The Art-Fame-Soul Diagram: Why Do We Write?

Why do we write? It has become necessary to elaborate on this question and examine some of the competing and contradictory elements that constitute the writer’s call to arms. Many writers initially lower the pen to page because they are compelled to do so. A frequent answer — and perhaps the best — is that writers write because they must. Some biological urgency compels these artists to purse their craft. Surely, though, on a more primitive level some discernible causality must exist, some observable justification for our behavior. Why do we do it, if even on a subconscious level?

Ambition = Art + Fame + Soul

In my own self-analysis, while pondering these questions over the past few months, I’ve identified three core causes that seem to provide useful, if oversimplified, framework for the high-level conversation about why writers and artists pursue their art. These are the ART-FAME-SOUL buckets. Where these buckets overlap, different types of art and artists seem to emerge, while perhaps the most complex or interesting art / artist seems to emerge when an equal balance of these three motivators propels the artist forward. Let’s have a little explanation about the enclosed visual to make some sense of this sophism, shall we?

ART

The pure essence of the muse: Art is the activity of making something beautiful. This is the energy to create without consideration for anything except for the art itself. No compromise, only a pure pursuit of the artistic vision. This factor disregards the audience, the paycheck, the restrictions, the rules, the possibility of failure. This is the desire of Charles Strickland to paint the walls of his house in Tahiti years after he’s gone blind. This is some primitive instinct to scratch words or pictures of the wall of a cave.  This is, perhaps, what children do when they draw with crayons without knowing that anyone’s watching.

(Art + Fame ~ Intellect)

FAME

If art is a form of communication, then fame must be the recognition of the artist’s message on a widespread scale. We must be careful to distinguish recognition of the artist’s message from receiving the artist’s message. Everyone’s heard of Picasso, but this is perhaps different than saying everyone understands Cubism. Nevertheless, the desire for fame is very much an important factor to consider among the reasons why we write. The belief that a writer’s message is important can very well propel that writer to work harder, to drive forward when it’s painful, and pursue the dream to its devastating finish. If the writer pursues only fame, it seems certain that the writing will suffer, that great art requires more than just the desire to communicate; it must also contain a message TO communicate in order to reach an audience.

(Fame + Soul ~ Entertainment)

SOUL

Soul, here, captures a constellation of substance: emotion, energy, passion, pain, trauma, memory, misery, ecstasy, and any other experience so powerful that the Soul must find some form of expression. Think of Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, in which she recounts year in which she lost her husband and child. The immediacy of her pain, perhaps, drove her to communicate this experience. The intensity of the emotions felt by the artist require an expression of the soul, in a way, to expurgate these feelings in order to reestablish some emotional equilibrium. The soul needs balance and the experiences of life — perhaps moreso in the Artist — tip the scales of the soul so that Art is a means of leveling out one’s self, smoothing over these emotional disturbances in order to keep on living. Soul, here, is writing as therapy.

(Soul + Art ~ Emotion)

So tell us, literarians, and don’t be shy. Where do you fall on the Art-Fame-Soul Diagram? Are you like The Literary Man? A little heavy on the ART-FAME, a little light on the Soul? Or you a Walt Whitman acolyte self-publishing and screaming the scrolls of your soul to the stars? I’d argue that we should really strive to find our selves right in the center, equally balanced with a little of all three. Let us know what you think.

20 Comments

  1. Soul plus commonality of/with other writers, plus the sheer joy of it, the making of it, even on the ugliest days. The joy of stories, people in them I recognize, people in them who are surprises. My parents were letter-writers and story-tellers around the table, and my mother in particular was an avid reader. She had a complicated life, many ups and downs, but she could disappear into a book and then come away from reading with clearer eyes, as though she’d actually been away and come back renewed. My dad understood his life (or tried to) via the stories he told, or the ones that had been told to him. So: reading and writing’s in the DNA. If someone also pays me for it, or says, “good job,” I’m proud of that, and I’ve worked hard for it (and I know the odds against it), but the doing of it began many years before anyone ever wrote me a check for it, and will continue after the checks stop. Or after my hands do, whichever comes first.

    November 19, 2012
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  2. said:

    At my age I have decided simply to write only because I want to. I self publish in a hope somebody else will read my work but if there are no readers at least I have written and left some sort of legacy behind. Maybe that places me with Emily Dickinson (and I say that with all humility). I just want a productive life as I enter the final years, or months, or days of my life. Does all that place me in the “soul” portion with “emotion” or does it place me in the “art” portion with “intellect”? I cannot figure it out.

    November 19, 2012
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    • said:

      The desire to be productive, to produce, sounds very much like the ART category. I suppose whether you’re writing to explore some intellectual curiosity, or exorcising some inner demon, would swing you either towards Intellect or Emotion, but of course this is totally unscientific. . .

