On the Usefulness of Art-Making

In lecture halls and galleries and college art departments, people make extravagant claims about the importance of art and artists–how necessary these are, how the human spirit could not exist without them.


In the real world, it is the artist who benefits. Art is a byproduct of a free society, and its usefulness comes mainly to those who create it. If life is suffering, as Buddha asserted, it is the artist who transcends personal suffering, transforms it through the alchemy of art. Art allows its practitioners to take the imperfections and incompleteness of life–the blemish on the apple peel, the longing of unrequited love, the inevitable losses of aging and death–and remake these into something beautiful.

And through this struggle to create meaning where there is pain, the artist affirms the value of human experience–the full range of it.

The creative act then is an act of courage because through it, the artist discovers the bounds of her own assumptions, the limits of her own life, and tests them. In so doing, the artist disrupts the surface of life and hints at its depths. And in piercing the membrane of her own insular world, the artist expands, moves outward, and develops the capacity for compassion. She becomes better able to understand lives not her own, to consider angles she might have otherwise condemned.

To create art is to stand on the abyss before the darkness, to dance in the face of death, and even if no one is watching–maybe especially if–art-making serves as a light, a light that makes the journey possible, a light by which there can be joy in even the darkest hour.

Susan Minot’s Evening

From that synesthetic description of the suitcase (“a smooth shellacked surface with yellow stitching underneath the glaze…Ann Lord could almost taste the surface of it at the back of her throat.”) and the initial car ride, dizzying with the thrill of sexual magnetism and New England summer, I knew I was in the hands of a writer masterful in her descriptions. So a disclaimer: I love sensual, emotionally charged descriptions. The poetic, carefully chosen images continue to haunt me months after the reading.

But the real point of Minot’s novel, which presents a woman’s life as she remembers it while dying, is that love is less about the objects of our affection than the quality of the love granted them. Not sure whether I agree, but Minot’s protagonist, Ann, clearly comes down on the side of love over knowledge of another person. And in following Ann’s reminiscences from her deathbed, Minot shows how deeply perception colors everything. Throughout her long life, from the great love of her twenties, Harris Arden, and on through all her marriages, Ann drifts separate and alone with her feelings because, for her, feelings are the truth—and she lives accordingly. If Ann had seen Harris for the self-indulgent, impulsive playboy he was, had perceived how little he thought of or knew or cared for anyone, she’d have had another life. And so Minot makes the point that how we perceive, and what we choose to believe, is how we live—and thus, too, how we die.

For Minot’s novel is as much about death as it is about the relationship between love and perception. In a way, she has given us another Madame Bovary, a woman hungry for sensual experience and romantic love—and hardly concerned with moral, financial, or psychological realities. For such a woman, death offers no truth other than her own. The imagined conversations she holds with her Harris contain both the novel’s turning points as well as chances for Ann to resolve what could not, in reality, be resolved. And so at the last, it is her Harris, and not ours, that bids her on her way.

Review of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Much as in her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, the emotional force of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, depends upon the silence of her characters. As the protagonist’s mother Ashima enters labor in the opening pages, she refrains from calling out her husband’s name, which she views as “something intimate and therefore unspoken.” This clear delineation between what is said and unsaid, what is intimate and what is public, becomes a principle of the Ganguli family’s relationships throughout the novel. The narrative’s destabilizing event is the birth of Gogol Ganguli to Bengali parents living in the United States. When cultural misunderstandings lead to Gogol remaining “Gogol” on official records—something his parents never intended—Lahiri gives us one of the primary conflicts of the story.

And while this complication is subtle and quiet, even–at moments–comic, Lahiri is masterful at drawing out the generational and cultural tensions that entangle the excruciatingly self-conscious Gogol. She’s at her best when relying on techniques dismissed by run-of-the-mill fiction writing guides. Instead of scenes, she relies mostly on a narrator who speaks with thorough knowledge of all the characters’ histories and occasional glimpses into their minds but whose almost academic diction keeps their hearts slightly shut off from us—much as the characters do from one another. When Ashima moves from paralyzed homesickness toward her first concession to living in America, shaping the rest of her life, Lahiri presents the turning point through summary. “She begins to pride herself on doing it alone, in devising a routine … Now she wakes at six … Between eleven and one, while Gogol sleeps, she gets dinner out of the way, a habit she will maintain for decades to come” (35). Lahiri has profound trust that her readers will understand the significance of these subtle yet all-powerful changes in her characters, without the volume of dramatic scenes.

