Some time ago, I had the extraordinary good fortune to be at a little talk given by the playwright Amy Freed, who at the time had just had her wonderful play The Beard of Avon produced at the Seattle Rep. After the talk, someone asked Amy about the support she’d gotten for her playwriting, and she said
The support I’ve been given has enabled me to take the biggest risk an artist can take – the risk of being understood.
I’ve thought about Amy’s statement a lot since I heard her speak way back in 2001. I think she’s put her finger directly on a big issue for the art world.
There’s a lot of art out there which, to borrow Amy’s phrase, doesn’t exactly run the risk of being understood. The artist stepped up to that risk, and then blinked and backed down. There are a lot of artists making art that’s not only not understandable, but isn’t meant to be understood.
I’m not talking about ambiguity. John Patrick Shanley wrote a beautiful, wonderful play titled Doubt, about an ambiguous situation where it appears as if a child has been molested by a priest. The play is deliberately written so that there is no authoritative answer to the question “Is the priest guilty?” Instead, that issue is left ambiguous, and we (as the audience) are forced to consider what we do when we aren’t sure but the stakes are very high if we make a mistake. Shanley’s play is not just ambiguous. It’s about ambiguity and how we respond to it. The play is both ambiguous and eminently understandable.
My fear of that risk is one of the reasons why I tried so hard to force myself to make my SoFoBoMo process be as open as I could stand. Posting my contact sheets felt pretty darn risky. There’s a strong urge to hide your mistakes, and I wanted to experiment and see what would happen if I forced myself to just put there out there in the open and let people look right at it all. I know that other people shared the sense that publishing the contact sheets for every single exposure I made was a risk, because the delay between my hitting ‘publish’ on that first contact sheet post and a friend calling me on the phone to say “What, have you lost your mind?” was about ten minutes. One of the things I wanted to do through SoFoBoMo was get past that fear of being understood.
Anyway, for me this fear was the big hurdle to getting the SoFoBoMo book done. There was a definite point in the process, when I was making the fundamental decisions about what the book would actually show, and it could go one of two ways. It could be a nice safe book of photos, with no text or just bland text. The other option was to go ahead and share more deeply about what my experience was actually like – order the photos and write text in a way that makes it clear what I actually thought and felt. The first book doesn’t run the risk of being understood. The second one embraces it.
I’m not saying that my book was a huge risk. It’s not sharing earth-shattering thoughts. And, truth be told, it probably doesn’t share as deeply or completely as it could, both because I backed off a bit and because it’s not always easy to make yourself be understood. But I did manage to not back off at the moment of that critical decision, and I think that taking that small risk made a big difference in the outcome. I’m a lot happier with the book I finished than I would be if I hadn’t taken that chance.