Friday night of this last week, I sat down with my little brother to watch a documentary he was assigned to view in his Theory of Knowledge class. I took this exact same class and watched this exact same documentary two years ago, and I was more than excited to sit down with him to watch it. I encouraged our mom to sit down and watch it along with us, because this particular documentary fascinated me when I viewed it the first time. The name of this documentary is Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and it documents some of the Chinese artist’s greatest achievements, as well as the government’s persecution of him. The times when the film crew interviews Ai Weiwei, you get the sense that this man truly is an artist. He is wise, and he knows exactly what he wants to say in everything he does. My mom kept pointing out his eyes as we were watching—she would say things like “He truly has an artist’s soul” and that he has “old eyes”.
Although it’s been two years since I last saw this documentary, I could still remember all the details that impacted me most. And watching it now as a more developed writer and creator than I was back in my junior year, I felt a much deeper impact and an even greater admiration for Ai Weiwei. He truly does not care what anyone thinks of him. He wants his art and messages out into the world, and whether that means painting and smashing Neolithic pots, or giving the finger to some of the world’s biggest landmarks, or collecting the names of earthquake victims, or putting a condom on a trenchcoat… this man knows what he wants his art to say, and makes sure it says exactly that.
I find Ai Weiwei so inspirational personally, because I have lived most of my life feeling afraid of what people will think of me. Even when I wore mismatched knee-high socks and My Little Pony shirts in middle school, or laughed at a joke that was a little too risque, or even when I just say that I don’t care what anyone thinks anymore—well, it’s something that never really has been true for me. I’ve been a people pleaser for most of my life. I like seeing people happy, even if it means pushing my own beliefs and happiness to the side. So to watch an artist be so unapologetically himself, and put his ideas unapologetically out into the world—in the face of an oppressive and terrifying government that censors people like him, no less—I felt so in awe of him.
Ai has expressed a belief that artists must be activists as well. When I first heard this phrase, I felt a little queasy. I’m not really a person who likes to take political stances; I identify as an Independent, I don’t buy into the party system, and on a whole I don’t like defining my life by being one side or the other on issues.
But activism in art, I suppose, doesn’t wholly need to be political. Though plenty of Ai’s work is political, there is just as much social activism within his work. And therein came my (vaguely terrifying) breakthrough. Reviewing some of my work, I do find that there are social issues that I am passionate about that bleed into my work. Issues of young single women not making rent, and of children being abused by their families, and people betraying others for their personal gain. For someone like me who is terrified of speaking my mind, it sure was something to look at my own work and realize that my passions on what social changes I wish to see were right there all along in my stories.
Of course, it’s not just Ai’s work that fascinates me. His character and his personality deeply touched me as well. From a young age, he captured people with his strange and wonderful ideas. Indeed, I find that with a lot of artists and writers I admire, they were truly interesting people in their own right. They had a gravity about them that drew them into interesting adventures or allowed them to be surrounded by even more interesting people. And while I’m not actively telling the government to piss off like Ai, nor am I off hunting Nazis and wild animals like Hemingway, or drinking myself into oblivion like many famous writers, I still am me. I may not be the most interesting person to ever live, but I still have a story to tell.
I don’t want to inflate my own ego and say I’m ever going to be famous or worth looking up in the history books. But as I sat there in my living room, I came to a realization for the first time that what I have to say in my stories matters. More importantly, it matters to me. Some people may not understand a piece of art or writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that in the slightest. But if I feel like my message is as clear as I can make it (and my critique partners, and future editors, and publishers confirm that it’s as clear as I can make it…), then I should take pride in that message and in putting it out into the world.
This lesson couldn’t have come at a better time. I still am a recovering people pleaser, and as a great contradiction, I’m also a student journalist. And I’ll just say it… journalism is scary. Especially considering the landscape of it as of late, where so many people are putting out their messages into the world, and so much of the public disagrees. To top it off, this last year I’ve been writing and editing for the opinions section of my university paper. And yes, being someone who doesn’t like sharing my opinions being told to please write an opinion on whatever topics are relevant that week… it’s been scary. I wrote a piece on pit bulls and I got told a hundred terrible things that made me feel horrible about myself as a person and a writer. And I’ve learned from this year to have thicker skin, of course, but to also understand that I can always improve, even in my messages.
Journalism is a hell of a landscape to learn that your message doesn’t always come across how you intend and not everyone will like it. But I feel like after reading this especially, I should write what I feel about a subject and once it’s out into the world—well, there’s not much I can do about it but learn. I can still be unapologetically myself and learn from others and from my own mistakes. And that, I think, is the stance on life that I want to take towards myself and my work from here onwards. I will stand true to what I want my work to say, if there is some aspect of society that I am criticizing. But if someone dislikes it and gives a valid reason why, then I will learn from my mishaps and continue to adapt as an artist while continuing to produce things that I am passionate about.
It’s a scary mantra to want to stick to. I’d be lying if I said the people-pleaser parts of me are telling me no, I shouldn’t say something like that. And yet, it feels like the best way for me to gain more confidence in myself as a creator. I will always learn, and yet sometimes I have to simply take ownership of my art and be proud of it regardless. Being a creative means putting what you think on display for the world to see. And for the foreseeable future, I no longer want to be afraid of that power—I will embrace it, and let my work shine in ways I have prevented it from shining. Fear is not a friend of creativity. It’s about time I spring clean inhibitions out of my projects.
Signing off till next time,
Evelyn Johnstone is a 19-year-old author from Southern California. She is a college student pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Creative Writing a University of California, Riverside. She is an avid reader and writer, and a lover of words and music. Her current works in progress include the Kallenavn series and a handful of short stories. When she isn’t writing or getting distracted by shiny new ideas, Evelyn can be found laughing with her friends, organizing, knitting, or crying watching Supernatural. To read more from Evelyn Johnstone, please visit her website at https://www.evelynjohnstone.com