Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Advice for Struggling Artists (From a Mad Man)

A friend of mine sent me this link last week, an article written by Matthew Wiener, the creator of Mad Men.

"I remember studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" in high school. According to Coleridge, upon waking from a deep, opium-induced reverie, he recalled a vision and immediately wrote the 54 famous lines. But when we started doing the poetic analysis, it became clear that there was no way this poem came out all at once. It has this amazing structure. We learned from letters and notes that had been discovered that it was likely Coleridge had not only worked on "Kubla Khan" for several months, but that he also sent it to friends for feedback.
Excerpted from Getting There: A Book of Mentors, by Gillian Zoe Segal. Published by Abrams Image. © 2015 Gillian Zoe Segal.
Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
Writers were revered in my home and I wanted to be one since I was a kid, but when I went to college, I could not get into a writing class. I went to Wesleyan, a very small liberal arts school. The classes had only 12 to 15 people, and you had to submit writing samples to get in. Mine, apparently, were just not good enough. I was rejected from every writing class. I ended up convincing an English teacher to do a one-on-one independent poetry study with me. When I finished my thesis, I was extremely proud and wanted others to see it. I gave it to a humanities professor and he invited me to his house to read the work out loud. After the first poem, he told me to get out a pen and take notes. He began, "The infantile use of . . . The puerile . . . The childish use of . . . The cliché awkwardness . . . " It was one humiliating cruelty after the next. And I had to write these insults down myself. I literally went through hours of this, poem after poem. He finally leaned over to me and said, "I think you know that you are not a poet." I said, "I was not aware of that."
While being battered always hurts, an important survival mechanism I’ve acquired over the years is to both thrive on rejection and hold on to compliments. Rejection enrages me, but that "I’ll show you!" feeling is an extremely powerful motivator. I’m at a point now where I’m afraid that if I lose it I’ll stop working. On the flip side, there’s nothing like a meaningful compliment from someone you respect. In my youth I was a miserable student and rarely did my homework. My fourth grade teacher once pulled me aside and let me have it. She said, "Talking to you is like talking down the drain; you don’t hear anything. You think you are going to make it through the rest of your life because you are charming. You think you don’t have to do all the work—but you do." I remember looking up at her after this tirade and saying, "You think I’m charming?""


He goes on to talk about the process of making sure you work every day, even if its just a page or two. Artists can be cruel to themselves. We beat ourselves up, demanding perfection, when what's really needed is perseverance.

The writing life is a life of patience. A marathon. This is true of any dream. Some days I wake up and I know its not there. Every sentence feels like an unfolding lawn chair. I can't focus.

I write anyway.

Other days, it's more of an emotional issue, when my mental health issues (Depression. I know, I'm a cliche.) become particularly troublesome.

I write anyway.

The key is that you allow yourself to produce crap. That is, even if your work is terrible, it doesn't matter, because every time you do it you're getting better. More, it's the discipline that matters the most, because once it becomes habit, that vague, mystical notion of a dream suddenly becomes concrete. Whether it's writing or playing an instrument or learning how to build things, the habit is what matters.
If you develop good habits, you can't help but get better. And when your dream moves from being something vague, like clouds on a distant horizon, to the ground beneath your feet, your life changes. 
And if you're anything like me, it will feel like you're breathing for the first time.