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Is this a piece of art?
Some pieces of (my) mind
Back in the late 90s, before my band was signed to a record deal, we had the opportunity to open for the band Fantômas. They were a supergroup comprised of vocalist Mike Patton (Faith No More and Mr. Bungle), drummer Dave Lombardo (Slayer), guitarist Buzz Osborne (Melvins), and bassist Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle and Tomahawk).
It was a big deal for us.
We walked into the venue just as they were starting their soundcheck, hours before we were slated to perform our opening set. It was wild watching them play their strange mix of avant-garde metal, absurdism, and straight-up noise.
As is typical during soundcheck, they would stop and start frequently to ask for adjustments on their monitor speaker levels so they could hear themselves properly. During one of those pauses, their front-of-house sound guy (i.e. the person who mixes the sound you hear as an audience member) asked, “Can you guys play another song?”
It was a seemingly innocuous question. But Patton snapped back at him and said, “They’re called pieces.”
The sound guy rolled his eyes and said, “Okay, could please play another piece then?”
At the time, I thought Patton was being a pretentious douchebag rockstar. I mean, he was certainly more of a jerk about it than he needed to be.
But he had a point.
The band used sheet music, which is unusual for a metal band, and they would randomly shuffle it so they played a different set every show. It was kind of a schtick of theirs. But also, their music was very complex and technical. That is to say, each piece didn’t have a typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song structure, with Patton often scatting or screaming more than he sang actual lyrics.
In other words, they were performing pieces of music. Not songs.
A few days after Xmas, I was chatting with my brother at his house and he said, “You shouldn’t call your writing pieces.”
“What? Why not?” I asked.
He went on to tell me that he got the same impression I did when I heard Patton utter the word piece 25 some-odd years ago.
“But they’re pieces of writing,” I pushed back. “What else should I call them?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “you’re the writer who knows a bunch of big fancy words.”
I knew he was joking. Yet I sat there confused, feeling like I needed to defend myself. I surely wasn’t being a pretentious douchebag, or at least not trying to be.
Again, I said, “But they’re pieces of writing.”
The next day, I asked my Twitter followers what they thought:
While it wasn’t the most statistically significant poll ever, 42 votes is a decent sample size. Piece is clearly the right word for it. But I also received a bunch of replies with other words, such as essay, article, story, writeup, and even edition.
The piece (there I go again) you’re reading right now I’d classify as an essay. But wait, I guess it could also be considered a story. And I’m definitely writing it up. Oh crap, and I’m going to post it on Substack too.
My writer friendgot to the crux of the issue in her reply:
My brother thinks I’m calling my writing high art. To him, it’s as if I’m saying, “Look at this important piece of art I have created with my mysterious and complex artistic sensibilities that you, a common, more simple person, couldn’t possibly fully understand.”
Sara and I are both in a writing community called Foster, where we’re in the midst of a five-week-long series of events called Season 2: The Art of Modern Writing. The event came at the right time for me since I’ve been delving back into my memoir book project with renewed vigor recently.
For too long now, I’ve been second-guessing the book. I will sometimes have imposter syndrome-type thoughts:
Who am I to write a memoir? I’m not a literary person. I never got an MFA in creative writing, or whatever. I didn’t even like English class in school. And I only really discovered my love for memoir writing within the last few years. What if my prose isn’t good enough?
It doesn’t help that I recently learned about the term trauma porn. While it’s most often used in reference to authors—of both fiction and nonfiction—who exploit the traumas of other people (especially minor groups), it sometimes includes memoirists whose writing reads more like a diary than literature. Meaning it’s not considered artistic or creative enough.
My memoir is about the trauma I experienced when my daughter was born and how that experience has changed me. She wasn’t breathing at birth and had to be resuscitated and intubated. As a result, she has cerebral palsy, a lifelong disability—one I have to live with and adjust to for the rest of my life, as well. I worried that my book could be construed as trauma porn by the literary powers that be.
And so the book has been on the proverbial backburner, behind a whole host of flimsy excuses and negative thoughts.
And yet, I still want to write the book. Now more than ever. Because I want to share my story with the world—a type of story that’s not often told. When you have a child with a disability, it’s not exactly easy to find the time to write. And it’s not easy to write your story in an artistic way. You’re essentially reliving some of the most difficult moments in your life over and over as you refine them into something another human might enjoy reading, and (hopefully) will be moved by emotionally.
A few days ago, in one of the Foster Season 2 sessions, I was in a breakout room with a handful of fellow writers. I explained some of these hang-ups I’ve been having recently. I expressed how I want my book to be considered a piece of art and I hedged my words (two different times) by calling myself pretentious for thinking of myself as an artist.
And then someone (whose name I cannot remember for the life of me and I feel quite bad about) wrote this question in the chat, “Why do you think it’s pretentious to call yourself an artist?”
I stopped mid-sentence and said, “Wow. That’s a great question.”
It was a gut punch. A much-needed one at that.
Because, of course, I’m an artist. Why should I distance myself from the title?
We can debate the merits of the word artist versus craftsperson, artisan, and others when it comes to specific activities, trades, and tasks.
But writing is unequivocally a form of art.
My book will be a piece of art.
This is a piece of art.
And I’m a fucking artist.
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