"but isn't that the job — to still have a voice?"
A reflection on why I'm a creative, four excerpts of original music, & a collection of people's comments on my work.
Yesterday at my retail job, one of my coworkers — a friend I often talk to without thinking — commented on a James Brown song on the radio, "I'm amazed he still has a voice after all that." I replied, "But isn't that the job — to still have a voice?" And I would've forgotten all this, if within seconds I hadn't remembered a discussion that drenched those words with meaning.
Earlier this month I attended the webinar "History, Memory, and the Artistic Imagination," a conversation between Filipino-American writers Gina Apostol and Jessica Hagedorn moderated by Dr. Fritzie de Mata from UC Berkeley.
Towards the end de Mata asked, "What is the role of the writer?" Hagedorn brought up the rise of book-banning and how people read less and less — how we aren't listening to our writers. Then she said, "What's the role of the writer? To survive. To survive the moment and keep working."
I love how her reply subverts the obligation shouldered by writers, artists, and creatives to produce work with as far-reaching an impact as possible. Before that's possible, we have to keep ourselves alive — then healthy, then able to focus on our craft — in a society where the labor of artists is valued... less than labor in other industries.
Given this reality, it's hard not to operate under scarcity — to live as if it's not enough to keep ourselves alive, we need to be churning out our "best work" at all times. Under the illusion of "proving myself," I've juggled gigs and part-time jobs while emptying myself into one project then the next, then the next (while barely eating, never cleaning, neglecting relationships).
Wendy MacNaughton said it best: "I'm not sure artists/writers are meant to produce & distribute regular creative content 2x a week to optimize audience growth & retention. This isn't how making good art works... It is how a media business works. I'm afraid we've conflated the two."
When I let go of the scarcity-mentality, I'm able to slow down my creative output and prioritize wellbeing (written as someone whose doesn't generate most of her income from creative work).
Scarcity makes me forget that beneath a sense of duty to contribute to collective good, I create because I want to and need to. If I take on a project without wanting and finding connection with whatever's being expressed, any output is hallow.
Words and music form part of how I take up space in the world, how I've grown into myself. Beyond English, they're my native language for responding to everything that happens around and inside me.
The more I grow as an artist, the center of my creative work moves away from myself, towards something I struggle to put words to — a love for life — a dedication to rendering human experience, to capturing its fragility, grotesqueness, and beauty in ways people connect through — a commitment to listening not only to myself, but to everyone whose stories I come across.
Whatever it is, it carries a sense of urgency I can't say no to, and so I keep insisting on creating work on my own terms, at my own pace. No matter how humble it appears from the outside, no matter how little attention it generates — I keep hoping to weave together the worlds around us with the ones inside.
Months ago, I was listening to an interview with Pittsburgh-based writer Brian Broome. About his memoir Punch Me up to the Gods and how candidly he portrays himself on the page, Broome said something like "I couldn't be fully honest anywhere else."
So many of us become artists because of how creative work opens a space safe enough to be anything and everything, including ourselves.
As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote, “Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple, quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival, for a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is to be feared."
That's what drenched those words slipping out of me yesterday at work: "but isn't that the job — to still have a voice?" That they apply to me as a creative, continually thrown off by obstacles in building a career — to hold onto my craft, to keep expressing what's around and inside me. That they apply, even, to all artists around the world, especially where freedom of expression isn't safe: to persist, to remain, to still have a voice.
Below are four excerpts of music — they're how my voice has sounded during recent difficult patches.
1. "Rosana" Improvised in August on the birthday of my grandma. Mourning that she died long before I was born, wondering what it would have been like to know her. Also my first time recording myself on voice:
Art by Joy Poulard Cruz
2. "bad dream" Written in September, in the wake of my first breakup. Definitely shows off my vocal limits, but I am hopeful to keep learning & improving!
3. (untitled) Improvised this one morning after not feeling able to make music for two weeks:
Art by Geneva / GDBee
4. "out of sync" Improvised a few days ago, after a sudden sickness forced me to miss a performance and stuck me in bed for three days. Inspired by Esperanza Spalding.
To listen to the full collection & support my work as an independent creative, subscribe to my Patreon.
One of the major internal obstacles I face in building a creative career is the impulse to invalidate all my growth and achievements because they don't exist within any job title, salary, institution, or other markers & indicators of success and value. The only marker I really have is Patreon, an online community-based, subscription platform.
