Hello Big World: Advice For Young Artists
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Big changes are happening at our house this week. Theres been a lot of (extra) chaos and shopping. There’s lists of things to do. There’s list of phone calls to make. There’s lists to keep track of the lists. There’s piles of stuff everywhere. And the trash collector hates us more than ever. Yep, you guessed it. Hannah is leaving for college. Tomorrow. Wow. She’s been accepted to a very respected private college and was awarded some very impressive (massive) academic scholarships to attend. She’ll be studying acting and accounting. Because she’s that smart. She’s the real deal.
Just a teeny bit more than twenty years ago, I was a bright-eyed, big-idea-ed young person headed to art college. I had Ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. About living in New York. Making Great Art. Being Somebody. The only idea I didn’t have was how to do all that. Oh, I thought I knew. Like everyone else I met at art school, life slapped me around like a cheap window blind in a tornado (ooooo… thats a good metaphor!).
In the time since then, I’ve figured out how to survive and prosper as a professional artist, although not at all in the way that I thought I would. Through a combination of luck, hard work, and plain stubborn determination, I’ve managed to make a living doing what I love. And it wasn’t even a little bit easy, let me be completely honest about that. It was hard, and damned miserable sometimes. Other times, it was triumphant and glorious. Kinda like life is, right?
And when I survey all my art school friends, (you know, all those other people I knew with Big Ideas and plans and stuff), I see that almost none of them are actually working in the arts. I haven’t asked lots of questions about that. As much as anyone else, I have learned that life can take you down paths that you didn’t know you wanted to explore until you find yourself there, and grateful to be there. I’m certainly not where I planned to be. I’m actually somewhere a lot better than that. And I do understand that I’m a little bit lucky. Lucky to have known from a very young age what I wanted to do with my life. And lucky (cursed?) to be stubborn enough to go after my dream like a right wing Republican after a chicken sandwich.
Lately, with a young person in my house about to head off to college to study the arts, I find myself wondering what I wish someone would have told my young self, assuming, of course, that my young know-it-all self would have listened. And the following is what I’ve come up with.
Twelve Bits of Advice for a Young Artist
1. You are a business. An artist is in the business of selling themselves. No really. This is probably the most important thing to understand if you’re going to be a professional artist. You are a business person, and you need to learn to think and act like a little like a business person if you’re going to succeed and continue to succeed.
2. Never go into debt. Never ever ever ever go into debt. It will imprison you and take away your creative freedom. Once you have debt, you will spend all your time working to feed that debt. You will lose the option of spending your time doing what you want, because you will have to earn money. Which means you will spend all your time doing what someone else wants you to do so that you can feed your debt. The more debt you have, the less time you have.
3. Learn to save money. Re-read the debt thingy above. Remember, money doesn’t buy happiness, but it will buy you freedom.
4. Develop residual income. Get away from trading your time for money as soon as you can. Time is limited. Create things that you can sell to people that will earn you money while you are sleeping. Like movies, songs, photographs, prints, etc.
5. Learn to live within your means. Re-read that thing about debt again.
6. Get enough sleep. The first thing to go when you are tired is your creativity. Artists may need less sleep, but not no sleep.
7. Don’t wait to be discovered. Get out there and start working. No one is going to come looking for you.
8. There is no map. There is no set path. There is no formula for success. You have to create your own success.
9. If everyone likes what you are doing, then what you are doing isn’t very groundbreaking. Don’t get caught up seeking approval.
10. Don’t be afraid to fail. It doesn’t hurt as much as you think. If you’re not failing, then you’re not trying hard enough.
11. You should not be afraid to divide your work life and do things that make money so you can follow your dreams. You have to eat. It doesn’t mean you’ve sold out if you pay your bills. Re-read that thing about debt one more time.
12. Last advice: More cowbell! If you’re going to do it, do it big.
Remember: A timid trapeze artist is a dead trapeze artist.
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