by Jane Ledwell
If your eye is drawn to the artist profile in The Buzz in any month, it is probably drawn by a photo of the person being featured. I love these photos. Usually purpose-posed for The Buzz article, they give me a glimpse of a person I’ve met from a new angle, in a new light.
For the past fifteen years, I have usually written the article that surrounds the photo, I hope what you find in the words is a reflection of what I see in the photo: someone from PEI’s arts and culture community taking a solo under the spotlight, a glimpse of personality seen through the lens of an hour’s conversation. There is, I hope, some light in the frame, and some lightness. And I hope the effect flatters more than it exposes flaws.
To me, what’s special about The Buzz is that it creates these small spaces for conversations of word and image. I like being part of The Buzz’s 20-year project to help the PEI arts and culture community create portraits of our best selves. The Buzz’s tone—pitched for enduring quality and long-term relationships rather than one-night stands and cutting-edge cool—is a lot to live up to. Every month, writing the artist profile asks me to be my best self—to listen well, to hear others’ truths, and to share what’s best of others’ voices, words, and achievements.
Peter Richards first invited me to write a profile in 1998. I missed out on the first few years of The Buzz—not to mention all the PEI people and events it featured. It wasn’t until 1996 that I moved back to Prince Edward Island after studying “away.” Although I had grown up here, when I returned, it took another two years before I was beginning to get my feet under me, to meet people here and begin to make a life in the community. Going out to meet a new profile subject every month was a helpful pleasure.
These days, when full-time work and small children make serious one-on-one conversations with grown-ups a rarity, my Buzz interview is still a treat to look forward to each month.
Writing a profile for The Buzz takes me about three hours a month: an hour to hang out and chat with an artist, an hour to draft a too-long article, and an hour to edit the draft down to about 35 words over my assigned word count and then give up on paring more.
When I feel overwhelmed with deadlines and responsibilities, I revisit my schedule to see where I could cut back on work time and increase play time. The easiest thing to cut from my schedule to reclaim a few hours a month would be my Buzz article. And yet, I never cut it. Maybe it’s because my best self is my writing self.
I’ve had to bow out a few months over 15 years—a month here for a major work project, a month there for an unexpected illness, a month or two for a new baby—but only a few.
And yet, The Buzz deadline I remember most clearly was one I missed. In August 2008, I was scheduled to interview someone for a profile, but my dying father’s health took a sudden decline. Unable to sleep, my first and only instinct was to get up at 5:00 in the morning and write. An obituary, for when the time came. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I sent it to The Buzz for them to do with as they wished. Later that day, my father died. When The Buzz came out two weeks earlier, I felt exhausted and exposed, but I was so glad to have a place—a shared place—to pay tribute.
The Buzz is a where we share information about what’s important to us as the community—especially those of us who respond to the most important events in our lives by writing, making, acting, creating, singing, dancing, dreaming.
Thanks to The Buzz, I think we do more making. And we do it on a deadline. Even in this age of social media and the possibility of instantaneous publicity, the 15th of the month is a structuring principle of PEI arts and culture event planning. Events which had seemed ad hoc, loosey-goosey, and random when I was a teenager on the Island in the 1980s gained some structure when The Buzz began. If an event was going to be a success, it had to have a time and venue settled by the 15th of the previous month.
Of course, there are still many ways of seeing success, and I love that The Buzz sees it broadly. The Buzz profiles people at centre stage and those who work behind the scenes. I’ve had the chance to talk with the voluble and garrulous and also with the shy and taciturn. Each interview is a surprise, and when I return to my hand-written notes, sometimes the quietest interview has the most insight. Sometimes, of course, it’s a challenge to meet my own goal of shaping the story using the person’s own words. But even when I make mistakes, even when I cannot make the story flow, and even when I fall back on worn-out patterns and themes, I trust that an article will never be dull as long as it is in the subject’s own voice. In that voice is a spark of their fascinating human creativity.
This anniversary year, as I profile people who have been active in their arts and culture careers for more than twenty years, longevity is a theme. With some nostalgia and some dismay, I notice I’ve been speaking to artists who have outlived the arts and culture institutions and supports that nurtured their early careers. Over 15 years, whether I interviewed emerging or established artists, the strongest theme I’ve heard is the day-to-day struggle to stay active in the arts and culture in Prince Edward Island and the challenge of making a living here. And every one has said the struggle is worth it. Doing what you love, doing meaningful work, making sense of the world through art, giving your time over to your passion is worth it.
In the years when my only flimsy grasp on the cultural community is a monthly three-hour commitment to writing an artist profile, I am grateful that The Buzz has continued, courageous and FREE for 20 years. I celebrate that longevity.
There’s an alchemy to Peter Richards’s selections of who to profile for The Buzz. He combines his mental list of who we should talk to, who we’ve talked to already, who we haven’t talked to for a while, who has something interesting coming up, and who would fit in well with the themes emerging in each month’s edition. And when inspiration strikes, he makes a suggestion, and I arrange for a conversation.
The artist profiles you read in The Buzz are at most half the conversation. So many wonderful stories and insights fall outside the word limits. But The Buzz as a whole fills in the big picture. If a profile is a headshot of an artist, then each month’s Buzz is a panorama that places that artist fullblown in their landscape, in the arts and culture and community scene on Prince Edward Island. And even that’s not the whole picture. When a profile gives you half the conversation with an artist; when The Buzz gives you half the view of what’s going on in PEI, the other half is up to you and your imagination.
Jane Ledwell is…
Jane Ledwell is a writer and editor based in Charlottetown, where she lives with her husband, visual artist Stephen B. MacInnis, and their young children Anna and Sam. She has published one book of poetry, Last Tomato (Acorn Press, 2005) and has been involved in dozens of books and publishing projects as a contributor or editor. She was the 2011 recipient of the PEI Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts, partly in acknowledgment of her writing for The Buzz. Over 15 years, she has written more than 150 artist profiles and reviews. Her current full-time work is as Executive Director of the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women.