So too she exhibits mastery of subtext, which underpins all the emotional strength of the novel. Because her characters are never demonstrative, the depth of their inner lives must be depicted in other ways, and Lahiri uses staging and description to their fullest advantage. To convey the passion of Gogol’s first relationship, Lahiri relies entirely on a train ride when it begins and where, on the same rail line two years later, Gogol fully comes to realize its end. Both scenes occur at sunset, but the details Gogol notices convey his emotional state. As he initiates the relationship with Ruth, the sunset is “feverishly beautiful, casting a … pink glow” that gives way to the “pallor that precedes dusk” (111). But ten pages later, this rosy tranquility darkens into an almost Gothic vision, as the sun “sinks … a solid, scarlet disk” while the leaves outside the windows hang “yellow, paper-thin” and he passes industrial areas “covered with rust … windows partly bashed in, ravaged as if by moths” (121). The initial “fever” has given way to a sickly, urban decay.

By the novel’s climax, I was not surprised that Lahiri centers it upon an object—rather than a dialogue with Gogol’s father or a familial exchange, as I had first expected. The question of how Gogol will reconcile the two parts of himself, represented by his two names and the different social worlds he inhabits, is answered by a book. Gogol is now 33 and stands, for the last time, in his childhood home, his father dead, his mother moving away. And on the bookshelf, he finds his father’s gift to him on his fifteenth birthday—a collection of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, which he never read. Not even after he learned the reason behind his name and the way in which a similar book had saved his father’s life. When he at last reads the inscription from his father and begins the story that has shaped two generations of his family, Lahiri’s novel builds to an emotional crescendo achievable only by the quiet, measured construction of symbols and pivotal experiences, rather than spoken words, enabling her readers to grasp at last the tremendous love and connectedness within the intimate silences.

Why Be Good

In periods of personal crisis and upheaval, my first response is to find a quiet place and think. I’m not sure this is useful, but it is what I do. I map out how I arrived at this point. I ponder my choices and reconsider my worldview, and I wonder if and where I have gone wrong. I assess the direction of my life and question whether I should pursue new aims. Or maybe my method is the thing to revise. But above all, I wonder whether I am a good person. I like to think that I am not alone in my angst over this, that to doubt is to be fully human, aware of the fragility and changeability of oneself and of life. For me, the questions of whether to be good, and what goodness is to begin with, lie at the heart of personal identity.

            Yet the problem inherent to the question why be good is its implication of a self distinct from these other lives—the “I”—that can choose to be good and give reasons for its actions. This notion of a self with separate, isolated interests and the agency to choose is a recent invention of the Western world. Some scholars trace its origin to the 1600s, but by the nineteenth century the concept of selfhood was entrenched in the daily experience of the common person.[1] Coinciding with the birth of psychology and one of the richest periods for the European novel—both fields of knowledge concerned with the inner life that came to define the self in the twentieth century—the idea of the individual makes such questions as “Why be good?” conceivable in the first place.

But because the “I” is embedded in the larger “we”, the question is unanswerable through contemplating myself, alone. As a human being, I am rooted in a system of relationships. Every decision I make, whether I mean for it to or not, bears upon the lives around me and our coexistence. The self that chooses to be or not to be good—and gives reasons for the choice—exists in tandem with other selves.

In order to render the question of why be good answerable, I must first determine the entity that can be good. The self is permeable and even, at times, fluid. It is a collaborative performance between the community as a whole and its members. For a species evolved from nomadic family clans where the concept of unique self-interests and desires would have jeopardized survival, the self, like a life committed to the arts or to theoretical physics, is a modern luxury.

In fact, human beings, scientists are finding, are wired to consider—and even experience—the welfare of others as part of their own. Neuroscientists’ recent discovery of mirror-neurons shows that when humans see another person’s physical expression of an emotion, most will feel those same emotions instinctively.[2] Evolutionary biology has found evidence of empathy among our hominid ancestors, hypothesizing that it was an adaptation to ensure group survival, and empathy has been widely observed throughout mammals.[3] Group cohesion depends upon an awareness of the moods and feelings of others, so much so that we have evolved to experience alleviating another’s suffering as comforting oneself. It is such a habit of our species that therapists and participants in group therapy must be trained to withhold physical and verbal comfort so that they may let others cry and express suffering, without immediately trying to reduce the sufferer’s discomfort.[4]

And while we suffer no psychological ill effects from acting with compassion toward our fellow men and women or from adhering to the laws that ensure a stable society, the average person does suffer tremendously from perpetrating violence against other human beings. Soldiers must be trained to suppress their natural instincts against harming others, and even after intensive training, the percentage who intentionally miss their targets or fail to fire at all remains around 75%.[5] Successfully overcoming this instinct often costs veterans their mental health, as firing at or killing other combatants correlates with an increased chance of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.[6] With 1.64 million men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Center for Military Health Policy Research estimates that “the number of servicemembers returning home with PTSD will range from 75,000 to 225,000 and with depression, from 30,000 to 150,00.”[7] To induce suffering in another is often to suffer ourselves, and to kill members of our species, when Homo sapiens evolved in small groups where each member’s survival depended upon collective effort and care, is to do violence to oneself. It endangers the survival of one’s offspring, it damages social bonds, it fragments the self through dissonance and dissociation, and it renders the social contract more tenuous with each instance it is broken. And so, the entity of which one must ask why we should be good is perhaps closer to Jung’s collective consciousness than to the modern individual. The “I” experiences life through the “we”.

To examine, then, why I should pursue goodness requires that I recognize this interdependent nature and acknowledge that being enmeshed is not a pathology but a quality inherent to being human. To single out one mind, one life, and inquire “Why should you be good?” is a bit like plucking at one thread in a spider web or a single knot of root below a cedar. Examining the inner workings of this piece will tell us something but not much; the larger system is better, and I think fields such as law are best suited to the task, because they require social sanction and are refined across generations. They reflect a kind of collective agreement as to what goodness is and why we should bother with it at all. Human justice and morality have, for most of our species’ history, been the domain of the tribe, the counsel—which more accurately represents our social nature. But since I live in the modern world, as an individual, and my response to this question determines, in part, my response to life, I must make an attempt, and it is this: to be good is the best course because it serves the interests of both the self and the community. Goodness, if one is capable of empathy, is the route of least resistance, acting in accordance with the facts of our humanity, our interdependence, and our instinct for empathy.

Although goodness is a social construct, empathy is not. Empathy is an evolutionary adaptation to ensure the continuation and stability of the group, the state—even the species. And the question of being good is specifically the question of responsibility for the emotional, psychological, and physical welfare of other lives and the community. In modern life, I am fortunate to be able to opt in and out of communities until I find one where deep empathy with the group is possible. Goodness is not possible without empathy, and empathy is not possible without the group. And often, I find that my quest for my own goodness is nothing more than a search for belonging, for the community within which I feel the greatest empathy for its members. Why should I be good then? Because goodness—the expression of empathy, of sharing my life with others—is my natural state, upon which my health, my identity, and my belonging all depend.


[1] Harvie Ferguson, “Moodiness: The Pathos of Contemporary Life,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture 13, no. 1 (2011).

[2] Lea Winerman, “The Mind’s MIrror,” in Monitor on Psychology 36, no. 9 (2005): 48, http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror.aspx (11 September 2011).

[3] Francisco J. Ayala, “The Difference of Being Human: Morality,” In the Light of Evolution: The Human Condition, ed. John C. Avise and Francisco J. Ayala (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2010), 4:335.

[4] John Bradshaw, Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), 245.

[5] Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, “Ratio of Fire,” Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 50-63.

[6] Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, eds., Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries,Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery (Santa Monica: Center for Military Health Policy Research, 2008), 51.

[7] Ibid, 55.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Those who loved the understated, quiet prose of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus will not be disappointed by her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Winner of the 2007 Orange Prize, besting work by such notables as Anne Tyler and Kiran Desai, the novel is full of halves—characters, and a nation—wandering in search of what might complete them. And as the novel shifts from the early to the late sixties, the period of Nigeria’s civil war, Adichie deftly shows how wars can dismember both self and country, removing victims and perpetrators alike from their lives and identities. She fills her characters’ lives with memento mori—flowers wilt, children grow sick and die, clouds disintegrate, weevils taint food that runs out—while all these halves build toward a final loss so quiet that it slipped into my dreams.

