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The Space Between Artist and Audience

There are two sides to creative projects: what the project wants to be, in and of itself, and what we want an audience to perceive and experience. In between there is a space. This space is where the magic happens – where the project communicates to the audience – without us. And where the audience takes over as they create in that space. It’s easy to forget this. Yet, for work to truly live, we need to be mindful of it.

The Work Has Purpose Even Without An Audience
Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that work does not need an audience to matter. As artists, we focus most of our energy in creating the work, giving it everything necessary to survive without us. This is our highest calling, to receive the work, to bring it forth, to nurture it and allow it to emerge through us. The work has meaning simply because it exists. It doesn’t need an audience to have purpose or a place in this world. All those drafts written and put aside in drawers? They matter. They count. Unseen work matters because it exists. (Not to be confused with unfinished work – which may or may not have found its purpose.)

The energy we pour into bringing forth the work is well spent, no matter if anyone sees it or not. On this side of the equation, we allow the work to develop into its fullest form and simply be. When our part is done, we are satisfied and fulfilled because the work stands on its own without us. There is nothing “wrong” in itself with artists bringing forth work that no one else sees. The work’s sole purpose may simply be how it changes the artist.

Yet, most of us want our work to reach an audience.

The Space Between the Work and Audience
Because we want to reach an audience, we usually have an intention behind our work – a reason why we create. We have specific responses we want to elicit in an audience. To entertain, inspire, touch, disturb, raise awareness, incite remembrance, elicit joy, forget, heal, delight, awe – we generally know what we want an audience to experience. So we keep that in mind as we craft our work. We control what we can, calculate where possible, refine and adapt to ensure that audiences respond as we desire. This is our responsibility as artists. What we are paid to do.

But, in our effort to do this, we need to remember the space.

Because the Audience Also Creates
When the work is fully formed and we’ve given it everything possible, there remains a gap. That space between the work and the audience where the audience creates its own experience. The audience interprets meaning, events, intention, and receives the work through the filter of their own experiences and associations. And that’s one thing we cannot control. What is communicated and what is understood can be polar opposites. Which can be why some work fails to generate the response and sales we desire. And certainly why some work, assuming it’s well done, fails to resonate with individual audience members.

But while it is a risk to the artist and investors, this gap is actually something we need to honor. Why? Because this is where the magic happens.

This is where the work can truly touch hearts, minds, souls.

We need to leave audiences enough room to engage in this creation. If we spoon-feed them every aspect, spell-out every meaning, leave nothing of intrigue or uncertainy, we deprive audiences of their ability to receive the full impact of what the work desires to create in them.

As we craft, we need to be mindful to leave spaces where the audience can meet the work on their own terms.


Writers: Are You Giving Your Work Everything it Needs to Survive?

“I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page.

I must make a complete poem – a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not ‘my’ poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life—and not a lot of extra weight, either.”  Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook, pg 110.

For those who are not familiar with Mary Oliver, she is one of the most prolific and enduring nature poets in America. Her writing connects the human spirit to the lessons and inspiration of the natural world in an easily accessible way. She also writes in A Poetry Handbook that each of her poems goes through 50 – 60 revisions before it’s ready to stand on its own.

Wow, are you that dedicated to your creative work?

It got me thinking about what our work needs from us to survive on its own. Particularly for screenwriters who are the First Trustee of the Story and must give that initial script everything it needs to sustain its own life in an uncertain land of development and production. But Oliver’s words also inspired me to think about how committed (or not) we are to our projects. Fifty revisions on a poem. That’s a lot of time, but even more so, a lot of focus and commitment to ensuring that each word, each placement of each word, is at its strongest, most efficient location and thrumming with power. Fifty revisions explains why Oliver’s writing simply sings off the page, why you never stumble over it, why it seems to sink straight down into your soul. It connects.

I revise a lot. I can’t imagine writing without revision. I do believe that you have to trust your first instinct in a first draft and let the story pour itself out – but then you bring the craft of writing into play. You take on the executive role of making decisions that will shape and anchor your story into a well-polished piece. You move things around, question the intent behind dialogue, get your characters to explain to you what they mean emotionally and what they aren’t telling you, and you choose the most effective way to retell their story. And once you have revised it through several drafts, you get a second-set-of-eyes to have a look and bring fresh insight into it. You take what agrees with the story’s purpose and you revise, revise, revise.

I used to wonder how I would know when a story was finished. I’ve found that the Story will tell you when it’s finished. You’ll sense it. You’ll know that it’s right, it’s ready, it has everything it needs. You’ll know when you’ve come up against all that you have to give it. You’ve done your very best. But that knowledge ONLY comes from having revised, revised, revised.From having the patience and the tenacity to take the time to give the story what it needs.

What do stories need from us to sustain their own life?

As Oliver so eloquently said: “everything necessary must be on the page.”

