HER KIND: Samantha and Jade, it’s great to have you have here on HER KIND. You both have curated salons for artistic communities, which brings to mind a quote from poet and novelist May Sarton: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” Do you worry about the ideas of the self, the soul and/or authenticity in your writing?
Jade Sylvan: Samantha and I were just talking about nichification in art. Because of the availability of information on the internet, the masses have seen through a lot of the smoke and mirrors of marketing culture, which is always trying to get you to want to be something you’re not, because that’s what makes you buy stuff. In reaction, semi-aware consumers have become obsessed with this notion of “authenticity.” But then marketing culture took that idea and turned it into nichification. Everything shouts at you, “You’re not you enough! We have personalized water bottles and baby pink iPhone skins and Dr. Who aprons to help you express your unique youness!” But the thing is, you can’t help but be you. Most of our anxiety and depression comes from this almost universal feeling of isolation and loneliness. We’re all so unique we feel like no one can understand us.
The problem with nichification lies when we start to confuse outward markers of uniqueness with authenticity. This sort of happened in the 2000s, when literature got so nichey that unless you were a deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcoleptic writing about your deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcolepticness, no one would take you seriously. Part of this trend was a reaction against the idea of the universal human voice, which for hundreds of years in Anglo lit was the domain of the suddenly unfashionable Straight White Male. However, by focusing on the facts of the particulars rather than the honesty of the human experience of relating to the particulars, the message then becomes, “Your experience is not as valid as the experience of this deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcoleptic.” If that’s the message that comes across, that’s ineffective art.
What we’re really doing when we present our particulars is modeling our relationship to our particulars, and that’s where the universal comes in. We all have the experience of being in a place, missing certain people, meeting other people, wanting something we can’t have, wanting something we can work for, feeling inadequate, and feeling alone.
When you really get down to it, any structure, be it a novel, a poem, a song, a screenplay, or an essay, is just a frame for the writer to present her worldview. If the author has a strong voice, a lot of people will relate to how she thinks and expresses herself, or simply to her situation or actions. At the core, though, what readers are really looking for is connection–a recognition of something elemental in the writer that they identify with. The most essential theme of any piece of writing–really any piece of art–is “you are not alone,” but we can’t just write that over and over because that’s not entertaining, and we tune out. Also our society is very visual. We don’t trust commands and can’t be told things; we have to see them for ourselves. That’s what they’re always trying to teach you in intro creative writing. As a writer, I can’t tell you you’re not alone, but I can show you how I’m like you, and you’ll see.
I recently saw Steve Almond speak on the topic of bad poetry. He said that the mistake a lot of writers make is confusing what’s factually true with honesty. The truth that’s beauty that Keats was talking about isn’t factual information, though getting your facts straight helps the strength of the piece. This truth is looking at situations the way they really are, and not writing from your ego. In this country especially, we think of our selves (or “souls”) as our egos, our personalities. That’s not who we are at all. Our experience includes having an ego, but it is not the ego. The best writing looks at the human experience, nichiness, personality, and ego included, from the widest lens possible, and presents it openly so we can all laugh together at our mutual exasperation.
Samantha Milowsky: I can relate to the loss of traditional culture more than loss of soul in regard to questioning one’s own authenticity and questioning authenticity in general. Though I can see how the emphasis would be placed on soul because religious and spiritual views of soul are part of the cultural loss. Culture was formerly shaped by the particular landscape, climate, resources, and communities making their own homes, clothes, and food. Religion and world view were primarily shaped by those. Now, the evolution of culture is largely a neat thievery and fusion of the remains of cultural fragments, under the constant homogenization of whatever corporations decide to produce and we decide to buy. We all have the same mono-culture corn, apples, pasteurized milk, and seasonal trends in fashion, language, technology, etc. We have a real challenge discovering authenticity in this environment, and, going back to Jade’s point on nichification and marketing to loneliness, most of it is constantly shifting around us to encourage the constant pursuit of being liked and relevant.
