A sharply funny and heartfelt novel about female friendship, Sarah Selecky’s Radiant Shimmering Light (Text Publishing) looks at how, in our online lives, the line between personal empowerment and consumerism is increasingly blurred.
Lilian Quick has looked up to her cousin Florence her whole life. They’ve been out of touch for twenty years – but Lilian, forty, single and struggling as a pet portraitist in Toronto, has been watching Florence, who has become internet-famous as Eleven Novak, the face of a feminine-lifestyle empowerment brand. When Eleven comes to town on a sales tour, she welcomes her long-lost cousin with open arms. Eleven is going to help Lilian build her brand and be her best self: confident, affluent, self-actualised. But is it everything she wants? And can she really trust Eleven?
I’ve always known that my true calling was writing. As soon as I learned you could be an author, and authors got to write books, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
As I grew up, I understood that it might be hard to make a living as a writer. My stories were weird and poetic; to pay my rent, I’d also need a job.
I wanted to be a writer and a ‘productive member of society’. As a young person, I had no idea how problematic that dynamic would be.
This year, I saw Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors. Kusama is an artist who creates obsessively; her vision and creativity consume her.
Kusama was born in 1929 and was supposed to be a housewife. Instead, she was moved to make art. Watching her laser focus as she makes thousands of repetitive marks on the page is disconcerting and fascinating.
When you’re in one of Kusama’s installation rooms, for a minute you feel like you’re part of everything, forever. She lives in Tokyo now, in a psychiatric hospital.
In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde defends the importance of creativity in a culture overwhelmingly driven by money. Art, he explains, belongs to the gift economy – not the market economy.
What’s the value of a 5”x5” oil painting that reminds you of making strawberry jam with your grandmother? Is it worth $50 or $1000? The emotional transaction exists in another realm.
If you’re an artist, you get this. You access that other realm every day you’re at work. You collaborate with a mysterious force nobody really knows how to talk about. You bring your craft and attention to your materials and you create something that transmits an emotional truth to someone else.
If you’re an artist, you get this…you create something that transmits an emotional truth to someone else.
Creativity: it’s magnificent! Obviously, it transcends the market economy.
The only problem is that money appears to make the world go round.
There’s a scene in my novel Radiant Shimmering Light where the protagonist Lilian, an artist, drops important obligations to go to the beach and make a sculpture.
Is Lilian unwell? Is her art any good? These questions rumble beneath the scene.
Lilian feels consumed by her creativity on the beach. It’s the only important thing – her connection to the sand, the ocean and the image alive in her mind and body as she creates.
I never say if the sculpture is good or not, if Lilian is well or unwell. I only describe how she feels when she’s working and what some random observers say when they see her.
She’s making art. She feels amazing.
A year after I wrote this scene, I watched a video of Yayoi Kusama singing in a wavering voice, wearing a bright red wig, two black eyebrows drawn high on her face. Standing amid her infinite pink and black polka dots, I began to cry.
Like many writers, I began teaching to earn money. My first students gathered in my living room. Eventually, I moved my classroom online and grew it into a small business.
I teach writers how to access creative flow, how to give themselves over to it – how to not be afraid of losing control on the page. I learn from writers as I mentor them and our relationships evolve over the years. I have a bookshelf devoted to books authored by those I’ve taught and my students have started to mentor new writers. My school has grown into an international community.
None of this feels like it belongs in the market economy either. Yet earning my own money makes me feel legitimate and worthy. I don’t have children. If I’m not a mother, and I don’t make anything that can be sold, it’s hard to show proof of my value.
Running a business led me to study marketing and branding, especially the work of Seth Godin and Bernadette Jiwa, who root their philosophy in empathy. My novel explores these themes – I researched while I wrote and continued to run my small business.
Marketing is persuasive; art is generous. Art does not have to provide any answers.
Marketing is persuasive; art is generous. Art does not have to provide any answers. For marketing to work, it must state the problem then give a solution. The price tag goes on that solution.
In my novel, Lilian takes an unconventional marketing job – its rewards are clear. She makes money for the brand and for herself. This is seductive; Lilian has never been solvent before. But as she becomes more productive and makes more money, she begins to unravel.
Cultivating work-life balance is confusing for an artist. Is your art practice part of ‘work’ or ‘life’? The dilemma for an artist is: how do you let yourself lose control in your art practice, while maintaining financial solvency and mental well-being?
Harm reduction is a controversial health strategy that aims to reduce the problematic effects of substance abuse. Opponents fear that it makes it easier for people to participate in dangerous behaviour. Proponents believe that since there are people who aren’t ready, willing or able to abstain from dangerous behaviour, reducing harm is a way to help.
How do you let yourself lose control in your art practice, while maintaining financial solvency and mental well-being?
For artists who need to make a living, I propose thinking about capitalism this way. What we’ve internalised doesn’t always serve us well – the system is flawed. But we can’t entirely abstain from the market economy. We need a home, transportation, clothes, food. And we want to feel like we are a valuable part of society.
Ursula K. LeGuin wrote, ‘It’s up to authors to spark the imagination of their readers and help them envision alternatives to how we live.’ I take that responsibility seriously in my writing.
In Radiant Shimmering Light, Lilian finds her way through the artist’s dilemma in her own unconventional style. I’ve written a hopeful book; I have faith in creative energy.
Still, I use marketing and branding to build my business. It’s a way for me to make a living, be creative and keep my integrity. I’ve created a space for a community of emerging authors, and I want to reach more writers so I can empower them to imagine. We need compelling stories to tell us who we are and who we can be. We need brave writers to make our culture.
I teach my students to live beyond what they think is possible and to make their writing radically honest. While it’s subversive in some ways, I know my business doesn’t transcend the system – yet. But I see a new way for our culture to expand, and it’s glimmering on the horizon already. Our art is going to get us through.