A Soldier In The War Of Art

Steven Barnes
4 min readApr 13, 2019

T and I had a meeting yesterday with Guy Goldstein, the gentleman who created WRITER DUET, our favorite writing software. Just a terrific guy (pun intended), who is as concerned for creative people as Tananarive and I are.

Art is Self expression, a flow from the deepest chambers of our being. “Craft” is the language that allows that emotional expression to translate to another person: the dance moves, the martial structures, the word play, the graphic design…whatever. They allow communication. There are probably as many definitions of art as there are observers with opinions, mine is designed to explain and enable. A tool for communication.

Art = Self expression. You have an emotional impulse, and seek expression. If a baby reaches into the potty and smears the resultant mess on the wall, points to it proudly and says “SEE?!” that is art.

But SUCCESSFUL art demands that the perceiver experiences an emotional change, usually the one the artist intended, often an emotion the artist herself is experiencing or has experienced. “Hack” work would be using these tools to trigger an emotion that the artist herself does not feel and has never felt.

We all know the sense of watching a horror film where the director/writer strung together a bunch of tropes saying “this’ll scare ‘em!” And it is utterly boring. Compare with “Get Out”, where the director was clearly framing his own private terrors.

Watching an “erotic” film with two bored actors grinding against each other and just know that there was no charge between them, that the director didn’t give a damn, and was just throwing the scene in because…well, because the distributer wanted it. Compare with “Body Heat” where we have serious questions about whether the actors might have been having a real affair, and the same with the new “A Star Is Born” where the connection was so intense it was almost embarrassing to watch them perform a song out of character.

Watching a “comedy” where all sorts of outrageous or “naughty” and “transgressive” things are happening, and you can just feel that as soon as the director said “cut” everyone was slightly embarrassed. Compare with “Animal House” where you just know that the insanity was going 24/7 on that set…and in the Eugene Oregon hotel where the crew was staying, and every local bar and restaurant. That was REAL chaos being captured on the screen.

The trick is that we all have real emotions, all have things that we love, and fear, and that turn us on. But you have to

  1. Be honest enough to admit it.
  2. Be fearless enough to expose it
  3. Be skilled enough to convey it
  4. Be lucky enough that your personal obsessions map over with enough of the public that they will support your efforts.

The truth is that ANY honest emotion, conveyed with sufficient artistry, can probably communicate to a large enough audience to support an artist. Make them rich and famous? Well, “sufficient” is a rubbery term, and at the highest levels of craft…probably. I’ve seen some pretty mundane and bizarre notions raised to the level of successful popular art. But at a “normal” but high level of professional excellence? Yeah. By the “one thousand fans” rule, you can probably take ANY perspective and connect with enough people to pay your bills. And for an artist who is really about the art? That’s all that 99% of artists who have ever lived have prayed for. Just…let me do my art without having a second job to support my children.

Want to go further? Either dig deep enough to find a more universal concern (which will connect to more people) or develop a level of skill that is extraordinary, so that you are like Pavarotti reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. Or Christopher Lee reciting “Jabberwocky.” The mundane or absurd elevated by craft to the sublime.

So…what can a teacher give a student?

  1. Show them where their creativity is, and give them tools to access it.
  2. Teach them how to deal with their fear, so that they have the courage to speak their truth
  3. Teach them ways to become more efficient and effective in action
  4. Help them understand how their industry works, so that they can navigate it more successfully.
  5. And of course, teach them techniques. Frankly, I think this is the least important part, because most of us can learn technique just by imitating masters. That’s the piece of the iceberg above the surface. Understanding the underpinning is what most newbies totally miss, and the thing they need most.

I try to specialize in the emotional and tactical aspects of creativity, how to dig into your private well of love and fear, and how to maximize your chances of making it to the point where you don’t have to split your attention between art and commerce. If you are a REAL artist…that’s all you ever needed. It would be NICE to make a ton of money, but you’d rather be true to your vision and live modestly than be a hack in a mansion.

If that’s you…you are my family. I would rather have failed as a writer than succeeded at anything else. Fortunately…I didn’t have to make that choice.

And I don’t think you do, either.






Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts. www.lifewritingpodcast.com.