Defy Reality, Become An Artist
Nobody wants you to be an artist.
It’s for a lot of reasons. Some come from a good place — they think, hey, we want better for you. The life of an artist is hard. Be a bricklayer, a doctor, a ROCKET LAWYER, something, anything. Art is how you lose. Art is how you die. Don’t be an artist, because we don’t want to see you struggle, starve, and go mad.
Some of the reasons come from a deeply cankerous place: jealousy (“why do you get to fritter away your hours MAKING ART and I have to sell toilets?”) or misunderstanding (“art isn’t work, it’s just lazy piffle for lazy losers”) or alien menace (“ART GIVES HUMAN BEINGS HOPE AND IT MAKES THEM MORE RESISTANT TO HOSTILE TAKEOVER FROM EXTRATERRESTRIAL FORCES”). Some governments don’t want artists because art is truth, even when couched in illusion or deception. Some schools don’t want art because how do you test art, and everything is about the test, goddamnit. Want to get a mortgage? Tell them you’re an artist and ha ha ha oh shit.
Art is a hobby, art is a waste of time, art is a thing you do when you’re in elementary school or in the retirement home. It isn’t a life. It isn’t a career. FUCK YOU, NO ARTING. It’s all bullshit, of course, because nearly everything demands art. Advertisements. User interfaces. Logos. The whole Internet is made of WORDS and IMAGES. It started off looking dog-ugly, like something a self-aware bank ATM would shit into the world — but then it became a thing of elegance and design (er, mostly). It became a thing of art, collectively.
Let’s switch gears a little.
Last week I wrote a post about anxiety, and on Twitter and across Ye Jolly Interwebs people asked, well, okay, whilst in the throttling grip of the Mighty Anxiety Snake, how do you wriggle free enough to still make art? And it’s a fine, fine question, because the business side of art can help lend cosmic-level strength to the Mighty Anxiety Snake, the one who twists around you, the one who constricts your heart and makes it feel like your throat is closing. Think long and hard about the business — not just today, but tomorrow, next year, five years — and you’ll find yourself breathless in existential despair. It’s a series of mountains and cliffs and you’re just a wee mountain climber and a storm is rolling in and ye fucking gods, why not just go home and have some liquor and a nap? Then you start thinking about what other people are able to accomplish: awards, sales, movie rights, foreign rights, six-figure deals, seven-figure deals, publishing contracts that stipulate the writer gets a pet snow leopard (by the way this is why you don’t fuck with Neil Gaiman because his snow leopard will hunt you as prey). It’s all very crushing. It’s like laying down and having a hydraulic press push in on your chest.
So: how does one deal with that?
Well, obviously, I am not you. (Not yet, not until I finish work on THE MACHINE, and then we’ll just see, won’t we?) As such, I cannot possibly speculate how you deal with it, but I can speak quite expertly on how I deal with it, because I am the me rooted in this floppy, bearded body.
And here is one of the ways I deal with it:
I worry very little about the result of what I’m doing.
Note: what I mean is not that I care nothing for the quality of the result. I care very much about my own level of satisfaction with the thing I’m writing. It’ll never be perfect, but I want it to be good. But the key here is that I want it to be good because I want to be happy with it.
I don’t care if you’re happy with it.
And the “you” in that equation can be, well, really anybody. The nebulous Audience. Or reviewers. Or publishers and editors. Or other authors. I don’t worry about because I can’t worry about it. I don’t know what you want. (See earlier comment: I am not you.) I don’t know what the market is doing. Chasing the market is like chasing starlight: by the time I find the star that made the light, I remember that light travels slow and that star is already dead. I don’t know what reviewers want. I don’t know what reviewer I’ll get. If I sit down and I go to write and I carry with me the baggage of expectation — if I sit there and try to imagine what every single potential interaction with my book will be like — then I’ll probably freeze up. I’ll soak my shirt with blubbery fear-weeping and sadness-snot. I’ll make a low keening sound in the back of my throat like a ferret pining for its ancient ferret homelands.
The key there is: I cannot be pinned by expectation.
Some people think outlining a book robs the book of its magic. Some people think the business kills the joy of making words and creating art. But for me, the great thing that will siphon the joy out of what I do — the pesticide that murders the butterflies flitting about in the dark shrubbery that is my heart — is expectation. Not my expectation. But yours.
And now we come full circle because once again, I say:
Nobody wants you to be an artist.
Not the people who love you. Not the people who hate you. Not the people who don’t know one whit about you. Nobody wants that for you or your life.
I want you to think about that for a moment.
I want you to focus on that for a moment.
Take the idea like a pebble or a pearl, tuck it in your mouth, swirl it around.
This is what that does for me:
When I sit down and I start to write, I take a secret thrill in what I’m doing. Because this is forbidden territory. This is verboten. Everyone has built a fence of expectation around what I’m doing and yet, here I am, having climbed the fence. I’m making art and the world doesn’t want me to make art. I’m in a secret garden stealing your vegetables. I’m traipsing about someone’s home in the dark while they sleep. I’m mixing potions. I’m making monsters. I’m tap-dancing on the edge of a cliff, and the world can watch me kick off my shoes, pirouette, and lift both middle fingers in the air with a smugly self-satisfied look on my big beardo face.
Let me distill this down for you:
How do I survive my anxiety and the business and the expectations and still make art?
FUCK YOU, that’s how.
(Not you specifically! I’m sure you’re lovely.)
Don’t think I should be making art? FUCK YOU.
Don’t think I can finish this book and do it my way? FUCK YOU.
Think this is a waste of time? FUCK YOU, it’s my time to waste.
My anxiety wants to scare me away? FUCK YOU, I won’t be run off, Mighty Anxiety Snake!
Those two words — FUCK and YOU — form a glorious act of defiance, an empowering gush of confident magma in your chest that you can vomit all over reality’s face. Reality doesn’t want me doing this? Reality expects me to conform? HA HA HA HAVE MY ANGER-MAGMA, AND ALSO, FUCK YOU BIG, SUCKER.
So, when it comes time for you to sit down –
And start to write –
Or start to paint –
Or doodle or design or color or whatever it is that you do –
And you start to feel the Mighty Anxiety Snake coiling in your bowels –
And the weight of expectations pressing the air out of your chest –
And you start to look too far down the road and imagine all the potholes and broken bridges –
And you start comparing yourself to everyone else –
Extend one middle finger.
Then the other.
Scream FUCK YOU in a great profane yawp.
Then get to work.
Forget perfection. You can’t control success. You aren’t anybody else. You are you. It doesn’t matter if anyone believes in you. Let their disbelief charge your batteries. You can believe in you.
Focus on today. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Make something. Create something. Act in defiance of reality’s accord. Spit in the eye of any who expect you to do differently.
Relish in the unmitigated thrill of doing what nobody wants you to do.
Nobody wants you to be an artist.
But you do, so fuck them.
* * *
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