To combat this impulse, below I compiled my favorite comments people have given about my work, across messages and social media platforms, over the past 2 years. These people aren't literary critics, but they are my friends, mentors, peers, colleagues.
They help me realize that as a creative, I'm only part of the process. My work wouldn't mean what it has if the people who take the time to listen didn't do so with an open mind, the generosity to hold space for whatever I'm sharing. In the words of one of my favorite visual artists Swoon:
"My work is made for the world. I've always made it in relationship to people, to cities, communities, social needs, to be part of a conversation or collective exploration... the relationship that people have to it is very much part of the work."
Here are some of my favorite comments people have shared about my writing (mostly about personal essays I shared on this blog throughout 2021):
"Your words never fail to reach me and touch upon feelings I can't describe. Thank you for writing this."
"Got a chance to read over your poems and I especially love the last one. It flows so swiftly and you have a real knack for not over-explaining, for knowing what should be on the page and what comes before it."
"The confrontation of many unresolved turmoils... with a sort of subdued despair... amid the overwhelm of media and interconnectivity... will be super relatable to many audiences today."
"Your work is always so beautifully written and wonderfully articulate, but perhaps even better it is expansive to my world view. I'm always grateful for the pockets of your life that you feel comfortable enough to share. It's an honor to let us see the world through your eyes."
"Just read this! Very beautiful, your storytelling is so spanning and probing. Really intuitive organization, through-line but still retaining so much diffuse."
"You have articulated and made peace with a lot of hard feelings I still try to push down, and because of it you carry in your work (whatever form it takes) the gift of wisdom. Thank you for the time and energy you invested to share this."
"I just read this and am in tears because it speaks so loudly to so many people. You are a beautiful writer, and beautiful person. Thank you."
"You have made me tear up in public more than once."
"Wow. I am in tears reading this this morning. I'm not sure what else to say other than 'thank you' for yet again naming the darkness that I (and I'm sure many others) have felt these past couple of months."
"So beautiful. So this is what it means to be a woman. Endless respect and gratitude to you."
"Wiping some tears away now. Although we have such different stories, I can relate so much to what you've written here-- the pain and the bravery it takes to re-write your life and exist unmoored to everything you thought would keep your grounded. Sending lots of love. Keep writing."
"Wow. Like your other writings, these poems snuck up on me while I was reading and all at once I had tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing."
"Thank you for your words and your courage. I too know this deep and nonlinear path of joy and struggle within femininity and I commend you for embodying and speaking your truth."
"It was so well written and I had to hear this. Much appreciated."
"It was a joy to read because I think it's amazing that you've learned these lessons and are sharing them, but also because I needed to hear them too and they allow me to look back at my own college experience and look forward with better attitude."
"This is one of my favorite things you've written. I love it and it's heartbreaking."
"This is painfully beautiful and sensual and sad."
"I just finished reading and I am crying. It's so beautiful. I think it's clear in its looseness and wandering nature."
"Your art is so powerful, I love it."
"Thank you for putting words what so many of us feel every day."
"Ethereal. Was having a tough day and this calmed me down."
"I absolutely LOVE the vibe of your alto voice over your flute. I don't know how to explain it but I'm super into the atmosphere you create. It's deep, rich, expressive, turbulent, and did I mention your alto voice absolutely slays?"
"This was so beautiful! My heart actually fluttered in the middle section when the high notes came in."
"This is absolutely incredible. It's taking me to another world. Always amazed by you."
Reading these, I'm moved and humbled by the impact people have allowed my work to have on them. I've also wondered if it's something I can sustain. For now I'm trusting that if I challenge myself to stay humble, curious, and dedicated to growth, I'll continue to create like this.
But even though I launched a Patreon two years ago — which has provided me with structure, a stream of income, and a community around which to build my work — I still feel like I have nothing to show my immigrant parents for my college education. Like they must be embarrassed when relatives ask what I'm doing. I still anticipate that one day, out of necessity I will finally "grow up" and find a full-time job that gives me health insurance and other benefits for long-term, socioeconomic security.
But for now, there's so much to explore. This year I've been able to deepen and expand my crafts, while connecting with other creatives and dreaming up future collaborations. And I wouldn't have gotten this far without everyone who has ever read or listened to my work, and told me it meant something to them. With my whole heart, thank you.