Pointing to art

Justine Musk has blogged a couple of times about Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin. Based on what she had to say, I checked it out from my library, and I’m glad I did. The book is about choosing to be indispensable in your work, whatever it may be. Even without that meta-topic, however, he covers a lot of ground. So far, I’ve hit three important ideas that resonated with me.

Obedience versus art

Would your organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient?
Or, consider for a second: would you be more successful if your employees were more artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate, and genuine?
You can’t have both, of course.

This hit home for me not in discussing employees, but in thinking about my children. He summarized the ongoing struggle I have between wanting my kids to listen to me, to their dad, to their teachers and wanting to not stifle their creativity and free spirit because I know they will be much happier later in life if they don’t have to fight to reclaim what they have naturally now.

There aren’t easy answers for this dilemma in Godin’s book. I don’t think obedience is, in and of itself, bad. Without rules and obedience, we get anarchy, as even he admits. (“Yes, we need facts and rigor and systems.”) However, the book is helping me to rethink my approach to parenting, and to cut myself short when something the kids are doing isn’t actually bad, just annoying. (Okay, yes, I have a ways to go with that, but I’m working on it.)

The nature of art

“Art is never defect free.”

“Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient.”

“Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.”

He says an awful lot about art. That’s what the book is about — art, creativity, how to make your work art (whether you’re a designer, a painter, or a coffee shop worker). The way he’s defined art as requiring a change is, I think, what separates the merely competent writing (of which I have done much) from the stories that stand out, get bought, get talked about.

That’s what “needs more cowbell” boils down to: The story didn’t affect the editor or the agent. She might have admired the prose; he might have liked the twist in the plot. When all was said and done, though, the story didn’t touch them. They weren’t changed.

That’s where I need to focus my efforts. Not on merely telling a story. Not on writing impeccable cliffhangers to keep the pages turning. Not on finding a plot that has been miraculously overlooked by every writer since the dawn of time.

On touching people. On changing my readers. On making my art real.

Emotional labor

The next question, of course, is how to do that. I think the key is in putting in the emotional labor. It’s work. It’s hard. I have to put myself into the work.

Don’t I already do that? Sometimes. Sometimes, I write a story just because I have an interesting idea or I have a character and a plot. I need to care about the writing, need to think about what I find important in what I’m doing, and need to see the change in myself that I hope to evoke in others.

To that end, I’m taking some time this week to think about what sort of change or shift I’m trying to achieve in each of my works in progress. Where is the art? Have I taken responsibility for making sure it’s there? Am I changed because of what I’m writing?

Sometimes the change I’m hoping for may be something I’ve already experienced in my life. It may be something as simple (!) as sweeping readers into the story and letting them step away from their own lives for a time. But I think that thinking about what the change is that I’m looking for may help me more in the long run than contemplating themes and character arcs.

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Linchpin is an excellent book. I’ll blog soon about Godin’s discussion of resistance and how it differs from Stephen Pressfield’s. There may be other topics I blog about, too — I’m only halfway through the book.

Do you have any thoughts on obedience versus art, the nature of art, or emotional labor? Or perhaps you want to recommend another Seth Godin book? Please leave thoughts and questions in the comments.

As always, thanks for reading!

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