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.

* * *

The Kick-Ass Writer: Out Now

The journey to become a successful writer is long, fraught with peril, and filled with difficult questions: How do I write dialogue? How do I build suspense? What should I know about query letters? How do I start? Where are my pants?

The best way to answer these questions is to ditch your uncertainty and transform yourself into a Kick-Ass Writer. This new book from award-winning author Chuck Wendig combines the best of his eye-opening writing instruction — previously available in e-book form only — with all-new insights into writing and publishing. It’s an explosive broadside of gritty advice that will destroy your fears, clear the path, and help you find your voice, your story, and your audience.

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88 responses to “Defy Reality, Become An Artist”

  1. I love you, Chuck. Between your general hilariously inventive and simultaneously terribly perceptive posts, the post about anxiety and this follow-up are speaking to me. I *have* run from the art I love for so long, doing it furtively, because of others’ expectations and demands.

    Fuck all y’all, I have to feed my soul.

  2. Well said, sir. Everyone loves a failure so they can point and mock and laugh. But, if you don’t try then all you do is fail giving the assholes more power. Fuck them. Do it anyway. The only person who can truly keep you from accomplishing your goalS is yourself believing what the naysayers vomit out into the world. Bitch slap those bastards out of the way and GO MAKE ART!

  3. You know who else doesn’t want me to art? My bank. They just want me to stay in my soul crushing, boring day job so I can pay my mortgage and not be evicted.
    So, what can you do when extending middle fingers and shouting FUCK YOU will only result in you losing your home? I guess keep gritting your teeth and writing and hoping some day you’ll win that ticket to Middleclasstown.

    • Not forget about the excluded middle? Art doesn’t necessarily involve quitting your day job with stars in your eyes. It basically means working two jobs until your second (your art) will give you enough money to live. Art is an intensely pragmatic pursuit, I think, because everyone who’s doing it knows what a high-wire act it is to make a living as an artist. That said… don’t assume it can’t be done.

      • +1 Thank you for your words. Sometimes I just need to know I’m not the only one scraping “art hours” from a debt-full working class life. When I read things like “do what you really like” or “to wish is to achieve” I feel easily triggered.
        That said… don’t assume I will give up.

        • You are not alone!! Of course not! I think the majority of peoples who write have day jobs. I am lucky I love my day job – but it isn’t my everything. I actually think it helps me keep my passion for my writing. I can’t wait for lunchtime, for the weekends. I can’t always brain enough for weeknights, but I try to. 🙂 Don’t you dare give up!

  4. Even those who depend on artists fear them a little. This is a good and just thing. To make art is to play God, and look how far he got with the fear thing. And for the record, I would settle for a lynx if they run out of snow leopards.

  5. Hah, and again one of your blog posts was exactly what I needed to read right now.
    And the fact that I am commenting on it, says a lot about how badly needed it was.
    Thanks, Chuck.

  6. Thank you. This made my day. I’m laughing and extending both middle fingers and screaming “Fuck you.” Mr. Wendig, a great moment because of you. Very invigorating. From now on, I shall practice this mantra every morning. 🙂

  7. The best advice one can take for any endeavor is to not be invested in the outcome. That makes anything produced shittier and really ruins the ride. Being a menace to aliens is a delightful side effect, though. Thanks for that reminder.

  8. Thank you from the bottom of my heart (and quite possibly the heart of my bottom) for this, because fuck, I needed to hear it.

    Fuck you, Expectations. Fuck you and the Horse of Doubt you rode in on.

  9. Inspired by this post, I may have just spent the last few minutes rewriting a certain Cee-Lo song where I rhymed “gold digger” with “fanfic of Chrono Trigger.”

  10. I just fear the reaper, especially on the highway, where they go 85 mph. I follow you because you talk this way and I like/love my work. I bought your book in case I lose sight of this for my future. Thanks! PS. I do want readers someday, though.

  11. You rock Chuck! My fiance, who’s a very talented artist and musician, gave me that same pep talk last night as I was bemoaning my current lack of writing glory. His favorite phrase, “Fuck those monkeys.” While I value his support and input, it’s nice to know that other writers, even successful ones, have the same fears as those of us with a few less miles on the writing odometer.

  12. I’ve been spending some time in the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, thinking about this very topic. Still was one of the top Abstract Impressionists of the mid-century, close friends with Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock said “he makes the rest of us look like children” or something to that effect. But he rejected almost everything about the art market on principle; he sold almost no paintings in his lifetime, gave away few, and exhibited rarely, and died with his body of work (thousands upon thousands of paintings and sketches) intact, willing it to any city that would build a museum for it, in context and to his specifications. Damned if half a dozen cities didn’t step up and compete for the honor, and Denver won. Amazing story. His entire life was one long, raging, towering fuck-you performance, and at the end, it was I won, fuck you.

    But he wasn’t haphazard about it. He got out of the Canadian cowtown where he grew up, went to college, and had a long, prestigious career as an art professor. He worked very hard at cultivating a life entirely constructed around being able to do art on his terms and share it with people who he felt got what he was doing.

