Art and Self-Expression

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Joan Didion 


I recently read about how birds would sing at any time of the day, but especially at the crack of dawn, their songs would be louder and livelier. And they would do this, even in spite of the freezing weather. 

This is something that scientists have termed as the “dawn chorus”. It is theorized that birds sing in the wee hours of the morning as a way to tell themselves and everyone around them that they made it through the night, that they’re still here. 

When you think about it, that’s what we do too, as human beings. As early as we have existed, we have created art, because that’s how we get through life. Art is how we express ourselves and make sense of the world. It’s how we brave through our lives with clarity, with purpose. And by sharing our art, others may find the same comfort in it too, even generations later, if we’re lucky.

Tobias Forge, the singer and songwriter of the Swedish rock band Ghost, put it this way. Art is “my way of understanding my life in that moment of creation. It’s kind of how I understand myself. It’s how I process all the stuff that’s coming at me. It’s how I understand life.”

Art, he believes, has the power to bring people together in confronting the realities of life. “It’s important for people to understand certain things,” he said. “That’s why we make films. That’s why we like seeing films. That’s why we listen to music. That’s why we read and write books. It’s in order to help people through life and accept things. It’s sort of a communal, therapeutical thing that we do. We regard it as culture, but it’s also a way for us to educate ourselves, together.”

That’s the beauty of approaching our art primarily as a means of self-expression, of seeing it as personal first, and professional second. Because when we’re simply expressing ourselves out of our own experiences and emotions, we can be less self-conscious and more authentic in our work. 

We’re not trying to compete in creating the greatest anything, we’re simply being ourselves. 

For novelist Haruki Murakami, this need to express himself was what compelled him to write his first novel, and to keep writing to this day. “I just wanted to write something that reflected what I was feeling at the time — nothing more,” he said. “It was that simple, straightforward impulse that drove me to start scribbling, without a thought to what might lie ahead. There was no need to feel self-conscious. In fact, writing was fun — it let me feel free and natural.”

If you lose touch with this personal and vulnerable part of yourself, your audience can sense it in your work. As Murakami advised, “Novels well up naturally from within you, not something you can casually, strategically change. You can’t do market research or something and then intentionally rework the content based on the results. If you did, a work born from such a shallow base won’t find many readers. Such a work might find a readership for a time, but the work and the author won’t last long and will soon be forgotten.”

Sing your own song, belt out your own chorus from your own experience of making it through the night. Sing your heart out. Tell the world that you’re still here. 

Selamat Hari Raya, everyone. 

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