And, aren’t we so hard on each other at times? Armed with varying degrees of discernment and knowledge, calling out each others authenticity, implying we are the best judges and gatekeepers of it? Not black enough? Or, feminist enough? Or, too feminist? Or worse, accusations of exploitation and faking it. In generations past, you were a part of that society or another society. You wove baskets a certain way, and your music had a certain sound, like generations before. Now we are all individuals left to our own devices, discovering authenticity from the void within ourselves and whatever is going on around us at the time. It is a shakier, fickle affair, and it’s a huge transition. Some people do exploit what’s considered authentic at the moment, or they’re sincerely unaware of making a misstep in their growth (which is fine way to learn), but overall, I think a lot of the arguments and accusations seem to be projections of this undercurrent of loss and our own fumbling around, grasping in the dark.
In my experience, I grew up constantly moving, without knowledge of extended family and ancestors, living on Hamburger Helper and TV dinners, emotionally and mentally developed by TV and the staid sausage factory of school. I feel no strong sense of culture, so I’ve had to discover what authenticity means to me. That’s why I’m attracted to the arts and have largely adopted artists as my extended family. Here we are together in reaction to all this, placing the up-most importance on making things ourselves again, and the making becomes our reason for being together as mimics and seekers of authenticity, culture, and community.
I don’t know if we will become more aware and gentle towards each other in accepting that we are like lost children in all this. However, left to our own devices, we have greater freedom than ever create and innovate, and to discover our potential and happiness, so it’s also an exciting time in our history, even if what’s considered authentic is more subjective and uppity than ever. Again, circling back to one of Jade’s points, the best we can do is be true to ourselves in this environment. For me, the practice of meditation, and the natural course of getting older, have helped me be more aware of what’s important to me and helps me shake-off the opinions of others, at the same time appreciating when some part of an accusation has a kernel of truth.
JS: That’s a great point, Samantha, about how we challenge one another on our authenticity. What a ridiculous act. I can’t think of any reason someone would do this unless they felt somehow inauthentic themselves. Women, especially, are scrutinized over their authenticity. I think a lot of that has to do with the misogynistic stereotype that women are manipulative.
I don’t want to get too caught up on the word “soul.” There are a lot of emotions, preconceived ideas, and defensive reactions in the U.S. around anything considered religious or spiritual. The problem is, everyone has a different idea of what the word “soul” means. So at the same time that this word brings up all these emotions and anger, everyone’s actually arguing over a different word.
Authenticity is equally as personal. That’s the point, right? It’s something that’s different for everyone. Hell, it’s often different from day to day, or moment to moment, but we’re still supposed to be it all the time. How are we supposed to always know how to be something if it’s constantly changing? Awareness, I guess, but you’re still going to get it wrong a whole bunch. General forgiveness around the idea of being wrong would help, too.
The thing is, being wrong, realizing you’re wrong, and accepting you’re wrong is the only way to learn. In school, however, you’re taught the opposite–that being wrong means you’re stupid. No one wants to be stupid, so no one wants to be wrong. But when new scientific truths constantly disprove old scientific truths, politicians, priests, and doctors are exposed as corrupt, and lovers lie to us, how are we supposed to know, really know that we’re right about anything? All we can do is look inward to our self, our “soul,” for authenticity. But authenticity isn’t a thing like a gem that you can unearth, dust off, and keep on a chain around your neck. It’s fluid, amorphous, and relative to a myriad of situational factors.
I think of all those Tyler Durden sound bite lines from Fight Club: ”You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis.” You can only define authenticity by defining what it’s not. You go searching and searching, and when you finally find it, it’s an empty space. Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to call out others as inauthentic? If we can figure out what it’s not, maybe we can figure out what it is.
SM: Given the range of choices we have and talents we harbor, another useful phenomena is the idea Joseph Campbell promoted of the Universe opening doors for us and helping us when we are doing what we’re meant to do. People can attribute this phenomena to a number of things they believe: other people, god, luck, the position of stars or furniture, our own innate awesomeness; the Universe is a catchall.