    I used to show in galleries, and I hated it. I spent a lot of years thinking that if I didn’t show in galleries, I was wasting my time with art. Now, coming around to writing, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how this entanglement of work and market works. Sure, getting the work to pay for having more time to do the work is lovely, but not if it gets in the way of doing the work.. I haven’t figured out what my middle ground looks like, but I do know that there are things that can be compromised on, and things that just can’t.

  13. Oh My Goodness Mr. Wendig! You are the Tony Robbins of (F) ARTists across the Land. I am turning in my EST card immediately!

  14. This is AWESOME and it’s exactly what I needed to read today. It’s funny how that happens a lot with your posts, Chuck. ART ON, Peeps. ART. ON.

    P.S. Snow leopards are so overhyped – says my Dragon and I 🙂

  15. See, now I’m just sad.

    Because I have that rarest of artistic assets – a mother who firmly believes with her whole heart that I was put on this earth to be a writer. She wants me to be an artist. She supported me for three years while I arted. She doesn’t even care what I write, she just wants me to be the writer she knows I can be. If that involves being Becky Tingle, Chuck Tingle’s naughty little sister, she’ll support that, because she wants me to be a writer. Just so you don’t get the wrong idea, I want me to be a writer too. It’s literally the only career I have ever thought I could do.

    Except I didn’t art, and I haven’t written a word of fiction this year. I didn’t art then, and I’m not arting now, and I’m not 100% sure that I will ever be able to art again, fuck you very much my stupid brain.

      • I’ve never really travelled much, although I did go to London two years ago (boy, was that a wonderful experience. Just wandering around this big old city older than my country…magnificent). Travelling from South Africa is hard, because our currency is not worth much and ditto our passport, so it’s a schlepp.

        Now, though, I might be moving to Iceland in the nearish future, if things work out well.

        The best thing is that if I get the job I would be working as a creative copywriter (emphasis, according to my friend who works there, on the CREATIVE) for a video game I play and love, which I feel might be better soul-food than my current job.

        All in all, I am feeling much more optimistic about life than I was when I wrote the comment you replied to. I also finished the outline of the book I’m currently working on and the story hasn’t withered yet, so…

        Now seriously though, everyone who reads this must keep their fingers crossed or hold your thumbs or whatever the local equivalent is, for me to get that job.

  16. Last week it’s all cosy empathy and virtual cuddles. Everything would be all right; there there, stroke stroke………………….

    Today it’s the smack in the face with a wet kipper and the need to perform is right here, right now.

    Thanks Chuck

  17. This is so funny to me right now – I’m stuck with not one, but three awful goddamn university papers which I all have to finish TOMORROW, which is a situation that has, in the past, led to me lying on my bed in the embryo-posture, trying not to scream my lungs out so nobody calls the police because there’s a kid getting murdered in an Austrian suburb (though I guess now that I’m living in a student dorm in Scotland nobody would really mind one person more or less screaming)

    In any case, just about two hours ago I got an email telling me that I’m decided that I am not going to get the extension I asked for, and instead of making me break down and get crunched up into gorb, I just got this overwhelming feeling of ‘FUCK YOU’, and I decided that I’d fucking finish all of these shit papers just to SPITE everybody (especially the perfection monster nibbling at my innards all hours of the day)

    So I finish my first paper, go out to get myself some crisps and coke, and when I come back and look whether you’ve written anything new, and then here this is!

    I guess there’s some currents of fuck you in the air today, huh?

  18. Yeah, I’ve got a novel that I started….a long time ago. I’m embarrassed to even say how many years it’s been. That fucking anxiety monster grabbed a hold of me and won’t let go.

    FUCK YOU anxiety monster!!

  19. Unless you’re in a situation where it is everyone else (loved ones, friends, associates) that actually thinks you SHOULD be an artist and you’re left struggling trying to prove them right when you reality is very much suggesting they’re oh so very wrong.

  20. I’ve been fighting the fear. And I have sat down and written for the last two days. You’re so right. And this post made me want to blog. I write because I have to write, not because anyone else wants me to or doesn’t want me to. The person I need to make satisfied with my writing is myself. Thanks for this!

  21. This reminds me of when I was living at home and trying to work on novels and short stories:

    “You busy?”
    “Well, I’m working on this story-”
    “Good! Come help me with this thing in the garage!”
    🙁

    Then I had to go clean or some shit. My fiction writing was always treated on par with some frivolous time waster, like watching TV. At least my husband now gets it.

    • If you are writing (or otherwise arting) and someone asks if you are busy, the answer is
      YES.
      Possibly followed by
      FUCK OFF.
      Possibly followed by
      But I love you. [ingratiating smile]

    • An Internet friend wise in the ways of pushy family members once told me, “No is a complete sentence.” Find your inner bitch, and make her your sword and shield.

