“To put it frankly, it can be hard to tell if you’re bravely persevering in the face of others’ unfair discouragement of your art, or foolishly persevering in the face of others’ accurate assessment of your limited talents.”
When an article on the First/Second Books blog carrying…
Thanks to Simon for writing exactly what I needed to read right now, and for helping to bring my thoughts into some focus.
The quote at the top there reminds me of something my undergrad advisor once told me. She herself is very successful, having won important prizes and developed a strong reputation. But she suggested that no matter how much you succeed as a creative professional, you’ll never stop asking, “Am I actually any good?” (In fact, I wonder if this doesn’t resonate even more for successful people in some ways, as they learn more about the sausage making behind prizes being awarded, positions being appointed, etc.)
The point is what she said next: if you need to know whether you’re any good as a creative practitioner, then you’re in the wrong place. You will never know with any real certainty.
I’m also reminded of another, possibly apocryphal story that I learned in Quaker school as a kid. William Penn (a Quaker and therefore a pacifist) had to wear a sword, either because he was a governor or because he was an admiral’s son. It bothered him, and he asked George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, about whether he should refuse to wear it. Fox told him to “wear it as long as you can.”
I believe the creative life is a calling. It’s something we do because we are compelled to do it. We’re all Jacobs out there wrestling with our gods. Fox believed that if Penn thought long and hard enough about it, he would inevitably reach a point where he had to give up the sword. By the same logic, I might say, if you can give up, do. If you can quit your creative endeavor and go make a real living and see friends nights instead of hunching over a desk—and feel good about the decision—then do.
But if you only feel satisfied when you’re creating—if you’re haunted during the stretches when you’re too busy making rent to put pen to paper, if you spend your idle moments looking around and thinking about color theory or perspective or sprung rhythm or the qualities of speech that make voice—then don’t. Ever.
I am not successful at this point in my career. I don’t have a fan base and my work has been met with resounding indifference from almost every professional to whom I’ve shown it. I wonder if I’m an idiot to pursue an art form that no one is clamoring for, to say the very least. I think about the glut of creative material out there, and how I might just be adding to a sea of noise where everyone shouts for attention and no one really listens to anyone else, and I kind of wish I could stop. But I really don’t think I can.
I’m also incredibly fortunate: I don’t face huge debts and I’m able to pursue an unorthodox career that supports my calling. But I truly believe that, even if that good luck goes away, it will still be those moments when I’m drawing and writing that give me peace of mind and a sense that I’m doing what I’m supposed to. And crazy as it sounds, that strikes me as greater fortune still.