If someone in a foreign land in a few hundred years reads your story, will they ‘get it’? Scripts don’t need to be bogged down with minute detail (unless it furthers the story), but I do believe what Oliver is referring to here is the essence of the meaning of the story. Will a reader connect to the human emotion of the story, even if they can’t understand the jargon or cultural references? They should be able to.

Another way to check if your story can stand on its own is to “turn off” all the dialogue and see if you can still follow the storyline. You should be able to “view” it and get it. When I first lived in Sarajevo, I was in a small studio apartment and would watch French dramas with Bosnian subtitles. I didn’t understand either language. There were films that I could follow quite well and others that were impossible to follow without the dialogue.

Actions speaks louder than words and should be able to carry a script’s story. That’s not to say that dialogue isn’t vital and important, but the actions should back up the dialogue well enough to let the story stand on its own.

Giving your story everything necessary means ensuring the core story is present so that if and when the dialogue and actions are changed, the core story can still be expressed and understood. Remember, there is always more than one way to tell a story and get the same message across. The core story is the message. That’s what you need to nurture. That’s what needs everything necessary.

Take some time to ponder what “everything necessary” is for your story, your work. How can you ensure your story will survive without you?

The Business of Art: Shape Your Creative Voice or Risk Being Forgettable

People advise you to be yourself, develop your own unique voice/style in your work. But other voices tell you that if you want to get paid,  you need to conform to industry expectations and what is “hot” right now.  These “other voices” are usually business executives. They often see you through stereotypes and preconceived notions of how they expect you and/or your work to appear. Why? Because they are tending to the commerce of art.

What they’re ultimately looking for is the response you generate in others. This is true for actors, writers, musicians, visual artists – people buy art (and what we are all creating is art) when it generates an emotional and visceral response.

But there’s a fine line to walk as artists.

Business wants what has been proven to sell because it minimizes financial risk. Artists want to create what is yet uncreated.

Both are valid and necessary.

What is ironic in this, is that audiences respond the deepest to artists who are unique and individual – but overall they tend to buy art that is predictable. Art in all mediums is purchased because of its ability to move people emotionally – for the Story it tells, the feeling it evokes, the dream it inspires, the beauty it endows.

This is just as true for films as for novels, paintings, sculpture and music albums. It also makes the business of art unpredictable because every human being responds individually to art and artists.

So we have this tension between the business of art and artists themselves. We are each responsible for ensuring that our part of the whole succeeds. As artists, we need to keep in mind what it is that business executives need from us and our work, as we both serve the audience.

But we also have to develop our unique creative voice. If we do not, we risk being forgettable. And being forgettable means you haven’t touched people emotionally. Not good for any artist’s ability to sell.

The good news is that when you stay true to your own creative voice, you retain the power to move people. When business can package and present your art in a form that has the comforting ring of predictability to it that audiences pay for – you have the conditions to surprise people with your unique voice in a medium that can sell.

So, should you consider what will sell when you create or develop your art?

Yes. And. No.

Yes, in the sense that you need to be aware of the business side of your industry, you need to know and meet the professional standards of your industry and you need to remain conscience at all times of the response you intend to evoke in an audience.

No, in the sense that while you have all this business “noise” in the background, you are the ARTIST in this industry and you need to bring and create what is fresh and unique in voice, style and content.

So be conscious of what the business folks need, but don’t let them decide who you are. And always, always, always put your soul and yourself into your work.

The most memorable art is art that touches the human spirit in ways we didn’t expect it would. That connection to spirit comes through only when the artists involved stay true to their unique voices/styles and the business side of art is willing to take a chance that that connection will drive sales. Oftentimes, they’re very pleasantly surprised.

Why? Because as much as audiences are proven to buy what’s predictable, the human spirit craves art that connects, inspires, and reminds us of our humanity in a way that blesses.

That’s what makes art and artists unforgettable.

Tips to Shape Your Creative Voice:

1. Listen to credible mentors, but make decisions based on your own inner guidance.

2. The best way to connect with your unique voice is to allow yourself to connect to vulnerable emotions. Feel it.

3. Stay true to the Stories and Themes that mean something to you.

4. Make your art personal, bring all of yourself to it, every time.

5. Own your art. Take responsibility for your work, your style, your voice, your purpose.







What Do We Expect Our Art to Do?

This is a question worth considering as you present your work to the public.

What is it that we expect of it? What reaction are we looking for? And perhaps more importantly, should we be looking for a reaction?

The answers come down to the intention we hold for our creative work.

Why do we do it? Who is it for? Are we creating for ourselves, for the fulfillment it provides us, for joy and satisfaction – for the sheer knowledge that the creative work is given to us to be expressed? Or are we creating it for an audience? To move people, inspire, invoke, disturb even?

Clearly, there can be mixed intentions. Giving some thought to what they are can help you prepare for the public’s reaction.

Even when you’ve been there, done that and the process is familiar – every new project deserves attention to this question.

What do you expect of your art? Who is it for?

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