  22. I think people want others to try and be artists but they want them to fail at it deep down. If someone has the artistic urge then people want them to try because, in the end, the odds are stacked way against you. No matter how well you write or draw or paint, odds are you’ll never find fame. Then, when you have failed, those people who encouraged you can say to themselves “Ya. . .see? . . .that’s why I never tried” and feel more secure in choosing a safer path. I don’t think it is even a conscious thing; it is more of a deep seated fear. It is the fear that if you manage to fly, maybe they could have too. If you find your dream then maybe they might have been able to do more than just work for a living.

  23. a lot of people in my life don’t quite understand why i work so hard on my writing, why i edit so extensively when in their minds it’s “good enough”. or “it takes a reader all of five seconds to read this sentence, why are you spending an hour agonizing over it?” and so on so forth. and the thing i can never get across is that i don’t care about the reader. i don’t care that the chapter i spent weeks agonizing over will only take the reader 30 minutes to read. i mean, that’s kind of the point isn’t it? to make the words good enough that the reader enjoys them. but beyond that, i’m not trying to perfect the story for the reader–i mean it’s a part of it, because eventually the story will be read–but not until the day it’s published. up until that date, i’m writing and editing the story for ME. and for me, good enough for someone else isn’t the same as good enough for me. that’s not the point. the point is to make it RIGHT. that arbitrary marriage of quality and story truth. does it drive me insane? yes. but when i finally reach that point of “yes this is the story i wanted to tell and these are the best words to express that story” all the headaches are worth it.

    anyway, this is all to say that now i don’t feel bad for secretly shouting FUCK YOU in my head whenever someone criticizes the way i write/edit. this is what works for me. it’s worth it for me. so thanks for that.

  24. “Extend one middle finger.
    Then the other.
    Scream FUCK YOU in a great profane yawp.”

    And then move quickly away from the window because your neighbor, who was outside innocently mowing his grass, just did a whole-body flinch and looked over his shoulder like he thought that was directed at him. 😉

  25. I needed that. I needed it today. Thx.
    Means a lot more to read those (Eloquently? written words), than having friends tell you “…it’s just a hobby, don’t worry about it.”
    You’re timing was perfect 🙂

  26. Chuck- You have spoken the words I needed to speak, but couldn’t find. So I am happy to have heard them! The last two days I have allowed a nagging depression to pull me down. I think it has something to do with worrying about what others will think about my first book-nearing completion- and that others’ work is so much better than mine. But that’s BULLSHIT-right? Saying “FUCK YOU” makes me feel so much better. Thanks for your humorous and wise posts.

  27. After a hard day’s work, all bricklayers, doctors, ROCKET LAWYERS and toilet sellers go home and watch Game of Thrones, play Fallout or read Atlanta Burns. They still don’t want artists, but they need their dose of art every day.

  28. I’ve had the same shit thrown at me for wanting to be a writer – mainly from my own parents. I might as well have told them I was going to become a professional gambler. Some people think the overall arts environment is superfluous, and its occupants are too stupid to have done anything else with their lives. But then, they want entertainment – in television, movies, theatre, etc. Thus, society needs the artists. We make the world complete and provide refuge from bloodthirsty business scions.

  29. At 13, I won a regional writing contest. My middle school English teacher had us all enter. And I won. On the walk home from school after the news was announced, it clarified what I had known since nearly age eight — I wanted to be an author. I bust into the house and announced to my mother, “I want to be a writer.” Not that I had won a contest for it, but that’s what I was going to do with my life. She said, “You better take typing so you have something to fall back on, you know like secretarial work.” That has fueled me for so long and allowed me to mentor other writers, give them permission to persue their writing dreams. I’m still persuing mine. I know the book I’m shopping isn’t necessarily what the mass markets want. But it’s what came out of me (oh, by the way, the anxiety parasite is a key character in it, too). So I wrote it. Here’s hoping someone throws me a bone for it soon. But after all this time, I’ll likely keep doing it because, well, you know, I’m good with a Big Ol’ Bir-D to anyone, including my mom, who wants to tell me what I can’t do.

  30. Hugely needed this. Blood is thicker than water, but apparently my paints are thicker than blood.

  31. Excellent. I wish I’d known this when I was 21. I came to it after a long life of trying to live up to others’ expectations. I, too, was told I needed something to “fall back on.” At least I did figure out early that I was not meant for a career in commercial art, or “graphic design” as it is now known. Yours are not the same words that I used for my art students, but very, very similar, when discussing expectations and perfectionism.

  32. –Sometimes you gotta say “What the Fuck”, make your move. Joel, every now and then, saying “What the Fuck”, brings freedom. Freedom brings opportunity, opportunity makes your future.– Miles, Risky Business (1983)

  33. Thank you so much for this, Chuck!!! I am going to print this out and stick it on my wall.

    Next time my family interrupts me when I’m arting (writing or painting) I’m going to extend my middle finger and tell them to fuck themselves. I hate when they interrupt me a million times because I’m “only” writing or painting and “not doing serious work”.

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