To represent her historical Nigeria, Adichie presents three rotating viewpoint characters: Ugwu, a poor rural boy taken in and educated by his employer; Richard, a white British writer researching Nigerian art and trying to compose a history of Nigeria; and Olanna, a young innocent in love with an idealistic Nigerian professor. Surprising themselves as the war begins and endures, as famine and violence spread, these characters change in ways unforeseeable yet utterly true. The traumas of war and death, of strained race relations and lost ideals compound until we find them at the end, irreversibly altered and bereft. The grace and honesty of Adichie’s portrayal compels those of us who look upon Africa from outside to re-examine our easy indignation, our dismissive impatience, with “internal strife” on the continent. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she gives us a wise book about the costs of patriotism and idealism—and the way all our lives are lived, constrained by the tangled web of history.

The Ten Commandments of Quality, or How Gordon Ramsay Kicked My Ass into Gear

I have been watching reruns of Kitchen Nightmares every night for the last couple weeks, and after a while, Ramsay climbed into my head and camped out there, a cussing, hard-driving, belligerent drill sergeant. To whom I am very grateful. So here’s some of the Ramsay wisdom, distilled into caveats helpful to any artist (and eerily familiar from my years in ballet):
  • Take pride in your work. That means, for a start, maintaining your tools and workspace.
  • Have a passion to craft the best. Your burning desire to produce quality will get you through the tough times.
  • But be humble enough to know you aren’t there yet.
  • To move in the right direction, seek out and accept critiques from those better than you.
  • Send nothing out into the world until you’ve given it your best effort—and a once-over, too.
  • Take responsibility for the things that come out of your oven half-baked. Then, do everything you can to make it right—or throw it out.
  • Don’t waste time crying about it. Ever.
  • Work your fucking ass off.
  • Build a strong team. Then, listen to them—they’re the ones who will clue you in to what’s missing.
  • Don’t even think about making it big until you’ve built a foundation of skills and quality output. You have to earn it. No shortcuts.

The Difficulties of the Run-On Sentence

The sentence is perhaps the most abused tool in the writer’s arsenal, and the run-on sentence is the most misunderstood of all–the bane of the student writer, the rusty businessman, the ambitious but isolated storyteller. For sentences, a little understanding goes a long way.

The first thing to understand, when it comes to run-ons, is that length is not the problem—the structure is. Plenty of professors fail to grasp this tenet, as they convey to students that shortening sentences will solve the problem and then urge their students toward ever shorter sentences—shorter, even, than Hemingway wrote at his most terse. But the way Hemingway’s some-time laconic prose has grown into legend, exaggerating—even caricaturing—the way he actually did write, the way his sentences actually do wind and turn and expand onto great vistas—well, that’s another post.

Aside from sending you down the other path, the one where you write fragments–so short they aren’t even sentences anymore–nothing is wrong with short sentences, but many things can go right with very long sentences, too. And if you have been deprived of good models by the short-minded among us, take heart. Here is a much-cited sentence by Virginia Woolf, opening her essay “On Being Ill” that is no run-on but that, attempted by a lesser writer, could easily have become one:

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

In short, you should not be frightened by length, despite much fearmongering among writing instructors,[1] for sometimes your thoughts are too complex, too sinuous to be squished into a dozen words. Have courage and write your thoughts as they are. Upon your first attempt, I will somewhere be aware of this and raise my glass to you. The world will be better for the more nuanced, inclusive thinking that long sentences encourage.

On a practical level, though, here is what actually goes wrong with your sentences to make them run-ons: The most common type of run-on is a comma splice; you have sewn two perfectly complete clauses (subject + verb) together with a comma. A comma is like a screen or a gauzy curtain thrown down between two things that really deserve their own space. How would you feel if the only thing between you and your neighbor was a bit of sheer fabric? Independent clauses feel the same way.

The best things you can do for yourself (besides taking a hot bath and putting it all into perspective—these really are just sentences, after all, and maybe your English professor does need to get a life), if run-ons are a problem or if you didn’t know they existed, are first, to learn to identify independent clauses, and second, to use something a little more solid than a comma. A period or a semi-colon can serve as the quick-and-easy fix until you develop more mastery over the comma-conjunction one-two punch.

Here is an example of a run-on: My dog chased the cat, I yelled at him to stop.

