Art as a Spiritual Power-Up

Screenshot from Free! Eternal Summer.

When I write something without holding anything back, when I wear my words on my sleeve, they hold the realest power. But that also means sporting a bull’s eye for the arrows of criticism and objectification.

This is the life of an artist, knowing that putting your work out there means it can be admired or rejected.

Maybe I fear others’ evaluations and criticisms of my work a bit too much. I hear a lot of well-meaning “writing advice” meant to keep the metaphorical stomach butterflies at bay, but perhaps the most-recited quip is: “Separate yourself from your work.”

I get it. I shouldn’t put my self-worth into something outside of myself. That’s a one-way trip to unattainable perfectionism. Still, I don’t think the line is so clearly drawn between “self” and “art” that I can easily step across it and be protected from all criticism by some magical force-field. My words are an extension of myself. I breathe them to life, ex nihilo-style, and then decide to call them “good.” (After several re-writes, anyway.)

Obviously the inky jots on the page come from my experiences, my personality, my nostalgia, my knowledge. Psychologically, I am one with my words, no matter how much I try to convince myself, for my sanity’s sake, that we are separate entities.

In terms of artistic passion, where does self end and society begin? Is the true value of art found in creating it or in sharing it?

Is the true value of art found in creating it or in sharing it?

I didn’t expect to find so many answers in a competitive-swimming anime called Free! Eternal Summer. I hastily judged it as a mix of bromance, muscles, and melodrama, with a protagonist so obsessed with H2O that he’d dive into a glass of water if he could. Eventually, though, I resonated with Haru Nanase’s undying passion for swimming and its parallels to my intimate relationship with writing.

Haru speaks of water as though it is a foreign force in harmony with his spirit. It parts for him, flows with him, invigorates him, stabilizes him, but mostly it is a reflection of himself. Despite being a record-setting protégé, Haru is hesitant to compete professionally, more-so when recruiters begin to take notice of his natural talents. He’d rather be free from such inescapable realities as expectations, failures, and the post-high school future.

Admittedly, I think Haru’s a bit immature and self-centered, but at the root of his obstinacy is the real fear that his beloved water will begin to define him as an object—an athlete for others’ entertainment—instead of a person. In the middle of a regional competition, under the scrutinizing eyes of recruiters, Haru quits mid-race.

Pressure, mental block, fear—I call the beastie by many names, and it especially likes rearing its ugly head whenever others ask for pieces of what makes me… me. Locked away in my geek-cave, I can type words until my fingers are numb, without concern that anyone will ever see the results. Oftentimes, that freedom leads to clarity of thought, and what I write in secret becomes a personal masterpiece.

Slap on a deadline, word-count, and the possibility of publication (or just the fact that another pair of eyes will eventually—gasp!—read what I write), and suddenly I forget whether “x” is at the top or bottom of the keyboard.

But the thing about writing and, I think, art in general, is that in order to grow I have to get feedback—and, yes, criticism—from others. The problem lies in having the guts to ask for it, and then the humility to internalize and adapt it.

Sometimes, I have difficulty recognizing growth opportunities. I occasionally mistake them for “rules,” and rules seem to leave little room for self-expression. Just as Haru wants to swim his life away without the restraints of professional competition (even while the rest of his team is separated by post-graduation plans), I, too, put up resistance to any changes that will affect my passions. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll lose some important part of myself in the transformation. In giving my passions to society, they could be invalidated or rejected. I could begin to associate the words I compose with embarrassing experiences brought about by their publicity.

Haru has a serious case of “swimmer’s block” for a while, but eventually embraces change in order to grow. The water he cherishes is an ever-flowing substance, after all, and he can only tread it for so long before he is pushed along by the current. Even when his athletic career forces him to consider other aspects besides the water, Haru never forgets what the water means to him personally. Now aiming to join the Olympics—a dream that pushes Haru far beyond the comforts of his high school swimming club—Haru is able to center himself in the midst of societal pressure and expectations.

This is the life of an artist, knowing that putting your work out there means it can be admired or rejected.

Art, like water, is amorphous. The smallest ripple can stretch across an entire pool in seconds. Whether kept to myself or shared with others, I believe art will always go beyond the limits of its original conceptualization because the process of creation itself is divinely inspired.

Will others appreciate my art the same way I do? Absolutely not, and that’s the beauty of it. I can’t imagine how boring it would be if everyone got the same meaning from my writing as I did. True art changes people, regardless of how they interpret its nuances. If I keep my creations private, I lose the valuable opportunity to instigate growth in others. I consider my talents gifts (spiritual power-ups, if you will) that are meant to enrich others.

That said, I don’t believe everything I write is meant to be shared. Sometimes it’s for my eyes only—done for the cathartic purpose of “getting words out of my system.” More practically, sometimes what I write is rejected for publication and thus never read by anyone else. It’s tempting to call these little mishaps “failures,” especially when the rejection letters start piling up, but I believe that the creative process never yields waste. Maybe some writing is meant for me alone, to get me to where I need to be tomorrow.

For Haru, the key to weathering expectations isn’t separating himself from his work, but rather grounding himself in it—having enough confidence in his swimming to show it to society and subsequently improve it. In doing so, he becomes an inspiration to others and learns to appreciate his talents in new ways. It’s time I, too, stop looking for that blurred line between “self” and “society” and realize that the life-long pursuit of art requires a blend of both worlds.

Casey Covel

Casey Covel

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
An INTJ and self-proclaimed connoisseur of chocolate, tea, and sushi, Casey spends her free time cosplaying, writing, gaming, philosophizing, editing articles for Geeks Under Grace, squinting at strange words, and watching Corgi videos on the internet.
Casey Covel