If you’re applying for writing grants and prizes, you’re often required to write an Artist Statement. It’s usually accompanied by your Bio and and a Work Sample. The latter two are easy. The first one can be agonizing. Essentially it asks you to explain who you are in relation to your art. Why your particular genre? How do you approach it? How/what techniques do you employ in creating your art? What are your artistic goals? The Artist Statement is a great deal about identity–how you and your art live and work together. My one page statement took some serious thinking (as in the photo!) and a long, concentrated weekend of work. I’m happy to say it was part of a successful application for a major, writing fellowship. In the spirit of being of use in the world, I attach it below.
Will Weaver: Artist Statement
In the 1980s, as a young man I attended a farm auction. A rural family had lost everything. I was starting to write, though went to the sale not in search subject matter but because I knew the people. Yet afterward, I felt compelled to record that day. The public humiliation of the failed farmer. The moral dilemma of a neighbor bidding on his implements. The alienating feeling that most attendees did not appear to see the day in tragic terms like I did. As W. H. Auden wrote in his poem about spectators to the fall of Icarus, “To them it was not an important failure.” How could they not see it! Feel it? “Dispersal”, my barely fictional rendering of the auction, was published and syndicated widely. Later that year I found myself at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., sitting between Pulitzer Prize winner Joyce Carol Oates and Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks as we waited for our PEN Writing awards. It was a good lesson about art: trust one’s feelings. Listen to the heart. If something feels important, it is. If an issue keeps calling, answer.
Now, several decades and a dozen novels later, I see those spectators at the auction in a far more charitable way. Doubtless most of them felt, like me, the sadness of the day. They just didn’t know how to express it. They did not have the advantages–the tools of language, literature, study, and reading that I had accumulated as a young English major. Thus, by writing my short story, I had spoken for them.
In the end, an artist is an interpreter. The author Flannery O’Connor remarked that the writer is the person who looks, “once, twice, three times at things” in order to make full sense of them. I am, I’ve come to see, that person. A fragment of an immigrant story told by my grandfather called to me, softly but insistently, for over twenty years until I answered. It became the short story “A Gravestone Made of Wheat” and then the film Sweet Land. In our upper Midwest setting I can’t tell you how many people who, having read the story and seen the film, have told me, “Yes. That’s how it was. That could have been my family.”
But an idea or a “call” is not art. After their arrival comes the work. The techniques of writing. For me it’s “show, not tell.” Persuade not preach. Create characters that seem real and recognizable. Write locally but aim toward universal themes. And above all stay with the story–keep after it until it reveals itself. Revise and revise to make the story still more understandable, still more accessible to the reader, whose needs (coherence, clarity, and completeness) are always in mind as I write.
Which is never easy. Writing is incremental. My new novel took five years. It’s often frustrating, occasionally exhilarating , and never fully “done.” But when a published short story or novel finds its audience, it can nudge them toward a better place–more empathetic, more thoughtful, more “human”–than when they opened the book to page one. That’s always been my goal as artist. It’s also my reward.