I used to play guitar and write songs. It was my creative focus for 8 years from the time I was 15. My practice never went beyond the living room, even though I tried out for a few bands. I developed tinnitus which bothered me enough that I began to search for another creative outlet. I found poetry, and in a relatively short time, I was published by 2River View in 1999, and received a Pushcart nomination. I look at how this has evolved today in starting the literary journal Amethyst Arsenic, and our venture in hosting salons together. If poets, artists, and musicians I respect didn’t think I was credible and doing good work, they wouldn’t contribute and participate. Because they have, I’ve been informed and encouraged by this community that I’m putting my energy into the right things. It’s an alignment between the inner and outer. What I’m doing right now feels satisfying and authentic, and like a perpetual explorer, I’m interested in where these efforts will evolve. It’s also a feedback loop because I have created things to express my support and encouragement of others.
Working with you, Jade, these past few months, I know you juggle a lot of interests, talents, and demands, and this dynamic creates a flux that you seem to navigate with outward calm, dedication, and focus. Where do you feel you are right now in your terms of your own authenticity and various pursuits? Also, how does your internal motivation and creative expression navigate current cultural trends, especially the much parodied and ridiculed hipster culture? Is there a sense of playing with that? And what about hipster culture in general? Is some part of it artistically sincere and authentic and some of it more trend following, regardless if it’s all lumped together? I appreciate the stylistic flare, DIY goods, and direct sales & bartering economy that have evolved alongside the current cultural trends. Do you speculate where we might go from here?
JS: I’ve felt more honest over the past year than I have since I was eighteen, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve never been happier with my work. A friend of mine who’s also a literary agent said something years ago that struck me. She said we’re the most who we are, belief-wise, when we’re about seventeen, but as we age, we trade that authenticity for grown-up concessions to security; we suddenly have to justify staying in a marriage or taking a job we hate or whatever. Last year I started revisiting some of the authors who first made me want to be a writer as a teenager. Kurt Vonnegut. Sylvia Plath. Allen Ginsberg. Sometime in my early twenties I’d started to dismiss these authors, saying, fashionably, that I’d “outgrown” them. But when I reread them as an adult I connected with them just as strongly as I had in high school, but on different levels. It also helped me re-clarify what I wanted to do with my art. The spirit I wanted to relate was the same, I just had a better toolbox to get it across at twenty-eight than I did at eighteen.
I think all modern American artists are secretly terrified that they’re Hipsters. We’re both hyper-media savvy and hyper-documented. We’re all trying to navigate the space between image and identity.
I joke that I’m a Professional Hipster partially because I’m self-conscious about all the schmoozey art events I’ve suddenly found myself involved with, but also because it catches people off-guard. You never hear anyone call himself or herself a Hipster. Hipsters always say they’re not Hipsters, and in fact usually claim to hate Hipsters. That’s because the word Hipster carries the connotation of inauthenticity. The line is, “I’m not a Hipster. I’ve had a fixed-gear bike since 1989.” When people call other people Hipsters, what they mean is “That person is a less authentic version of what I believe I authentically am.” Again, we point out others’ inauthenticities so we don’t have to think too hard about our own.
There is no way for an artist to create without taking inspiration and influence from other artists, but there’s a difference between emulation and imitation. Emulation is being inspired by the work or style of someone, and using their energy and/or ideas as a vehicle for self-expression. Imitation is mimicking someone you recognize as successful hoping the success (more than the art) will transfer to you. That’s what people mean when they use the word Hipster derogatorily. A Hipster is more concerned with appearing successful than creating anything of value. For this person, art becomes an excuse for ego and fashion, and fashion is the antithesis of authenticity.
Samantha Milowsky is the founder and managing editor of Amethyst Arsenic. She has led poetry groups, workshops, and the Small Press Fair for MassPoetry, as well as sponsored The National Poetry Slam, MassLEAP, and creative projects for musicians, poets, and artists. She is currently on the Advisory Board for the Cambridge Writers Workshop and works as a technology consultant.
Jade Sylvan comes from a family of vaudeville performers, scientists, professors, and drunks. She’s the author of The Spark Singer and has had work published or forthcoming in Bayou, Pank, basalt, Word Riot, Decomp, Amethyst Arsenic, and others. She’s also toured extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe performing her work. This one time Kurt Vonnegut told her she was “a knockout.” She’s turning 30 this year, and feels pretty okay about it.