Probing Yourself For the Benefit of Others

On artists who mine their own lives to bring comfort to others, or at least make them feel like they're not alone in their pain.

September 13, 2013

Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for...

If you’re one of the lucky few who gets to read books and walk around thinking things for a living, the worst you could do is turn around and make stuff that only addresses the equally fortunate. Everyone knows that art is about the artist, but the game is to make stuff particular to you that others can appreciate. Making art just to inspire other artists is about as humane as a 69; it’s like writing a pop song for a dog whistle. (I think this is why so many artists spritz a fine mist of politics onto work that otherwise reeks of them: they need to feel like they’re doing something that justifies itself, even if they’re only yodelling into a bat cave of the similarly lucky.) If you’re lucky enough to get to probe your own depths for a living, you might want to produce something the people can use. I’m not sure how.

The playwright Young Jean Lee found a way with We’re Gonna Die, an hour-long theatrical production featuring monologues interspersed with live music in the indie rock mold. Lee’s strange, uncanny productions deal in challenging, visceral ways with race, gender, and death; and since I know nothing about theatre, I’d have never heard of her were it not for my friend Naomi, who interviewed Lee for The Believer and whose every suggestion I take on faith. Before We’re Gonna Die ran at the Lincoln Center Theater this August, she emailed me: “Holy shit, you should SEE THIS, not just because it’s Young Jean Lee, but because I think this show was made for you.” So I did, and it was. It was made for everyone.

We’re Gonna Die is a series of anecdotes, told by Lee, about the gamut of terrible things that happen to all of us: loneliness, breakups, parents dying. (The stories are told in the first person and they’re all true, although, with one exception, they happened to friends of hers.) After each monologue, Lee sings a song with her band, Future Wife, that offers a nugget of consolation: getting old is great, because it makes you want to die; horrible things happen to everyone, so why wouldn’t they happen to you? The themes are dark, but the tone is just the opposite: the point is to accept the worst and then make do.

It’s a musical, but unlike most musicals, We’re Gonna Die is about reckoning rather than escape—letting the awful be awful without inflating it to tragic proportions. When things are really bad, and not just sad, our only comfort is the knowledge (if not always the feeling) that we are not alone in our pain. The songs’ messages work better than Hang in There posters and the spectator gets to take them home with her as sort of an emotional lootbag. “I made the show after my father died,” Lee told Interview Magazine, “and the whole point of the show is that isolation you feel when horrible things happen to you, how no one can ever be in there with what you’re experiencing. I made a show trying to comfort myself, and by extension trying to comfort other people who were in that situation.” A self-help musical.

Sheila Heti’s 2010 novel, How Should a Person Be?, while not explicitly self-help anything, is similar in effect. Part of why the book resonated, I think, is because it walked readers through their own thought processes. It’s a collage of all those moments of connection between friends, and reflection alone, that produce a sense of fleeting alrightness, of comfort with the fact that no one knows what they’re doing. This is the irony, when readers disregard “personal writing” as narcissistic, as if all creative endeavours weren’t: when it works, it works like a conversation.

How Should a Person Be? reproduces the afterglow of a great conversation, the sense—entirely healthy, as long as you don’t live in it permanently—that your friends are the most brilliant people in the world, and that each of you is special in your own way. As Sheila-the-character says in the book, “I’m convinced that everyone has been doing something since the age of two. And I’ll bet the genius is not the person who has been drawing comics since the age of two, but the person who, since the age of two, has been wondering where her father is.” Her lover, Israel, is a genius at fucking.

That’s a dream: to compile your little world’s greatest hits and present them to the big world—to “catalogue what you value, then put a fence around these things,” as Heti writes. The clincher is that the novel is as participatory as a rainy-day fun book: you finish with the sense that your friends are brilliant, that your gestures are meaningful, that you could do for your friends what Heti does for hers. Odds are that you can’t, and shoddy personal writing is as infuriating as shoddy critiques of the form, but at least she made you feel good.

Sheila’s friend Margaux issues a warning about creating in a vacuum: a friend of hers from art school ran off to a Buddhist colony in Colorado; when Margaux came to visit, she found her “painting beautiful colours on the insides of the temples that only the people who had reached the highest spiritual plane were allowed to see.” Being a good thinker and artist is no more elevated than being a good welder or a good social worker, but welders and social workers at least do their thing where the rest of us can see it. There’s something suspicious about cordoning off the work the world lets you live for. Accessibility doesn’t always make for better material, but it’s encouraging to know that it can.

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Alexandra Molotkow is an editor at Real Life magazine. She was a founding editor of Hazlitt, an associate editor of the Hairpin and arts columnist for the Globe and Mail. Her writing has appeared in The Cut, The Believer, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine.