Every person has the capacity, experience and perspective to create good art. Those who pursue art often feel that they must create, and the art comes from somewhere beyond themselves. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to author and APU professor, Dr. Jackie Fowler, about being compelled to write, how it brings happiness along with frustration. Also learn how she teaches writing, the difference between critique and criticism, her creative process, and the importance of artists and their work evolving over time.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Jacqueline Fowler, Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education. And our conversation today is about an artist’s oeuvre, why art is created. Welcome, Jackie.
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Dr. Jackie Fowler: Hi Bjorn. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for being here. If there’s one person I want to talk about one’s collected works and why we create art, it’s you. Now in just as a little aside, I use the term oeuvre, which I’m probably saying that wrong, but it’s a French term which really describes one’s holistic and say complete works of art. And so it’s not to be too super fancy here, but it’s really why do we create art? Why do we continue to create art? And so the first question is, although it’s a philosophical question, why do artists create art?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Because we have to. It’s the simplest answer ever, we’re compelled to. And there are times in my life where I say, “Why do I do this?” This morning I was up at 3:30 in the morning, working on a chapter that I have to finish. And I think most normal people sleep in until they have to go to work, but writers are compelled. We sleep with it. We dream about it. We see it all the time.
And so even when I say things, and I have over my past, even when I say things like, “I just don’t get why I do this. I’m not going to write anymore.” I find myself a few weeks later sitting down at the computer and knocking something out. So I can’t tell you what compels us to do it, but the answer is why do we do it? Is because we have to.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I like that answer because I agree with it. I look back in my life and why do I have a drive to write music? Why do I have a drive to hopefully write a novel like you have and books like you have? And it’s one of those things that it’s very confusing because there are other things we can do in our life, which are totally legit. And there’s nothing that say, this is going to sound terrible, but our voice and what we present to the world won’t be that radically different than other people that have lived throughout history.
And so I understand why sometimes people are like, what am I going to contribute? And that’s one of the first great hurdles that an artist has to overcome is what can I contribute that is unique? And so here’s my question for you. What can you contribute that’s unique?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Well, now here I’m going to disagree with you just a little bit. So not only do I write, but I teach writing and what I recognize about writing, and this is my specialty in creativity, what I can see in writing is that every person has a distinct style, a distinct voice. It’s almost like a fingerprint. And after reading a few papers by a student, for instance, I know without looking at the name who wrote the paper in front of me. And so I think one of the things we contribute is our own special voice, our own idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, our own understanding of life, of what makes us tick.
I can explain it I think better if I tell you this is what writers do. If I’m driving at night in a city I don’t know, or a city I do know for that matter, and I see the lights on in a house as I’m passing. If I see a person in the house, my mind starts to create their story. Every single human being I pass on the street has a story and there is where we may say, no story is that different from anybody else’s story. Mostly it’s the same story. But it’s the way we tell the story that contributes to the way we see our lives and the lives of other in this strange experiment of humanity that we’re in. And so I think what we contribute as artists in general is a view of the world.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I always tell people when they say I can’t write, or I’m not an artist, or I’m not a musician. And I always tell them, everybody is. Every single person has the capacity and the experience and the perspective of creating good art. Now, some people might only have one good novel in them, but everybody has one great novel and that novel is usually about themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that because we, first of all, create art as a reflection of ourselves and whatever’s going on in our brains and our hearts and our minds and we process the world that way. And so every single person has one great novel and it’s about them and you can be artistic and different and it doesn’t have to be a choose your own adventure, where it’s you going through life just telling that story. And that’s where just the complexity and the richness of how people do it.
When I said that we all have similar stories in the sense that stories are re-told. Humans have similar paths that every other human has had before. And so I’ll describe music. So for, I’ll say 500 years, Western and European, the U.S., has built upon European music and the traditions of that music. Uses the diatonic scale, so there are seven notes, and amongst those seven notes we’ve used traditional harmony for about 500 years. Even before that, where they didn’t have “traditional harmony,” they still use something that was similar to that. And so it’s amazing how after 500 years using seven notes and the limited range of human hearing, every single person can create a song no matter who you are.
I always like to use the example of Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is a great musician. She writes her own songs, she’s wildly successful. But if you listen to her songs today, they sound like the songs when she was 19. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, and when you hear a Taylor song you know it’s Taylor Swift. And one of the things that has allowed Taylor Swift to be so financially successful is that people like the image of Taylor and they like her music.
