think is incredibly true. The moment we “master” something is often the moment we realize we’ve reached an entirely new ground zero with everything to learn all over again.

  46. I’d say, regarding #6 and propaganda. I think the best way to distinguish an intentional message and theme from propaganda is honesty. Propaganda is designed to make the reader see a particular perspective at the expense of truth. It’s the writing equivalent of a straw man argument. Instead of presenting situations and characters in a fully fleshed out way, antagonists and anything else that goes against the writer’s intended message is written as flat, two-dimensional, stupid, etc. Whereas a fully explored theme will allow readers to see nuance and the reasons behind other perspectives. The choices characters make, due to their Lies and Wants and Needs are real dilemmas and the Antagonists offer real temptation.

    When you allow yourself to tell the truth and let readers see multiple perspectives, you end up with a better story than a propaganda piece could ever be.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I would further distinguish this as “conscious honesty”–since the whole point of propaganda is to get someone to believe something is true without their really weighing it. We all have ill-considered opinions that are the result of propaganda messages in our own lives. As you say, we have to consider both sides rigorously and honestly.

  47. Would anyone know some good resources to research WWI fight pilots? I have trouble finding books on WWI and especially fighter pilots of the era. I can find books on WWII and on pilots of that war, but very little before then.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve done a lot of reading about both World War I and early aviation, but in going back over my book notes, I’m not coming up with any particular title that would be appropriate to recommend. I’d look for overall histories of WWI. Aviation histories will definitely cover WWI as well, since so much originated in that period.

      • Thanks. I’ve been able to find some books over the last several months on World War I aces, but they’re hard to get a hold of. I was able to find Fighting the Flying Circus, which is American ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s, war memoirs. It was definitely worth getting!
        I’m fascinated by those pilots and like to go on and on about them, so sorry if I have a tendency to do that. I’d write a book, but I don’t enough information. Like I said, I’ve been having trouble finding books on the subject :). And I’ll see about finding some books on World War I that cover aviation as well.

  48. robintvale (Jessica) says

    I hope to write story that people enjoy reading and maybe long the way they’ll think about certain things in diffident way then they ordinary would; along with having fun! I hope to write the book I’ve always wanted and maybe it’ll be something other people will like too.

    To grow and change as a writer and along the way as a person (this has already happened. ^-^) . This is what i want to do, be and become. To see what wasn’t obvious before and have that eureka moment again. (Last one was a couple of years ago with show/vs tell lol.)

    An artist? Hum… its to be able to put more than pretty words on page that’s for sure. and remembering to not get lost in chasing that aloft cloud of what “a real author is.”

  49. robintvale (Jessica) says

    Remembering to check for typos or a lack of caps in informal replys wouldn’t hurt though. (Sorry.)

  50. Nadia Syeda says

    I want to write fantasy stories that have brutal truth. Like, the princess has duties she can’t escape from, the knight isn’t always willing to die from his king. I want to write stories where people aren’t romanticized, dreams aren’t always achieved, to show the harsh, bitter truth of life. But at the same time, I want to write stories that’ll convince people that harsh, bitter life is still life worth living anyways.

  51. I shut down around people who tell me they intend to “become an author”. Honey, if you weren’t a writer to begin with, I have no idea what you’ve got in mind. Or rather, I probably do, but you got a lot of writing to do first. One person I heard say it wrote her great novel down the first way it came into her head, ‘published’ it on Amazon and now tells everyone she’s an Author. Maybe she’s right, but she sure can’t write. She’s certainly not an artist.

  52. You put into words my own personal big-dream goal in a way I could never figure out how to articulate:

    “Indeed, if a good fairy could pop down here right now and grant my top wish, it would be that the next story I experience could perfectly blend popcorn entertainment with true artistic sensibility.”

    I need to pin this up on a wall. Thank you for this.

Trackbacks

  1. […] writers are trying to reach that next level of artistry and craft. K.M. Weiland aims to help authors become artists, Mary Kole examines 3 writing motivation flags and what to do about it, and Kim Bullock looks at […]

  2. […] few months ago, I mused on how authors can level up to become “artists.” While that pursuit is one mostly executed from within the trenches of the craft, I think one […]

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