I recently watched the movie The Lady in The Van. It’s based on the true story of a writer, Alan Bennett, who allows a homeless woman to park her van in his driveway. In helping her, he learns a few lessons about himself. There is a line in the movie that stuck with me. Alan says, “You don’t put yourself into what you write, you find yourself there.”
As artists, we are often asked, “How much of yourself did you put into that story, picture, or role?” And people always seem a little disappointed if the answer is not, “A lot.”
In reality, this question has many layers. I believe a little bit of who we are or who we once were makes it into every piece of art we create. It certainly affects the themes we explore. Other times, we pull inspiration from people we know. There’s a lot of my brother and my husband in one of my characters, for example. But sometimes, we entertain or challenge ourselves by forging art that is nothing like us. Or maybe we create art that captures who we wish we were.
Many artists mistakenly believe they should put themselves into their art. Even Alan’s character makes that mistake at first. But the truth is closer to his realization at the end of the film. Good art starts with a quest to find yourself. Seasoned artists often start projects because we’ve observed or heard or experienced something that won’t let us go, and we want to know why. We want to know why it bothers us so much when someone comments on our appearance, or why beautiful gardens make us cry, or why we’ve suddenly become addicted to social media.
These questions are often sparked by a single incident that just keeps replaying in our minds. And they can be sparked by the strangest observations. For example, I’ve noticed when women lose their place or have to keep you waiting, they make funny noises. They say, “doot da doot da doo” or “la, la, la, la, la.” But men never do that. Why is that? Why do we women feel we have to “make light” of our confusion. If I write an essay about that, I might “find” myself in that essay, because it probably has something to do with my increasing interest in what holds women back.
I believe an artist’s task is to be always seeking to find himself/herself. That may sound selfish or egotistical, unless you accept that we are all, not just artists, on this planet to do just that; to complete our personal journeys. And as we find ourselves and show that in our art, hopefully we help others find themselves as well, just as the homeless woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, did for Alan.
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