In a workshop at my M.F.A. program, a teacher once suggested that if I was stuck with writing, I might try switching art forms. Bad as my stories were, I don't think she was advising me to quit writing; what she meant was, go see a movie, take a painting class, listen to a favorite album. Her idea was that art inspires art, and that you're especially free when you're not trying to get paid for it. A problem was that I did want to get paid for it, and I felt I'd have slightly less of a chance if I spent my mornings singing along to Harry Connick, Jr. records. Slightly.
That summer I parted ways with a woman I loved very much. At the time I thought I'd lost her forever, and it opened up a kind of gaping sadness in me which I later realized was loss. I tried to write. Got more depressed. But somehow, after wandering the halls of one particular story, I stumbled on some real feelings. I knew it by the energy of the language, the fact that I wasn't trying to impress anyone but rather get a hold on something in myself. One admission I have to make is that every morning before I worked on this piece, I followed my writing teacher's advice and listened to a CD that was so unbelievably cheesy I would be humiliated to tell you what it was. But I finished a draft of the story, "Shel," in a week, and by some miracle it became my first publication, appearing in this magazine.
As a teenager, I was angry and sullen. Pimples. I remember one night when I was fifteen, sitting in a room listening to a John Coltrane CD, and beginning to cry. Not because of how beautiful the music was, but because I was jealous. Enraged at him for being able to excise that passion through his horn. I had no way to purge myself of the things I felt; they sat inside me like some sour bellyache.
Let me take a feeble and presumptuous stab at the question of what art is: I think it's an expression of some unnamable, unplayable, unswimmable, unsmokeable feeling within us. People try to translate this feeling however they can: by dancing, running, cooking, drinking, therapy. Even the corniest pop music, in its cellophane way, brushes against this human feeling when it makes us cry.
While I'm out on this shabby limb, let me make one more unsupportable claim about artists: much as we complain, torture as the work is, demeaning as the rewards are, infuriating as publishing and reviews and the public can be, we are unimaginably lucky. Blessed to have this mission, this horn to blow.
And if this talk is getting too weighty and earnest for you, as it is for me, I'll bring it back down to earth by telling you who I listened to every morning while I was writing "Shel." (Cringe.) It was Fiona Apple.