      November 19, 2012
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  3. said:

    I believe writing/story telling and art is a gift and something to be shared without abandon. As you’ve noted there is a recognition (fame) quotient – though I often think that with good writers/artists the recognition is simply that – less fame and more recognition that you’ve made a dialog. Artwork for me has been a constant itch that needs to be scratched – it sounds melodramatic, and truly that’s not my nature, but I would not survive if I didn’t make or incorporate art in my life in some way. Your diagram is lovely, thanks for creating the visual;-)

    November 19, 2012
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  4. said:

    Why you ckeeky little monkey, putting Kayne West where you did, and leaving Whitman devoid of soul! Ah, well played, well played (and funny). But for a serious assessment of myself, I’ll have to give it some thought. It’s not that my writing lacks intellect, or that it is overly emotional, but my writing seems to come from a combination of the gut and emotion, maybe that’s soul, though I like to think I can temper it with a fair amount of intelligence.

    Like many I write because I can’t not write, and I do have some rather large ambitions of my own. Fame? Well, in certain circles, to have my work read and remembered by some folks would be good. I’ll have to think of this over a beer and get back to you about where I would pin my donkey tail on your diagram.

    November 19, 2012
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    • said:

      No love lost for larger than life Walt. He definitely had soul, chock full of it. Just teasing him a little for being such an unapologetic advocate of his own art. We should all be so confident in our writing!

      November 20, 2012
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      • said:

        Agreed! And I assure you I did laugh in an out loud laugh, especially when I saw Kayne West! :) Nice thought provoking post though.

        November 20, 2012
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  5. Very interesting! I’ll come and spend some time here!

    November 20, 2012
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  6. said:

    Interesting diagram and concept. I think I fall most heavily into the Soul bucket, then Art, then least of all Fame – hah! But fame would be nice though, only for the fact that hopefully, what would come with it would be the funds to solely/soufully fund the Art. hah! catch-22. A good reminder though, to re-evaluate. Balance is key. Thanks!

    November 20, 2012
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  7. I used to be all art, then as I grew older and soul kicked in. Fame just walked this year.

    November 20, 2012
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  8. said:

    I think if we are passionate about our writing, there is some of all three of these parts that enter into “why we write.” The most ideal or beneficial to us is to find a balance in all, in order to complete the whole.

    November 21, 2012
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  9. I read your query for the first time two days ago and have found myself preoccupied to varying degrees, sifting through your buckets to determine where I fall within your diagram. My knee jerk reaction was that I write because I must and then I wondered, is that too simple?

    I found myself asking: of what use are words to me that do not touch? Of what use are words that do not evoke a sense of what I feel in my heart, in my soul? Do the words I read and the words that I hear stir my intellect, incite my curiosity? It matters to me, I think, how words are spoken. Words are a catalyst that have the ability to open doors, close windows, shed light or plunge us into a dark abyss. I read other people’s words to connect and to feel a part of the whole. I write my words to connect to the whole. I read to escape and I read to connect. Writing is a vehicle that allows me one story, one poem, or one essay at a time to experience life with and without consequence. The writer attempts to make sense of the madness that is life or to celebrate all that is good or merely examine the mundane. Then I considered why we write influences what we write.

    Within your defined buckets, I fall in the categories of Art, Fame and Soul, I think. Having considered your query and after sifting through my process, I was left with a keener sense of my love of the written word, of the spoken word. My love for the words of the heart expressed in music, and visually through paintings and photography. I think I write because I must.

    Thank you for this thought provoking query Literary Man. Happy Thanksgiving.

    November 23, 2012
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    • said:

      This was just lovely, Patricia. Would you mind if I reblogged your comment with a link to the diagram? Would love to share your thoughts with the full readership. Please let me know if you’d allow me to do this, and I’ll repost.

      November 25, 2012
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      • Patricia Aster said:

        I am truly humbled that you want to repost my response. Of course you can repost it. Thank you. I so enjoy reading the Literary Man. . .

        Patricia

        November 27, 2012
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  10. Larkin Warren said:

    Still can’t figure out the diagram thing–maybe it changes with the phases of the moon? (maybe I do?). But belatedly remembered this essay/intro to Will Blythe’s wonderful collection of fiction writers answering this very question a few years ago. Lots of food, Thanksgiving and otherwise, for thought. The piece is on Byliner now. http://byliner.com/will-blythe/stories/why-i-write-thoughts-on-the-craft-of-fiction

    November 25, 2012
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  11. Interesting and food for thought, though I am a bit uncertain about the meaning of ‘ambition’ as opposed to ‘fame’. To me they seem closer to each other than ambition does to either of the other major circles. Can you expand on what you intend ‘ambition’ to mean?

    November 28, 2012
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  12. said:

    There is another triumvirate of abstractions that come into play with contract work (writing, web design, the trades in particular) that operates on a principle of exclusion instead of overlap as above. GOOD, FAST, and CHEAP. You can only have two, always at the expense of the third. Which is more or less apropos of nothing except that that’s where I thought this was going initially.

    November 28, 2012
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  13. Gumby said:

    That “Soul” part was good for giggles. Has art/writing become so egocentric that what was once the desired response to art (appropriate to tragedy, drama, and all the highly emotional and “sensitive” works, at least) — katharsis — is now a permissible motivator for the artist? Have we all become vulgar self-therapists?

    December 3, 2012
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