Books + Comics

Window to the World

What’s the point of art?

Illustration by Ruby A.

Illustration by Ruby A.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was five years old. I was an avid reader, and I’d just discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I took the books to be purely autobiographical, and I dreamed of recording my own life story. Writing books that people might love as much as I loved Wilder’s (and, later, Beverly Cleary’s and Judy Blume’s) seemed like the most fun and interesting job that one could have.

Lucky for me, my parents encouraged it. My mom took me to the statewide Young Authors Conference every year throughout grade school, and in high school, my dad let me use his office on weekends so I could photocopy my zines. When I got close to college age, he urged me to major in English or creative writing—perhaps because he’d never pursued his own dream of becoming a poet. But when time came to fill out college applications, I decided to major in social work and/or women’s studies—not because they were more practical majors than creative writing (I probably don’t need to point that out with women’s studies) but because, in my mind, they were more important.

My parents are both nurses. My mom works in the neonatal intensive care unit, saving the lives of babies on a daily basis, and my dad co-founded one of the Chicago area’s largest service providers for people living with HIV/AIDS. Throughout my childhood they took me to anti-war rallies and AIDS fundraising walks, and when I was a junior, my mom let me skip school on International Women’s Day to go downtown with her and listen to feminist activists speak at a rally. I started volunteering for a local domestic violence agency around that time, and I got it in my head that direct action was the only way to make a difference. Senior year, I wrote this in my journal: “I need to go to grad school because I want to write a book—not just poetry or a novel, but something serious, about emotional/psychological abuse.”

In preparation for the kind of job I thought might actually create real change in the world, I enrolled in college as a sociology major, with a focus on gender studies. There was sufficient leeway in the curriculum that I was able to take a couple of creative writing classes on the side. They were all taught by the same guy—the school’s sole writing instructor, a Beat-poetry-obsessed bore; nevertheless, they quickly overshadowed the rest of my course load. I stayed up late to scrawl away at poems and stories, ignoring my pile of sociology reading.

When I wasn’t writing, I was miserable. I tried to distract myself from my depression by partying a lot—you may have guessed that this didn’t work very well. Finally, during a hungover moment of clarity toward the end of my freshman year, I realized that I was in the wrong program, and I dropped out of school. I figured I didn’t need college to be a writer—and, truly, many people don’t. But after three years on my own produced lots of anecdotes about wild evenings spent at nightclubs but not a lot of actual writing, it became apparent that I, for one, needed the outside discipline of classes and due dates to get any work done. I enrolled at an art school with a good writing program and got my bachelor’s degree, then my master’s, in creative writing.

I think part of my initial resistance to going to school for writing was that it just didn’t seem like a serious enough job to require any kind of training or an official degree. While I took what I was doing very seriously—I juggled multiple jobs while in grad school and wrote a full novel instead of the 200 pages required for my thesis, all to achieve my dream of becoming a published author—there was a huge part of me that still believed that my parents; my brother, who worked on political campaigns and eventually became a union lawyer; and my friends who coordinated volunteers at homeless organizations, advocated for autistic children, or counseled rape survivors, were doing much more important and meaningful work than I was. I regularly told people that I’d “indulged myself” by going to art school and majoring in writing. I was obsessed with Bikini Kill at the time, and when I listened to their song “Thurston Hearts the Who,” the part where the singer, Kathleen Hanna, goes, “Bikini Kill are activists, not musicians” always made me cringe. Even though she’s quoting a critic there, I felt like the accusation was an honorable one. It meant that they were both. Meanwhile, I’d stopped writing feminist zines in order to concentrate on apolitical fiction.

