On Art and Truth
Unlike math or science, the question of the true definition of art is not an absolute. The philosophy of art and beauty is indefinite and varied amongst different people. For instance, I may see a painting to be beautiful, and though I may have a reason for seeing it as such, my reason will most likely be different from another person’s perception of the painting. There is no absolute when it comes to the reason a certain aesthetic may appeal to the masses or to just one or few within them. However, I feel most people can tell when art is contrived to be something for reasons other than actual artistic merit, such as an “artist” that creates to pander to the masses for his own (financial?) gain, and art in its most pure form.
Naturally, that begged the question of what is the difference? and naturally, I sought the answer.
After much thought, I came up with an idea in the form of an antidote that I lived many years ago. Bear with me.
I graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor’s degree with a double major in biology and psychology in November of 2009. In my four years at UofT, I took two writing courses in the summer before my graduation. The first I assumed to be a bird course that I hoped would improve my GPA so that I could get into a good chiropractic school somewhere in the United States. I wasn’t passionate about chiropractic, but to be called a doctor and to have the money and glory that comes with the title is the Egyptian dream. Coming from a family of engineers and university instructors and pharmacists and doctors, my path laid paved before me by expectation and pride.
A strange thing happened as I sat through the lectures of what I assumed would be a bird course. I was able to pay attention. I could sit and listen to the professor talk of the science of rhythm and cadence in writing. I found the study of flow in its relation to feel of the written word gripping, which was new to me. I’d always loved reading, but until that course I had never explored the idea that words on a page could be written to feel much like music. And I was good at it.
My professor told me I was good. Others in the class told me I was good. I felt I was good. I’d found a way to express myself through words without making a sound. I told my story from the privacy of my bedroom without a stutter or awkward silence, and found that it resonated with a lot of my colleagues and my teacher (it was a nonfiction creative writing course).
I had found something that I loved.
At the same time, I was sent a handbook of required courses I would need to take during my four years of chiropractic college if I was successfully accepted from New York Chiropractic College (though I had already been officially accepted at D’Youville College a few weeks prior). I looked at all the biology courses I would have to take and felt my stomach wretch. Just a few months prior, I’d sat through hours of lectures, head on my palm and eyes closed, my mind at the edge of sleep until my head would slip out of my hand and jostle me awake, or the professor would snap her fingers in my direction until my eyes burst open. I did not need any more of that. The thought of it continuing for another three to four years repulsed me.
I tossed the course handbook aside and searched masters of writing on my old Toshiba laptop. The first result I found was an ad for a small liberal arts school in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Lesley University. They offered an MFA in Creative Writing.
I checked the program’s prerequisites. Lesley required a Bachelor’s degree, a sample or two of an applicant’s writing, two letters of recommendation, and an application letter.
Lesley offered MFAs in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As a 21 year old suburbanite living in one of Canada’s safest cities, I didn’t feel I had much of a story to submit as nonfiction to the program (though all my writing up until that point had been nonfiction). And poetry – I just didn’t get poetry. So I decided on fiction.
I sat crouched at my dining room table for weeks writing a story about a schizophrenic kid in some unspoken and unknown American southern state who killed his best friend. I spent my time trying to give life to my story with purple prose and what Hemingway called ten dollar words. Still, I couldn’t feel my story fully live. I brought it to my creative writing professor to look it over. He was very kind with his words when he implied that it was garbage.
Crushed, I could barely manage to ask what was wrong.
I couldn’t say I was surprised. All the stories I’d written in my two writing classes (both with this same professor) came easy and felt true. But this story I’d written to apply to the MFA program at Lesley was hard to write. I never quite understood the setting or the characters I’d written about. They were caricatures of American southerners and southern life based on what I’d seen on television and in movies.
“Write what you know,” my professor said.
I thanked my professor for his time and walked away with my pride wounded.
Write what you know.
My ego stunted, I pushed on. I started on a new story that night. This one about an Egyptian. A Coptic Egyptian. Living in Egypt. He wasn’t like everyone else and he didn’t want to be. Thus the title of my story, Anti-Sheep.
The man in the story was given until that night to live, and that stress pulled on his body like an anchor as he tried to move through the day.
Like the stress that weighed on me to finish this new story after being told my last one was no good. My present state of mind was tied to the words of that character and Cairo’s insomnious streets. That story was too frantic, too disorganized and alive to the point of exhaustion to be any good. I finished it in four days and asked no one to read it.
I collected my reference letters and wrote my application in an hour and printed my story and sent my package. I told my father I was waiting for the rejection in the mail. He told me to get ready for chiropractic college.
For the next few weeks I lived my life. I hung out with friends, went to the gym, read Blood Meridian and dreaded the mail.
Until the phone call. It was a midsummer’s night. I sat watching the television when the phone rang. The number on my caller ID was a 617. I had never seen that area code on my phone before. I picked up.
“Hi, can I please talk to Mina A-tha-na,”
“Yeah that’s me.”
“Oh. I thought you’d be a woman.”
“I get that all the time.”
“Well, this is Steven Cramer from Lesley University’s MFA program. A few of our faculty read your work and some were very excited by it. I wanted to call you personally to tell you that you’ve been accepted to join our next cohort this coming January.”
I sat confused and wondered if this man was serious. Had they actually read my writing? That disorganized mess of a story?
And he had the audacity to tell me that they had a low acceptance rate. That means my writing meant something to someone. Crazy.
Steven went on to tell me that two authors on staff read my story. One of them, Michael Lowenthal, loved it. The other thought it was utter trash. Unfortunately, the one who hated it had died, and I got in.
I thanked Steven and pretended I would think about the offer. There wasn’t much to think about. Lesley was the only school I applied to for an MFA. If I didn’t get in, I would be cracking backs and treating subluxations today.
That experience taught me more about writing then any class or seminar. I found that the writing life was more about life then writing. Art is not merely an aesthetic. Art is an extension of the artist.
My truth was chaos and my chaos was life and my life was my channel to the hearts and minds of others who understood it.
That understanding stuck with me as I finished my Masters and prepared my thesis. The understanding that there are others living a similar unnamed chaos that could find some degree of solace in my words pushed me to publish my words. I submitted a few selections from my manuscript in early February of 2016 to a small independent publisher in Oakville, Ontario called Mosaic Press. It was accepted in mid-April of 2017.
I am excited and terrified to reveal my person to the world, but I have written my truth, and my truth is now yours.