And so, from an artist’s perspective, should you go with the style that you develop and continue to develop that style? Or should you try to change your style radically because you’d want to do something different?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: I would say both. And let me give you a good example. One of our famous poets, William Butler Yeats, changed his style, distinct changes, four times over his lifetime. But within that change, he had fingerprints of words that he loved to use and passages that he loved to write and rhythms that he loved to hear. And so even as he changed his style and really radically changed his style, he went from a romantic to a modernist, you still know it was Yeats. You can still read Yeats and see Yeats inside his poetry, whether or not it’s in the romantic vein or in the modernist vein.
For me, one of the greatest parts of being a writer is that I also teach writing. And because of that I’m really aware of what you’re saying, I don’t know if I would be. If I were Taylor Swift and I didn’t teach songwriting, I may not be as aware of it as I am as a teacher of writing. And so I recognize some of my markers in my writing and some of them I like, I write a lot of alliteration and it helps move a piece of exposition along. Good alliteration makes it move.
But I also am aware that I shouldn’t do that all the time. I shouldn’t rely on that. It’s an easy for me, it’s an easy piece of what my marker and my writing is. And so sometimes I try to mix it up and stretch myself and try something different. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But the beauty is that as an artist we evolve and I think you know that in writing music as well, we must evolve, because you’re right, there are only so many stories and all of those stories have been told, that’s the conventional writing wisdom. All the stories that ever were have been told and the only thing we add to it is how we see the stories that we’re already told, how we conceive of them and how we narrate them.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. And that’s an absolutely wonderful example. And for my other musical example, I’ll present Arnold Schoenberg and Sergei Rachmaninoff. So they were born within a year of each other, 1873 and 1874. And so Rachmaninoff, the great pianist, virtuoso pianist who toured the world, his style was very romantic, late romantic, and it stayed that way. So what he wrote in say 1904 was very similar to what he wrote around 1940 and his style is lush and beautiful and you can hear it in movies and it’s everything that you want, beautiful romantic. And you might listen to his life and his oeuvre and it’s like, well, it didn’t change much. But we don’t know how he might have changed internally. So what we hear might sound similar, but what’s inside, he might have changed greatly. I don’t know. I’m not an expert on Rachmaninoff, I just know what I hear.
Versus if you look at Arnold Schoenberg, he started again in that late romantic, especially with his Transfigured Night, which is very late romantic, it’s beautiful. And then he went on to develop atonal and 12 tone music in which different rules are created. And that weird music that’s hard to listen to when it comes to Western classical music in the 20th century, partially started with him. And so you hear him develop as a composer in such a radically different way and I’m not going to say one or the other is better. They’re different.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Well Schoenberg is pushing boundaries, right? He’s changing so radically. He’s finding himself, he’s feeling out his work. He is creating in advance of the movement. So if you think about Yeats, Yeats is in the romantic period. He is influenced by the context all around him, so that his poetry in 1890 is romantic. It fits in the creative milieu of Western Europe. He’s there, he’s feeling that. But after World War I and World War II, by the time we get to 1930, the chaos has been part of the cultural context, has become part of the creative context. And so he begins to write in a less romantic way and a much more modernist way, exploring the themes that are out there in cultural context.
For us right now, our country is undergoing such a shift, such division. I’ve never felt so much anger. I wonder regularly where does all the anger come from? But I notice that my work is changing to reflect some of that. I comment on it more. I feel it more as I’m writing and that’s generally not my voice.
And so, I think we’re all affected by each other, by the cultural context that we live in, the socio historical context that we live in. By the music we hear and the film that we watch and the paintings that we see and the sculptors that are producing, and it, of course, influences our own work. Of course.
Even if comes on so subtle that we don’t even recognize the change. And I think a lot of times, I’m not so sure Yeats sat down and thought, I think that today I’m going to change the way I write. I think he was influenced. I think about his Easter Rising, he was so devastated by what was happening in Dublin that of course it would come out in his poetry. It was a passionate rendering of the historical context that he lived through, and so there it was in his work.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense. One of the very interesting things about late 19th century, early 20th century European history is that there’s so many technological advancements that people are so optimistic and they were seeing the world change. Even with the Industrial Revolution, and I’ll just throw in a little Marx there, where cultural and societal norms were being shattered.
When we talk about things like, things are so different today. They were really different in the late 19th century into 1900 because Kings and Queens and futile societies that had existed for hundred and hundreds years were shattered in that time. And so many people were looking at what was being created and said, “No. I’m not going to do it. I’m going to do something else.”
And that’s where, like my example of Rachmaninoff comes in and I love his music. I respect him and there’s absolutely no judgment on his style “staying the same.” And I look at Schoenberg and I think absolutely wonderful and his style radically changed and it’s a testament to history and what he came up with and it’s different.
And that’s one of the most important things is that, like what we’ve been talking about, is you have to find something in your voice that you feel you can communicate and is worthwhile. When you’re talking about what’s been going in the pandemic, the political milieu of the U.S. and the world actually, is that for me I’ve actually doubled down, it sounds funny, I’ve doubled down on children’s music. So instead of my style communicating the uncertainty or the confusing nature of the world, my style has simplified it into.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: But you see that as a reaction to the cultural context and the socio historical context you find yourself. So in effect it’s the same kind of response, just going the other way. We’re all affected by the environment we live in.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely. And even with my writings, I’ve been focusing mainly on virtues. Not how people should live, but in ways in which there are wonderful traditions that we humans inherit that we can continue with. Not all traditions are great and we do need to throw some of them out. But in many ways there are wonderful traditions that we inherit from our fathers and mothers that we should continue. And then there’re other ones we should throw them out because, you know what, they don’t matter anymore and they don’t apply to contemporary humans.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: I agree. But I think that it’s scary. It gets us to the edge of the abyss. So we’re much more comfortable with what we know, even if what we know is not right. We know it’s not right, but we can’t give it up because we don’t know what’s coming.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s why when people throw around progressive or conservative or different things like that, and somebody says, “I’m a conservative.” I’m like, I get it. Because conservative is like sticking with what you know, with traditions, beautiful traditions and things that you’ve inherited from your parents. And there’s nothing that we don’t want to do then to look at our parents or our heritage and say, “They were wrong.” And this is a simplified view of it. But to be conservative is to say, “Yes, what we’ve inherited is beautiful.” And in many ways what we have inherited is beautiful, but in other ways, what we’ve inherited is quite ugly.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: I think Bjorn, one of the things you’re getting to that I love about creatives is that we’re used to chaos. So creativity happens in the chaos. We’re used to taking step into the abyss otherwise we can’t create. If you follow the rules all the time, when you create, it’s a white bread creation. So we step into the creative chaos and we let it go. And I find often that it’s the creatives that take the rest of us kicking and screaming into the next set of traditions, into our new set of traditions.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Perfectly stated. My next question isn’t really a question, but it’s more of thinking and really focusing and reflecting on this. And so the great 20th century German composer, Paul Hindemith, he said in an interview with him, “I’ve written a lot of music, 80% is bad.” And then the interviewer said, “So why did you write it?” And Hindemith said, “Because without the 80%, there would not have been the 20% and that 20% was pretty good.” But this follows the Pareto principle, which is the 80/20 rule. Originally it was in economics, but people throw out that 80/20 rule all the time. So why do we have to create 100% of our oeuvre to get to the 20% that’s really good?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: That’s a good question. So I think at the very basic level, it takes practice to hone your craft. So, you’ve got to throw a lot of pitches to be a good pitcher, and you’ve got to practice a lot of violin to be good at the violin, and you need to write a lot of words to get something good on paper.
And so, I think the first level answer to that question is that you got to hone your skill to get to the 20%. Sometimes people are really lucky and they get the 20% upfront and then the 80% comes after. I would say they’re lucky because they have the success at first, but then they chase after that. I’m thinking, for instance Fitzgerald, he wrote all his best stuff up front and then just couldn’t quite get to it after that.
But I also think that creatives, as I said earlier, tend to push the boundaries for society. And so I think it takes 100% of our work for the rest of society to catch up with us. So it’s really important to keep putting it out there and to keep going back to the well and trying it again and trying it again until somebody finally says, “Wait a second, I get what she’s saying there. I know what she’s going for here.” And then people kind of catch up with the creative soul for both of those reasons and probably a bazillion more, that’s why I think you have to do 100% for 20%.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I can think of a variety of different examples, such as the Beatles. The Beatles had some outstanding success in about 1964. And they put a lot of years of hard work into that. And then their output for the next seven years, it’s not all good. They still made millions and millions and millions of dollars because then the Beatles just put out albums and everybody bought it. But when you look at individual songs and you’re like, “It’s okay.” And if you look at fast forward to the seventies with Led Zeppelin, people love Led Zeppelin. But again, they’re not all great, but that’s okay and that’s going to my own criticism of classical music, Mozart and Beethoven. We don’t have to listen to them all the time, but we don’t have to listen to Mozart’s early symphony from when he was a teenager. Now it’s interesting, it’s amazing that he wrote those so early, but we don’t need to listen to them. They’re not good.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Yeah. But I think your examples, Bjorn, are connecting with an earlier question you asked about the fingerprint aspect of our creativity. So we accept Led Zeppelin, even the bad work, because we really appreciate the great stuff. So we’re going to be a little more forgiving of the not-so-great stuff because we love the great stuff.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely. It reminds me of another artist whom a lot of his stuff is really good, Tom Waits, and just his output the quality is so good, but he’s never been concerned with monetary success. Let me also say somebody who has enough money to not be concerned with monetary success and then focus on it.
And with that 80/20 rule, there are some people that are always looking to do things different, like we’ve been talking about. And when it comes to more pop music, Tom Waits has really done a great job. Now, a little more contemporary or a little, at least newer, maybe Radiohead or even other people whom have tried to push the boundaries of pop music. And they definitely have, and I don’t want to come off an as a snob, but there’s only certain point that pop artists can do that, if that makes sense.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: For anyone who’s listening to this who thinks, “I want to write, I want to paint, I want to write music, I want to do something creative, I want to be that creative force in society.” If they go into it thinking that they’re going to get rich from it, that’s not reality. If they go into it because they need to create, they have to create, they must create, then they’re going to be okay even if the success never comes. Even if the fame and the money never comes, they’re doing what they need to you. They get their voices out there.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That was very well put versus what I was trying to say. Where to me, Tom Waits is somebody who is always focusing on the art. He’s creating something that is artistic and it’s all about expressing himself through music and words for what he does. And there’re many artists, dozens, hundreds of artists where they get into music or writing because “I love the idea of being important or I love the idea of being famous” and then they do hit it.
And then later we have the story about how X, Y, and Z lost their money from their great hit and then have been struggling afterwards. And again, that’s not a criticism, but if you focus on your art and you don’t worry about the money and then if you do happen to make money that helps facilitate you creating more art, that’s ideal and it also lives a very humble life. One of my common themes is humility in the sense that you just try to tell good, simple stories that people can relate to.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Yeah. I’m going to go back to Yeats again. My first novel was on Yeats so I did a lot of research on Yeats. And one of the things I loved about Yeats is he was unapologetic spiritualist. And one of the things he believed is that creatives tap into this universal fount of creativity and so therefore it’s not theirs. It’s not their fount of creativity, it’s universal and we can all tap into it.
Although Yeats was not known for his humility, he believed that it was incumbent on the artist to remain humble in their art because it was coming from somewhere else. It was universal. It wasn’t theirs. They were borrowing it for the time that they were creating. I love that idea. Whether it’s true or not matters very little to me, but the idea that we create because we have to, not because we’re brilliant, I think is the way for creatives to stay happy, if not a little frustrated, to stay happy in their production of art.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Completely agree. And once somebody starts believing in their brilliance, that’s when I would have to say, you really do need to step back humble and you do need to step back and find that humility again, because if you have a big hit one day, you can have a complete zero in the next day. And it’s not that anything’s that different.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: One of the really wonderful ways that I stay humble is I’ve joined a writing group of pretty successful authors. It’s all women, which is kind of fun. We have committed to being honest in our appraisal of each other’s work. So we have to produce at least a chapter for a book every month when we meet. And our second role, and the only other role, is that when we are looking at one of the groups’ chapters that we’re absolutely no-holds-bar honest about what’s working and what’s not. I just think the world of these women, I respect them so much and their work and their intelligence. So when I hear them saying, “That is just not working.” There’s nothing more humbling than that.
The beautiful part of it is with that humility comes access to how readers see our words. And so by being honest with me, they’re giving me the opportunity to correct it before I send it out into the world. It’s listening to the reality of how the words are working on a page and then having the opportunity to change them. And that’s a beautiful part of the humility process.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s true. And much like we talked about having to create 100% of our overall works, or of our oeuvre, we need feedback. And you need somebody who’s trusted, just like you said, and you need somebody who can give you that honest feedback. And not overly critical where they’re like, “This is wrong.” And, “Everything is wrong.” There’s criticism that is positive and then there’s criticism because sometimes people just don’t know how to be nice.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Do you know, when I teach in writing classes I say there’s a difference between criticism and critique. When we workshop writing, we’re critiquing, we’re looking at the words and the words have no specific connection to you as a human being. They’re just words. But a criticism is about you, about the artist, about the writer. And so one of the things I teach my students in the classroom is the difference in how to, the difference between criticism and critique and how to engage in critique.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like that because going back to my example of Taylor Swift is some people could criticize Taylor Swift because of how she looks. It has nothing to do with her music. Could criticize her lyrics because they’re about her, they’re about more what women go through. Again, it’s not about the music, it’s not about anything substantial. They’re surface-level criticisms. Again, people can do that. But then as the artist, you have to go through a list and be like, yes, no, no, no, yes, no. And have the wherewithal and the confidence to take some of the ideas that people have and say, “I’ll work on that.” And other ones be like, “You know what, I’m confident in my own artistic judgment that I’m going to stick with what I’m doing.”
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Yeah. It’s interesting. I just finished a memoir of my time in the Middle East. It looks at a period of time about four and a half years. And writing a memoir is tough, man. You put it all on the paper. You are exposing the most vulnerable aspects of yourself and a good memoirist tries really hard not to cover it up or whitewash it. The beauty comes in the vulnerability. And so we just workshopped the full memoir. One of the critiques they had for me is that I wrote a memoir and there’s not enough of me in the memoir. So I realized what I was doing is I had written a memoir about the Middle East and the Middle East was the actual main character.
Now I’m rewriting it to add more of my interaction in the Middle East. What they liked was when they saw me interacting as a woman that was completely out of her element, completely clueless as to the cultural expectations and the language was so different. So they loved those interactions. It was a really good piece of critique. I could still honor the land, I could still honor that part of the character that I created in the book, but put a human in contrast to it and see how that human interacts. It’s a great piece of critique.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that totally makes sense because readers, of course, have to connect with the person, with the character with the central focus. And there’s various travel logs and journals about the Middle East people could read which is just about the countries. Really good writings. But if you want to read a story about Irish Catholic girl from Pennsylvania going to the Middle East and the misadventures of Jackie, I want to know about what those misadventures were. And especially the growth and what it’s like and in a culture that is different yet in so many ways similar because we’re all human.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Exactly. And I think for me, it’s something I’ve always known own as a writer, and let me try to explain this through the back door and then I’ll come around and make the connection, I hope. So as I was growing up, I was one of six kids in an Irish Catholic family that told stories. And so it was really hard to be heard among that brood. They were really good. Their timing was perfect and everything was great. They were such good storytellers. And I found what I was doing was observing. I was observing the world, not living the world.
And so I would do something and think how would I write that? Which is a different way of telling a story. So I couldn’t compete with my brothers and sisters and my dad because they were oral storytellers and I was observing the world. So what happens when I write a memoir is I have to be particularly careful because I’m writing my observations without me in it. And so the funny parts of my memoir is the misadventures. It’s the funny parts when people crack up for the stupid things that I did, or the situations I got myself into that vulnerability is what makes a memoir a memoir.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that because at the end of the day, we have to write something, of course, that people will read. It has to be engaging. And so oftentimes, especially with writing, you put yourself into it and then even if you’ve written 10, 20 novels, there’s still so much about you or your family that is translated through those words.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: What’s really cool about that is that the conventional wisdom in writing is that we write what we know. So even if we’re writing fiction, you can look at certain things and say, that happened to the author, or something like that happened, or that’s a person from the author’s life. And it may not be exactly true. It may be a composite of people or a composite of situations.
But sometimes in fiction you can write the characteristics of someone very close to you, change the name and the person could read the book and never recognize him or herself in the character. I love when that happens. I love when you can write a character that’s for real, that’s true, in a piece of fiction and the actual character doesn’t recognize him or herself.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s why for any writers out there, please don’t write about your family in a direct way.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Too late.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Or your friends, because you’ll just make them mad.
Dr. Jackie Fowler: Bjorn, my family now says to me, so I have a brother who’s a year younger than me and he called to tell me a story about my other brother the other day. And he said to me, “Now Jack, I don’t want to see this in a short story when I tell you this.” And so my family have now taken to telling me when I can write about their stories and when I can’t. So I think maybe that’s a sign that I’ve arrived.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That totally makes sense. There’s a treasure trove of stories just in who we are and the people we know and it’s true. So absolutely wonderful conversation Jackie, any final words?
Dr. Jackie Fowler: I would just say that I think the most beautiful part of my life and truly the most frustrating and the one I keep saying to myself “Why must I do this?” is actually the thing that brings the best joy. And it doesn’t have to be a completed project. The sitting down and creating, every morning I write between 1,000 and 5,000 words. I just free-write the words. And some days 4,900 words are thrown out for something else. But the sheer act of seeing the words come up on the page, it’s a beautiful part of life. Makes me know I was alive, makes me remember.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It does. And for me it connects us with being human that even just telling stories, if you sit around and tell stories to each other, that connects us to human history for 2 million years, depending on how long we go back. And writing stories so other people can read it connects us to thousands of years of human history in which we can contribute and connect with people throughout the ages.
And today we’re speaking with Dr. Jacqueline Fowler about an artist oeuvre. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening.