Doing and Being

office-art-mindset1Today I travel to a Literary Hybrid workshop at Kenyon College that combines writing and visual art. The program promises to “Blend techniques of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual arts to generate creative writing through the art of the book.” It appeals to, “A writer curious to write in more genres, or an artist wishing to deepen engagement with text.”

So I’m in those descriptions somewhere, and what I want is to put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. Whatever else comes out of the experience will be a bonus, but I’d like to see my work a little differently, whether this label “literary hybrid” fits.

I generally don’t call myself a visual artist. It’s presumptuous to do so because I stand in awe of people who hold and deserve the title. If they are citizens of that country, then I’m standing at its border staring in. Oh I know there’s no fence, no river, no guard keeping me out. People tell me part of belonging is striding over the line with a smile on your face.

I’m just hesitant to transgress. I do art, but does doing make being? Unsure.

As part of my sabbatical project, I’ve been reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, and it has me thinking about the difference between activity and identity. Dweck argues that humans fall into two broad categories, those with an open mindset and those whose mindsets are closed. You don’t want to be on the closed side. Those people take everything they do as contributing to their identity, some measure of who they are and what they’re worth. They are “A Students” because they make A’s. They are athletes because they once excelled at athletics. They make nouns of life’s verbs.

The price is high. Closed mindset people may become inflexible and timid, afraid to risk how they see themselves. They may choose not to run a race they can’t win, and they’re far more sensitive to setbacks. Trouble compromises self-images they’ve cultivated. In fact, they’re prone to call setbacks “failure” and mistakes “failure” and shortcomings “failure.”

On the other side are the open mindsets who see half-full glasses everywhere. A low score on an essay—even if it’s unexpected—is an opportunity to learn and grow. A flat tire on the way to a job interview is an unfortunate episode and not a judgment from the gods. People with open mindsets enjoy struggling because they see themselves growing. They don’t care about what they’re growing toward as long as they’re creeping upward.

Sounds great—let me be an open mindset person too!—but something in the idea (and the hype-y, self-help-y voice Dweck deploys in her book) rankles me. I’ll pass by the contradiction of a label-based division that makes being one identity good and another bad. Dweck wants to create a clear division, and that’s fine. And she’s right we ought not to think so much about ends. But my question is more fundamental: Is it so terrible to wish for achievement, mastery, and an assurance you’ve reached an accepted level of competence?

If all it takes to be an artist is doing art, for instance, how meaningful is the distinction? If labels weren’t so desirable, we all could just have fun, but humans generally seek affirmation. I know I do.

My motivation to attend the workshop at Kenyon comes mostly from an open mindset. My clumsy art won’t bother me as much because I don’t consider myself an visual artist, and perhaps my struggles as a writer will bother me more for the opposite reason. I’ll deal with that. Ultimately, however, I want both to do and to be and also to understand where I am. I don’t need a grade—I’m against those—but I need honest appraisal beyond “Thanks for trying!”

I want to know: was I selected from applicants of more than the 15 participants or was I one of the first 15 to apply? Dweck may call that a bad question, but respect motivates. The possibility of being makes me want to do.

A good time will be had by all—I certainly intend to have a good time— and we’ll all get trophies, I’m sure. Yet I also hope someone will let me know where I am. I don’t mind waiting at the border of Artistia—I’m comfortable there—but I’d love to be invited over, and, if I’m not, well, I need to deal with that.


Filed under Ambition, Arguments, Carol Dweck, Desire, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Sabbaticals, Teaching, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing

10 responses to “Doing and Being

  1. Wonderfully crafted the thoughts on open mindsets vs. closed mindsets. Writing takes so much from visual arts and vice-versa..

  2. “put my two abiding creative outlets in the same room and see what they have to say to each other. ”

    Arguably, haven’t they been in the same room for their entire lives already? What you’re seeking I think is, as you say, honest appraisal, which is simply recognition from someone. Which ties into, I think, the whole difference between doing and being; doing is what YOU do while being is what OTHERS think you do …if that makes sense.

    Personally, I’ve given up on being. It raises its head from time to time, but for my own sanity I try my best to keep it buried.

    • dmarshall58

      I wish it were so clear to me. Though certainly the same brain writes and does visual art, I haven’t any creative products that integrate the two effectively… yet. After a week in the workshop, I have a much better idea of how to do that, but it’s as complicated as words and music, which don’t always support each other though each may be fine.

      As for being and doing, to me, self and others are just two of many variables. Don’t we develop a sense of identity quite apart from what others label us? Does doing art make me see myself as an artist? Probably. Does seeing myself that way make me hope—perhaps even despite myself—that others will see me as I see myself? Unfortunately, perhaps, but yes. I envy your being content with doing. I’ve never been able to declare anything about myself confidently. I’d like others to take me as seriously as I take myself.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. –D

  3. tbower

    ….learning someone respects you motivates you…. an excellent thought, and very true.

  4. Thomas

    Great post! …and thanks for putting in the link to the book. It’s a good read so far.

    • dmarshall58

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it. As I said, the tone bugs me, but the content is revelatory, certainly. –D

  5. Pingback: Hermit | Signals to Attend

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