About twenty years ago I was talking to a poet friend about one of my favorite fiction subjects: preacher's kids. When she found out I'm a preacher's kid, she said, "So you're like a white, straight, female James Baldwin."
After a laugh at the absurdity of her comment, I went home and started rereading Baldwin. I had encountered his fiction in undergraduate school, but under the pressure of the lit class, hadn't fully felt the work yet. Boy, did that change. Go Tell it on the Mountain is the model preacher's kid novel, and its territory on the knife edge between sacred and profane moved me deeply, as did his brimstone prose. But I found myself responding even more to another thread in his stories, that of the artist working in the artist's community, finding chosen family, battling the demons of the artist--ego, addiction, loneliness, failure to communicate. Over time, I have become more and more drawn to this subject matter in my own work as well.
Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is often taught in creative writing workshops, with good reason. I find it technically incredible in its verbal rendering of the nonverbal beauty in art--specifically music. It also is a perfect example of showing a character, in this case the narrator, learn empathy through suffering. For readers new to Baldwin, I highly recommend this story as an entry point. Here is the narrator finally noticing the work of his musician brother, and, I believe, Baldwin's meditation on the life of the artist:
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
Trial and error. Isn't that everything? And risking failure?
Baldwin was a powerful speaker also, and his wisdom on the United States' deepest wound--our legacy of slavery--has been quoted much in recent months, as old pain has resurfaced and found its way to the streets. I highly recommend reading his nonfiction on this subject. It feels prescient, though it isn't really, as the wounds are hundreds of years old. I recommend The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, was published in 2010, which contains a diverse selection of his speeches, essays, and literary criticism.
I am deeply inspired by his views on the role and journey of the artist. The practice is vital, spiritual, and in service to the world, not the artist. There is a profound sense of duty in what he did. (Is it the preacher's kid?) Listen to him talk on the subject in the links below. "The poets--by which I mean all artists--are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesmen don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only the poets."