Have you ever heard sage warnings about how hard it is to make it in the arts, about how many dues you have to pay and how unlikely it is that you have the goods (read: talent) to pay them without let down, humiliation, and ultimate disillusionment? Sickeningly, this isn’t bad advice—it’s fairly realistic, and realism makes its own case. But wait: I want to offer you, blogger, poet, dancer, painter, actor, musician, cobbler, whatever it is you do to get your art on, the right to reject wisdom when it is offered as a thoughtful reproof of eagerness in relation to your work.
I just said you should reject wisdom, which probably sounds like I’m in a terrible, depressed place. Actually, I’ve had a good couple of weeks, despite a strange sounding rejection that involved some manner of personalized (nice) though glib (not so nice) regret (okay, but still…it’s a rejection, so not nice, ever). I found out another story was picked up for print, and that a journal in which I currently have a story just won a lovely, shiny award for the excellence of this edition. I’ve learned to cherish these successes and bits of good news because any time you take risks, it stands to reason there will be a trail of failures behind every forward motion. Thankfully, I can always count on the writers I know to put it all in perspective and offer support.
That’s not unusual, either. Writers—artists in general—can be competitive, cliquish, even snooty. But it’s also true that, on the whole, so far as I’ve seen it, there is room in writing and the creative community at large for happiness, warmth, and connection. I never expected a social dividend from a solitary pursuit, but this is one truth about the arts that no one really tells you—there is freedom in pursuing something you love, and freedom, as a wave of enthusiasm, as the momentum of engagement, as a conceptual permission slip, swamps failure. You can be a worried, insecure, neurotic writer, but you’ll never be the only worried, insecure, neurotic writer, and ultimately we tend to like each other. A lot. And we support the people we like, and their work, with incredible generosity of spirit.
Of course there will be puddles of bullshit on the way to feeling connected and productive. And here is where I begin to fill out your get-out-of-advice-free slip.
I have had, notable among other small clusters of such, two distinct, sharply unpleasant, and weirdly dystopian (personally and purposefully speaking) conversations with conscientious people-I-know trying their damnedest to convince me that writers should-not-must-not submit their writing for the scrutiny of others until some distant point at which said writer (but they always mean you, whoever they are talking to) achieves real writing, real, not false, not all upstarty and raw, not lame or unworthy, but real, in the same sense the velveteen rabbit woke up and realized he wasn’t stuffed anymore after little Timmy died of scarlet fever, or whatever happened in the version you self-edit so you can justify reading that awful story to your own children.
And recently, I’ve heard second hand about a few similar conversations, related with confessional angst by friends or acquaintances after well-meaning advice from people-they-know bloomed into emotional canker.
You may have heard this advice, too, often phrased as food for thought or provided as a quote of some critically lauded writer or artist who happens to hold dear the same concerns: “Are you sure you want to put yourself out there? What if an editor gets a fixed opinion of you before you’ve done all you can to develop your work? What if you are published and you regret what you’ve sent out to represent you? Are you really ready?”
So, though carefully worded and practically tinted, the questions under these questions are, Do you deserve to be a writer? Do you really think it’s prudent to do what you want to do? What if you stink? Wouldn’t that be humiliating for you? Isn’t that scary? Isn’t that silly? Isn’t that vain?
When someone tries to make me doubt the veracity of my own claim to exist and operate with autonomy, I always wonder from where they get their voice of trepidation, their upside down medicine bag of condescending truisms and rhetorical questions. I can only debunk this kind of sidling attack—because that’s what it is, it attacks you at the intersection between your public and private minds, a vulnerable spot because, as conduit, it is open on one end to the state of your ego and on the other to the state of your heart as you grapple at each depth with expression and desire—by asking a rhetorical question in return: Why can’t you sod off faster?
That sounds harsh? Yes, well, I’ve been there, loaded with doubt dropped on me by sage counsel. Here is what I have figured out in that laden state: Camaraderie, not superiority, is the mark of an adult relationship. The need to parent or school or temper another’s desires or the actions someone takes from the temple of her or his desires is all about the ego of the one giving the advice.
You can grow old, drop dead, and rot with commendable amounts of caution buttoning your words—or whatever form your expression takes—respectfully inside your skin. But that’s a shabby legacy and no fun to live at all. While any work, even done in silence, unobserved, is worth your time by virtue of the benefit of process, if you stick it all under your bed, the effect of all that work is arrested. Art stops. Chilling.
I’m not suggesting you submit first drafts. No slippery slopes, please. You do what you need to do to get yourself and your art ready for daylight. I trust you. I trust myself, too, shockingly.
So there it was, and here it is, the bottom line: I trust you to do your work, to live in discernment of the merit of your work, to create from a place of ambition—not for recognition, but for doing good, solid, meaningful work. And if ambition for recognition happens to be your thing, then I trust you to wear your ardor for glory with style. You do not have to apologize for needing money, for wanting to make money with your writing or art or acting or directing. The only dues you need to pay is the work itself and—if you want to be really above and beyond about it all—the promise to listen to your fellows with empathy and support when it is their turn to talk about their work.
Someone who otherwise loves or likes or knows you but who continually cautions you to hold back, to hold off, may be offering you the best of their wisdom—or they may just be horrible at communicating—but you don’t have to assimilate cautionary tales (except for the one about not texting while driving—don’t do that). You just have to get on with it.