Not letting ‘better’ get in the way of ‘good’

Close-up on spider plantlets, a tangle of green and white bladelike leaves.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about what it means to be an artist. Who gets to be an artist? Who gets to own that? What are the obligations of an artist? If they keep it to themselves, if they share to the world, what does that mean? As a writer and teacher these questions have been floating around in the back of my mind for a long time, but a few interactions recently have really amped them up for me.

Last week, the English Dept. at Ohio State (where I work) was swarmed by a group of about thirty local high school students participating in the Young Writers Workshop, a weeklong residential camp where they get to learn from published writers all about creative writing. They were great to have around, full of excitement and energy. My friend Raena was one of the poetry faculty, and she stopped by one afternoon to give me a copy of her poetry collection, Gilt, and to catch up a bit. We talked about creative output and how it skews in unexpected ways, and I mentioned somewhat self-deprecatingly that I had been writing some songs recently, mostly for rituals. While we were talking, a student popped his head in the door to say hi, and I introduced us both, mentioning at some point that both Raena and I held MFAs in Poetry from Ohio State, but that “only Raena’s actually published any, haha!”

And then the most miraculous thing happened: absolutely sincerely and enthusiastically, Raena exclaimed, “yeah, but he’s writing songs! to Greek gods and who knows what else!” I owe Raena a real debt of gratitude for that casual moment, because this, I think, is one of the obligations of the artist: not only to bring forth work, but to hold up others and say “this person is doing great things!” That goes doubly, I think, if that person isn’t yet able to own their own work; we owe it to each other to lift each other up. (And I’m realizing in the writing of this that I never got around to saying it directly while she was in town, so R— here’s your public thank you I guess!)

A few days later, two friends shared the same comic, from artist Shelby Miller (@shubbabang on Twitter):

The comic hit me at just the right time. Ever since I started writing songs, I’d always intended to share them. I just needed to get better, I thought. Better songwriting, better guitar playing, better recording setup. Just… better. For various professional and personal reasons, I think a lot about how self-presentation works, especially online where image is everything and early material never goes away. And so I’d been biding my time, looking toward some magical future when I’d be ‘good enough’.

But Raena’s enthusiasm had already gotten me thinking more critically about my own downplaying of my work, and so when Valerie and Jasmine shared this comic about not doing that exact thing, and I’d just so happened to have recorded a song less than a week prior in order to share with a few folks who I knew would appreciate it, well… ‘better’ is the enemy of ‘good’, yeah? I’m not where I want to be, yet, as a musician or songwriter, but I also think that this is another obligation of the artist, specifically when the artist also feels a calling to serve the folk: to share work and let others engage with it.

So I’m sharing this song, even though it’s going to make the skin crawl off my bones to hit Publish. And I’ll share more in the future, though there may be a pause there: part of the summer’s goal is to convert a portion of the basement into rehearsal/recording space so that I don’t have to balance iPads on books in the attic to do so. In the meantime, this is “Mantis Is Queen.” I relate to Mantis as a pruning/guiding protector spirit, and as a form of Teutates, god of the tribe: this is half praisesong, half personified voice. I hope you enjoy it.


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