Brilliant writing, but no one’s going to respect you for it because of what you’ve done to those poor independent clauses. As mentioned above, you have three easy options for the fix:

1) You can just replace the comma with a period. This is a good place to start if you have no confidence and want to build up to more impressive feats of punctuation. It’s also an excellent option if the connection is clear and the two ideas really do feel separate. Example: My dog chased the cat. I yelled at him to stop.

2) Replace the comma with something slightly stronger, such as a semi-colon (;). A semi-colon is useful if the two ideas feel too close to separate them into two different sentences, and if you like the rhythm of the comma. In other words, you get the best of both worlds—the smoothness of the comma with the solidness of a period. Example: My dog chased the cat; I yelled at him to stop. Note: A semi-colon can also be paired with a conjunctive adverb if you want to clarify the connection (some conjunctive adverbs: however, also, thus, in addition, therefore, consequently). Think of it as the high-brow version of the comma + conjunction team (below).

3) Finally, keep the comma and add a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, so, or, nor, yet). This is a good choice if you want to make the connection clear to the reader because each of these conjunctions expresses a specific type of connection. Example: My dog chased the cat, and I yelled at him to stop. (“So” could also work, if you wished to show cause-effect.)

Happy writing!

[1] In all fairness to your beleaguered writing instructors, past and present, it takes considerable knowledge of phrases and subordinate clauses to build a sentence of such great length without run-on problems. Still, you deserve to be taught all those phrases and clauses, so you have the option.

Why I Write


It’s what an actor hears before the curtain goes up, the same emptiness waiting to be filled that I first heard the night I realized I’m a writer—for better or for worse, for richer and for poorer. I had just turned twenty and won a youth scholarship to a writers’ conference on Whidbey Island. The opening day of the conference was my first night on my own, away from home, and I stood in my hotel room, looking over the books on the mantel. And that’s when I heard it—the silence that would be with me for the rest of my life. The same silence in which Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë and so many others had lived and worked. I didn’t know if I was equal to it. I doubted I could survive a silence so total. I wasn’t sure I wanted it. After all, I had thought my future was wide open; I could do anything. Right? I sat in the center of the floor and felt all of it: the fear, the anger, the loneliness, the relief, the joy, and the frustration. But above all, I accepted. Since then, I have heard that mathematicians can demonstrate that events throughout the universe and time follow a single, linear equation; the course of our lives and deaths are unalterable. The mathematicians who discovered this equation all killed themselves. I’m too curious for that. And I love literature so that I must see it out “even to the edge of doom.”[1]

But maybe I am a writer, too, for more selfish reasons. Writers over the centuries have written over scars, as if ink and words were a balm for the “broken places.”[2] Kurt Vonnegut took on the trauma of the Dresden firebombing, which he survived inside a slaughterhouse. Charles Dickens, deeply affected by his brief period working in a factory at the age of ten, often wrote of youth in bleak circumstances, from The Old Curiosity Shop to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. For decades, Ernest Hemingway explored the impact of war and violence on human relationships and psyches. Since a child, I also have used storytelling as a means for ordering and understanding the grief and brutality of human experience, feeling that “the brush in my hand/[is] a lightning rod to madness.”[3]

I want to take my writing and use it, for the betterment of myself and the lives it may touch. I feel confident that I can achieve this, once my craft is developed, because I know how to listen. In high school, I listened to immigrants and exchange students from Japan, Peru, Spain, and eastern Europe as they argued with each other and America. In college, I listened to the rage of black students, to the rift between Asians and Asian Americans, to the skepticism of international students. And in my job now as a community college tutor, I listen to the stories of teen mothers and drug addicts, of refugees and working-class immigrants, of Christians from the Arab world, of Muslims from Europe, and of students in their 30s and 40s who are all nerves and hope. Listening, I can tell stories that are not about disaffected suburban whites or rural townsfolk or Indian immigrants or Korean immigrants—but about the startling ways in which their lives intersect because I know the voices of all of these. I can write a literature that represents America, not a piece of it. And such a literature can contribute to a unified identity and experience in an increasingly divided nation. I’ve glimpsed this possibility in Sena Jeter Naslund’s Four Spirits and in Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman play Let Me Down Easy. I know it can be done; I also know it takes a lifetime of dedication.

[1] Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 116, line 12.

[2] Hemingway, Ernest.

[3] Fagles, Robert. “The Starry Night.”