Who Do You Think You Are?

September 27, 2016 § 6 Comments

woman-looking-in-mirror-vintageIt’s residency application season. Again. So many cool places to go: A modernist treehouse in Switzerland! A quaint Arkansas village! Cabins for women in the Pacific Northwest!

Residency applications are usually pretty easy to start. Name, rank and serial number, give the CV a once-over to make sure my most current publications are listed, fret for an hour over what to include in the writing sample. Summarize a project I might have started/finished/still be working on nine months from now, figure out who to bother for references–again.

And then I get to the Artist Statement. What issues and ideas inform your working process? How will the residency positively impact you and your work?

Ummmm…I wanna hang out in the woods with other writers while someone else does the dishes?

Sadly, that’s probably not going to get me in, even if I could expand it to 500 words. Writing the Artist Statement feels huge. It feels opaque and pretentious. It feels like walking a tightrope between “Huh, kind of a boring artist…” and “Gosh, she brags a lot, doesn’t she?”

If you are experiencing the same pain, the Artist Statement Guidelines at Getting Your Sh*t Together may help. While aimed at visual artists, the basic principles definitely transfer. As a writer, I’d paraphrase their most important elements as:

  1. Write it in the first person, and in your own voice. This is another chance to introduce the community to who you are, and bring your resume and project alive in their minds.
  2. Ask yourself “What am I trying to say when I write, beyond the message of a single piece?” “What writers/genres/cultural movements/politics/periods in history influence my work?” “How do my methods of working (form, voice, deliberate creative decisions) support the content?” “What are specific examples of these elements in my work?”

GYST suggests this format for a general introduction to your work, a body of work, or a specific project:

  1. Open with the work’s basic ideas in an overview of two or three sentences or a short paragraph.
  2. The second paragraph should go into detail about how these issues or ideas are presented in the work.
  3. If writing a full-page statement, you can include some of the following points:
    • Why you have created the work and its history.
    • Your overall vision.
    • What you expect from your audience and how they will react.
    • How your current work relates to your previous work.
    • Where your work fits in with current contemporary art [for us, literature].
    • Sources and inspiration.
    • [Writers] you have been influenced by or how your work relates to other [writers’] work, other influences.
    • How this work fits into a series or longer body of work.
    • How a certain technique [form or presentation] is important to the work.
    • Your philosophy of art making or of the work’s origin [how did you come to be working on this, and how it fits your overall mission].
  4. The final paragraph should recapitulate the most important points in the statement.

GYST also suggests two technical elements we’d be well-advised to use in all our writing, whether applications, fiction or nonfiction:

  • Vary sentence structure and length. The length of a sentence should relate to the complexity of the idea.
  • Organization of detail is important. Significant ideas should be at the end of each sentence for emphasis.

Even if you aren’t applying for anything right now, writing an Artist Statement can be an exercise to help you consider your body of work, what you’ve accomplished so far, and where your ambitions lie. If you’re wavering between two projects, knowing your mission as an artist will help you pick. If you’re feeling stuck in your career, your artist statement could help you choose a new track, or recommit to the important elements of what you’re already doing.

Check out the GYST Artist Statement Guidelines, and get started–really, it’s not that bad.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines, now available on Amazon.

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