Six years later, in 2010, at the age of 30 and with two published novels under my belt, I went to New York for Book Expo America, one of the publishing industry’s biggest conventions. It’s where the upcoming titles that everyone is most excited about are premiered and shared, and important people make speeches during breakfast. The headliners that year were Jon Stewart, who had one of his Daily Show books coming out, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, who’d recently published some children’s books and, like two days before BEA, had been outed in a cash-for-access political scandal. That’s who everyone was there to see, and I was definitely psyched for Jon Stewart, but his isn’t the speech I remember. The duchess spoke at the “Children’s Book Breakfast,” which I attended because I write YA books. Before she went up, a writer named Mitali Perkins took the mic. The premise of Mitali’s talk was that the purpose of good storytelling is to provide a mirror on the reader or viewer’s experience, a window into an unfamiliar experience, or, in the best cases, both. Her novel, Bamboo People, is a great example of a story that provided me with a window into a world I knew next to nothing about. It’s narrated by two teenage boys, a refugee and a child solider on opposite sides of the Burmese/Karenni conflict.

As she spoke, I remembered the time my father told me that he’d been arrested while picketing a grocery store during a grape boycott as a teenager in the ’60s, but I hadn’t really understood what the life of a migrant worker was like until I read Grapes of Wrath. And even though my father told me about the people he served at his AIDS organization, my perspective was expanded well beyond his stories by Rent and Kids and even the episode of Degrassi High where the bully, Dwayne, tests positive for HIV. The Wire was (and remains) my favorite TV show, because it examined the illegal drug trade in Baltimore from so many angles, giving me more insight than any news program, lecture, or statistic ever had.

In college, I worked in an office that got very few clients in the summer, so my co-workers and I just chatted, sharing stories about our lives. One girl had grown up only 15 miles from me, but the only things I knew about her neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side I had learned from news reports about gang activity and shootings. I told her I wanted to get a sense of what it was really like to grow up there, and she responded by handing me a book: The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah, a novel about a young woman named Winter’s coming of age in a housing project. Even though Winter’s project was in Brooklyn, my friend said it was as good an account of what her own life had been like as any she could tell herself. It was a mirror onto her life, and it became a window into it for me, a white girl who’d grown up middle-class and never questioned whether I’d go to college. This “made-up” story helped me understand and empathize with an experience that was in so many ways different from my own.

With all of this swirling around in my head as Mitali spoke, I’m surprised I didn’t fall out of my chair. The simple truth of the importance of storytelling hit me like a landslide. As with every significant epiphany, the moment I realized it, I couldn’t believe I had never seen it before. So many significant shifts in my thinking and my feeling had come from works of art! Perhaps none so profound as what happened to me in junior high, when I discovered Nirvana.

I first heard their music the summer before seventh grade. I had spent the previous few years trying to fit in with the “popular” crowd and failing miserably. Then I heard Kurt Cobain sing, “Wouldn’t you believe it, it’s just my luck—no recess! You’re in high school again.” I could tell that he’d hated school as much as I did, that he knew what it was not to fit in. Over the next couple of years, I watched Nirvana become the biggest band in the world. I religiously read and watched every interview with him that I could find, because I needed to hear the story over and over about how he was a scrawny kid who felt ostracized growing up, and how he’d survived by funneling his pain into making art. So I decided to try that, too.

The stories I’d written in grade school suddenly seemed silly. At some point, I’d realized my life would never be as interesting as Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I’d taken to escaping into fantasies about cows living on Mars. But my feelings were as real and raw as the ones I heard in Nirvana songs, so why couldn’t write about those? If Kurt’s real stories were important, I reasoned, then so were mine.

It’s funny to think that this junior-high epiphany is still guiding my work. My two YA novels deal with the kinds of dark things I went through in high school, and, as you can see, I’m still writing about them now. My second novel, about a girl who deals with depression, self-injury, and drug addiction, hasn’t sold a lot of copies, but I’ve gotten letters from readers who saw themselves in her struggles and said her story motivated them to seek help. I also got letters from people who said they’d never experienced anything like that, but they were glad to read about it, because now if they encountered someone like her, they would be empathetic instead of judgmental. I wasn’t an activist or a social worker. I wasn’t Kurt Cobain. But I’d helped a few people see themselves, or other people, better.

