Our Dot in the Painting (Fiction Ethics #1)

How many snowflakes does it take to make a landscape?
(image by Cody Fitzgerald via Unsplash)

This is the first of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

I went with Nora and a friend yesterday to a regional arts show, a chance for craftspeople to present their work for Christmas purchase. A rough order-of-magnitude estimation showed about ten thousand items for sale. Ceramic mugs and baby onesies. Earrings and macrame flower pot slings. Paintings and drawings and printed note cards. Sewn dolls, knit hats, woven baskets. I looked past one of the masked artists, eager and resigned simultaneously as she sat in her metal folding chair, looked out the window at the light scatter of snow. As many unique snowflakes inside as out, each the product of its ecosystem, each more significant through collective than individual contribution. The work mostly unconsidered, effort mostly unrewarded. We browse, we pass by.

I thought to myself, uncharitably, that most of the work was somewhere between undistinguished and meager. But it was there. It provided the basis for several hundred people to have a pleasurable time browsing, and made fifty artists probably a few hundred dollars per, on average. That’s a good contribution to the world’s supply of generosity, made slowly, one drawing and one scarf at a time. The individual scarf mattered less than the event, which brought us all together to leave the news and the fear and the anger behind for an hour in a pretty space on a pretty landscape.

Everyone who makes any kind of art has this question at some point or another: isn’t there enough already? Does the world need my novel, when millions of novels have already been written? (We need to come up with a different word, by the way, now that the novel has shed all of its novelty.) Do we need more earrings, more mugs, more potholders?

And a second, related question: is my contribution any good? Pre-COVID, Nora and I went every December to the Arts Boston annual Christmas craft exhibition, a closely juried, highly competitive event held in a ballroom of the Hynes Convention Center. By “highly competitive,” I mean that maybe one or two of the fifty folks we saw locally yesterday might have passed the juried threshold for Craft Boston participation. Would my own writing pass a similar threshold? Am I making stories of quality, or stories dull and ill-constructed? And would all juries agree on my work’s position within an ever-shifting context?

Let’s turn this around, all this self-focused, self-critical inner conversation that stops us. Let’s imagine another way to describe all of this, which is that all of us—all us writers, jewelers, weavers, potters, painters, papermakers, actors, furniture makers—are building a landscape of generosity through our continued investment in generous work. We spend our hours working to see, to make, and then to offer. And we know the alternative: people who spend their hours working to hide, or to tear down, or to diminish. As Nora has said to me about miserable, nasty people, “Just be glad you don’t have to live inside that head.” And I don’t. I can live inside the head of someone trying to be hopeful and compassionate. It doesn’t matter if I “fail,” if I fall short from time to time. Trying to be hopeful and generous and compassionate is way better than trying to be powerful or dominant or defensive. And if I can spend my time with others engaged in the same effort, with all those potters and weavers and singers placing their offerings on the altar, then my days are better days than they’d be otherwise.

So I’d ask you to stop thinking for a few minutes about whether the work you do is any good, or about whether the world “needs” your product. What the world needs is for you to be the kind of person who does thoughtful and generous work. To be a dot in our pointillist painting of a kind landscape. Thanks for doing that.

More tomorrow.

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