What Our Work Is Really About

Discovering our artistic subject

Jan 20, 2020

Art Creativity Creative Process Artist
abstract illustration with an eye in the center

Photo by Mr TT

18° outside this Sunday evening. Slight headache. Trying to keep it at bay. Thinking about the chocolate chip cookie I’ll have a little later on. With milk. Candle lit on the kitchen counter. Dog is napping. Steven Pressfield’s book The Artist’s Journey sits next to me. In it he says that all artists have a “subject,” what he defines as thematic — “subject is deeper than topic. It’s not ‘what it’s about,’ it’s what it’s really about.” He goes on to say that artists were born with that subject but never knew it; they will discover it in their artist’s journey.

Our subject is sitting right in front of us but we can’t see it because we’re terrified. We’re terrified that, if we recognize and acknowledge our subject (which is our calling as an artist), we’ll have to act on it.

What is your subject as an artist? Do you know? Have you uncovered it?

I can’t say I fully, consciously know my subject, though I can name many themes that keep showing up in my writing: identity, spirituality, creativity, love, compassion. Trying to find your place in the world. Trying to dig deeper to a more authentic version of yourself. How all this translates into a subject, I’m not sure. Apparently it hasn’t revealed itself to me yet.

Searching. The word just came to me as I wrote the last sentence. That’s as close to figuring out my subject as I’ve ever come. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Most, if not all, of my writing is done with the purpose of searching for something — meaning, an answer, a truth, a part of me… or maybe I am looking for solace. I am looking for something, hoping to find it amidst the words, in the spaces between paragraphs, on the emptiness of the blank page. As if it will emerge from the sentences I am forming. As if a secret portal will open up when I reach enough of a word count that will transport me to a place where all the answers I have been yearning for lie.

I must admit, writing has always helped me sort things out. Whether it’s been getting an answer to a question, working past (or through) an emotion, receiving insight into a matter, or just figuring out what I think or feel about something, writing has been the tool that I use. Not unlike a teacher’s lesson plan or a boxer’s coach, my writing is my guide.

If my subject is indeed ‘searching,’ the question ultimately then becomes: what am I searching for?  Pressfield’s premise states that our subject will terrify us because we’ll have to act on it. Maybe the answer to what am I searching for will terrify me. Maybe what I’m searching for cannot be found, at least not on this page.

We often go seeking for things outside of ourselves that are meant to be found inside us. We forget the treasures we hold within, the cavern of truths buried just beneath the surface of the lives we lead. It takes so long to come upon our subject as artists because it takes just as long to shed the layers of protection we’ve accumulated over the years to shield our sense of self from the oft-encountered cruelty of the world. Learning to be our authentic selves can take a lifetime.

Our subject as artists is an expression of our deepest manifesto — what we want the world to know about us while we’re alive, and after we pass.

“It’s not ‘what it’s about,’ it’s what it’s really about.” What is your art really, truly about? What are you trying to convey to us?

Me? If I’m being completely honest, my searching is really about wanting to find two things: my most authentic self, and a place to belong. Or said another way, my place in this noisy world. Are these things abnormal? Not at all. Do they terrify me in the sense of not finding them? Absolutely.

The artist is not expressing himself. He is discovering himself.

—Steven Pressfield

We discover ourselves as artists one brushstroke at a time, one click of the camera at a time, one song lyric at a time. We even discover something about ourselves in all the work we are NOT creating, in the lapse in-between what we produce and put out into the world. It is saying something about us, whether we know it or not.

I don’t know what your subject is, or even if you know what it is. That is for you to unearth. But I do know it’s not easy and will require your utmost commitment as an artist. May your lone journey lead you to the work you’re meant to put forth. And may your subject terrify you, just a little.

Here’s to all the artists out there making their way through their artist’s journey. Here’s to discovering our subjects — and ourselves — along the way.