Aside from personal interactions, nothing moves me the way art does. It can make me laugh, cry, or rage. It can soothe me or make me feel empowered. Sometimes it does all of those things at once. I recently saw the documentary The Punk Singer, about Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill. In it, Kathleen talks about a friend and roommate she had when she was quite young, who was attacked one day in their home by an intruder while Kathleen was off somewhere preparing clothes for a fashion show. Kathleen’s response was to silkscreen her roommate’s description of the attack onto the outfits she’d been working on. She knew that her voice was loudest when it was being expressed through art. That voice inspired me, and countless others who will continue the cycle. That seems meaningful to me. That seems important. ♦

31 Comments

  • llamalina January 9th, 2014 12:04 AM

    I love how Rookie has published a couple articles lately about the importance of art as a career. This has been something I’ve been struggling with for a while now, especially with college coming up, and it’s incredible to have a voice encouraging me to pursue art rather than the usual negativity about why it’s a bad idea. I can also totally relate to how I want to do something important, something humanitarian, with my life, but at the same time my passion is in writing and art. A lot of the adults in my family that I grew up around had been raised in poverty and violence, and here I am, a girl from the suburbs who has lived a pretty cushy lifestyle. I also had that same discovery of Nirvana and insane, obsessive idolization of Kurt! Basically, what I’m trying to say is that this is pretty much me, except that I’m Asian. I love this, and I’m definitely going to check out your books, Stephanie!

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:16 AM

      You can definitely do humanitarian things with your writing and art and if it is your passion, you should definitely pursue it. I’m glad that I was able to write this piece and read pieces like Dylan’s last week because I still need it! And it’s nice to “meet” an awesome girl with similar tastes!

  • juliaa1112 January 9th, 2014 12:06 AM

    Wow Stephanie! This article is truly amazing and inspiring. I, too, have had difficulty finding the overall importance of art as a living. One part of me wants to go the practical route, another wants to follow the help-society route, while the other wants to go the artistic route. I now realize that I have been blind to how much art has made an impact on not only my life but on society as well. Thank you for really broadening my view of art and its impact on the world, it’s truly inspiring!

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:18 AM

      You definitely do ALL those things. I am glad that I could help you see that a little bit through this piece. Again, I seriously have to credit Mitali Perkins for her eyeopening speech because I was still questioning my purpose in the world until I heard her talk.

  • spudzine January 9th, 2014 12:09 AM

    Over the past week, I’ve been feeling dead inside. That feeling has lasted over a week, but it wasn’t until this week that I decided to make active changes to my life. Nothing much has changed, but I have been going through an art crisis, to say the least. I feel like I could bring all of my ideas to life if I wasn’t so sick and depressed, which stresses me out. So I pushed some of my artwork aside and started writing. And doing that made me feel so much lighter than I have felt in months. Like Charlie would say in Perks, it made me feel Infinite. This may seem wrong, but I never really saw writing as art. I only saw drawing and painting as art. But if writing can make me feel just that good, then it’s gotta be art.

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:21 AM

      I hear you on ALL of these things. I’ve had that burnt out dead feeling and had to switch mediums. I’ve wondered if words are art. But yes, I think if creating it makes you feel Infinite, it’s gotta be art. I also think experimenting with many different kinds of art as you can really helps you shake off slumps. When I was struggling with writing, I got into knitting. Lately I’ve been thinking about collaging again. Good luck with your writing!

  • soviet_kitsch January 9th, 2014 12:42 AM

    stephanie, ballads of suburbia is one of the most emotionally charged, multilayered books i’ve ever read. i’m really glad rookie’s putting out more articles on how to be an artist with a conscience–we need to be told that art is a powerful medium

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:23 AM

      AH, thank you!!! That just made my morning! And yes, Rookie is full of uber talented artists and I think we’ve been creating great dialogue about art and its voice in society and culture lately. Also doesn’t VISION just rock so hard so far!!!

  • lua January 9th, 2014 12:55 AM

    It’s totally out of subject, but I just saw this wonderful video of Judy Garland fangirling over Gable and couldn’t stop thinking of tavi cause I think she would love it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFSczLif0q4

    This article here is amazing, btw!

    • Tavi January 9th, 2014 1:17 AM

      this is so fantastic ahh! thank you!

  • taste test January 9th, 2014 1:18 AM

    thank you for this, stephanie. I’ve always loved your articles and books and I just really needed a reminder of this right now. because lately I’ve been wondering what the point of all the writing I do is.

    question: where does fantasy/sf comes into this? that’s pretty far from sharing your experience. I think that’s why it gets so much disrespect- because it’s not about Real Life people decide it doesn’t have Literary Merit. I don’t agree but I can’t really explain why.

    http://xyzzyzzyzx.blogspot.com/

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:33 AM

      Thank you for saying you’ve loved my stuff and I’m glad this could be a good reminder.

      I haven’t written fantasy/sci-fi (someday!), but I love reading it and I think it is important because it can show us our world in a different light. Along with writing YA Fiction, I teach it and I always start my class by saying that whether you’re written about a girl from our present-day world, from Mars, from France in the 1600s or from the faerie realm, a lot of her core struggles are going to be the same–she’s going to be navigating life, ethical decisions, etc. These are totally the kind of books that can be windows and mirrors, we get to escape into this different world (and escape is an important part of art, too–maybe we’ll talk about that next month on Rookie), but we still see bits of ourselves and it’s different enough that we might think about things in new ways. I happen to know there is going to be a super awesome article on Dystopian stories this month, so keep your eye out for that. Sci-fi/Dystopian stories are SO good for making us look at the direction our world is heading in (or the mistakes we keep repeating) and what could happen if we don’t reevaluate. People who dismiss genre fiction are seriously missing out on an incredible way to examine their lives/our culture. It definitely has literary merit!

  • lua January 9th, 2014 1:36 AM

    Tavi, you’re welcome!
    I’m your biggest fangirl, btw. Come to Brasil soon, ok?

  • Sarah January 9th, 2014 1:37 AM

    This article is perfect. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be an author so this article is really helpful.

  • lotusmarina January 9th, 2014 2:54 AM

    Great article, really.
    I was just wondering whether any of you ROOKIES knew of a website where you can assemble pictures together and put like vintage looking stickers and fake sparkles to make a kind of collagey pieces (like ROOKIE has here sometimes) instead of actually printing out the photos you need and scanning? I would love to make myself a sort of DIY computer wallpaper, but don’t know where to start…

    Thanks sooo much xxx

  • xdogbaitx January 9th, 2014 5:30 AM

    all of us should write a zine, nirvana saved my life

    <3

    I nearly ended up in a b&b for the homeless last night, and I packed three books to take. One of them was yours Stephanie =)

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:36 AM

      Oh wow, that is powerful to hear, but I’m so, so sorry that you nearly ended up in a b&b for the homeless last night! I hope you found the resources you need to help you in whatever your situation may be. Please take care!

  • MeetJaclynTheDancingMachine January 9th, 2014 10:10 AM

    Stephanie, I think you just put a mirror up in front of me! Keep writing. xoxox

    Also, where can we find your books?

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:41 AM

      Oh, yay! Glad I could do so. My books are I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone and Ballads of Suburbia (Ballads is the one referenced in this piece). They’ve been out for a few years so they might not be on your local bookstore’s shelves, but they can probably order them for you. I always advocate going to your local indie bookstore first if you have one, but Amazon and B&N have them, too and there are links on my website: http://stephaniekuehnert.com/home

  • elliecp January 9th, 2014 11:04 AM

    this is really important
    it fascinates me how much art can mean to some people, and how little it can mean to others

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • Erin. January 9th, 2014 11:25 AM

    Stephanie, great article. But (and hopefully I’m not prying when I ask this), what art school did you go to? ‘Cause I’m semi-researching into places to do my masters in Creative Writing (or English; I’ve got a BA in both), and even though I live in Canada, I want to keep my options open and find the best place for me. I’m especially looking for places that are open to YA/children’s fiction and fantasy (’cause apparently every school in Toronto has a major issue with fantasy lit. Boo, York).

    • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:48 AM

      Erin, you aren’t prying at all. I went to Columbia College Chicago for my MFA in Creative Writing. It is definitely more open to genre fiction, though yeah, unfortunately a lot of writing programs take it less seriously. There are also some super cool low residency MFA programs that are (at least from what I heard!) more open to genre and YA/Children’s Lit. I’ve heard amazing things about Hamline in St. Paul, MN, which has an MFA specifically in Writing for Children and Young Adults (and is low-res so you wouldn’t have to leave Canada if you didn’t want to) as well as Vermont College of Fine Arts.

      • Erin. January 9th, 2014 5:08 PM

        That’s perfect, thank you so much!

  • Stephanie January 9th, 2014 11:50 AM

    Thank you all for your awesome and insightful comments. Rookie readers are the best and I believe YOU guys are gonna totally change the world with your art. Also can we just talk about how COOL Ruby’s illustration is??? Thank you, Ruby!

    • Ruby A. January 10th, 2014 8:43 PM

      Thank YOU Steph for writing such an inspiring article!

  • Flossy Mae January 9th, 2014 1:22 PM

    Hi Rookie!
    I just wanted to say, in a general way (although this post for some reason inspired me to do it – thanks Stephanie!) THANK YOU. It’s not an understatement to say you revolutionized my life. I used to read those glossy ‘teenage girl’ mags, because I love reading interviews, fashion tips and all that, but they were undoubtedly the source of everything wrong with my life at that point. I thought that feeling unconfident about my body, or my opinions, was normal. I learned to accept that I was not as attractive as other girls, and I also learned to dispute other girls if I considered them ‘more’ attractive than me. I learned to not crush on people ‘out of my league’, thought that popularity was a measure of social success and believed that for a guy to like me back I’d have to keep my questioning opinions quiet.

    But then I discovered Rookie. I wouldn’t be exaggerating when I say you have taught me to love my body no matter what, shout my opinions out loud and proud and that us girls are FAR MORE than how many facebook friends we have or how prominent our thigh gap is. Since reading Rookie I have become infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. My non-Rookie-reading friends are surprised at how happy I am (and my other Rookie-reading friends are) with my body. And I am still surprised at how at ease I am when giving my feminist/pacifist opinions in a way I never would have before.

    Sincerely thank you Rookie. Without you, I’d still be surprising who I am in order to fit the ‘perfect girl’ model. I owe you my life.

  • Skotty January 9th, 2014 5:08 PM

    This is really amazing! I want to be a writer after college and I really struggle with trying to write what I feel (or anything worth reading for that matter). This made me feel great about my future!

  • Sophii January 12th, 2014 1:25 PM

    Oh wow. I just read this article then all the comments and I’m crying a little! (That might also be because I’m listening to ‘The Never-Played Symphonies’ by Morrissey.) It’s just so great to see how much Rookie brings people together. Lorde tweeted a while ago that rookie and rookies are the future. It makes me excited about the future! Stephanie, I’ve been planning to read your books forever but after reading this I’m going to order ‘I wanna be your Joey Ramone’ on amazon TONIGHT. I desperately want to read ‘Ballads of suburbia’ as well. Ah, you guyzz :’)

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • LenoraLikes January 13th, 2014 11:55 PM

    Hi Stephanie, I’ve never read your books, but I really enjoyed this article. Until about a year ago, I wanted to be an author, but soon society’s pressure to do something ‘dependable’ convinced me out of it. However, I am still extremely interested in including creative writing into my career in any way possible, and this article gave me some validation towards this. Activism and physical actions are integral in making a change, of course, but I’m so happy you wrote about the importance of writing/ music/ film as well. It is, as you say, undervalued, especially when for many of us the only window we have to the issues of the world is through powerful literature and entertainment. Thank you for this.

  • Alexandra T. January 16th, 2014 3:18 PM

    thankyouthankyouthankyou for this article!

    I’m at this weird point in my life where I’m about to go to University and I have to start thinking ‘realistically’ about jobs and careers. I’m also considering a job in the humanities because I want to help people. But I love English so much and I would also love to keep on being taught it. I’m in a really weird place and I’m sososo glad I’m not the only one. I’m still really confused but this article offered a point of view I really needed.