The Secret

Point A to B

                                                       Getting from point A to B.

People pursuing creative careers often look up to the very successful for guidance on what to do. Creative careers don’t have the benefit of a rigid, structured career path, which is part of the draw of them. The freedom! The independence! But the main disadvantage of that is, of course, that it can sometimes feel like all your efforts are leading nowhere, or not in the right direction, or to something you don’t really want (or, maybe you’re not even completely sure what you want in the first place.)

Feeling directionless is not pleasant, especially when you look around at your peers and see them all in their structured, cushy jobs while you’re still trying to nurture an art career. At least if you want to be a doctor, there’s a way to figure out EXACTLY what you need to do to get there (not that actually BECOMING one isn’t hard, but at least you get a road map.) Artists don’t get a road map. There is no one, formulaic, way to become a successful artist. And that fact can sometimes be refreshing, oftentimes maddening.

I would take any opportunity to ask successful people in my field the question: any advice? What should I do? And they pretty much always say the same thing- just keep on making work. Okay. I would get so frustrated with this answer, because I felt like they were deliberately keeping some secret from me. I wanted to shake them and say “but what should I really DO! JUST FREAKIN’ TELL ME THE SECRET!” That answer is frustrating because it negates the idealistic fantasy that there is some sort of “secret formula” for success. That you can just gather the right ingredients, cook it under the right conditions, and BAM!, you have success gumbo.

So I’ve started to realize and accept this fact. It’s a scary thing to accept as a young, aspiring artist because it means accepting that you’ll have to go out and make a lot of calls for yourself, and that you will have to trust yourself to make said calls. Not crumbling when you make a bad one is where the “keep making work” advice kicks in. Gathering the strength to keep going, despite failure, or hopelessness, is really what “keep making work,” means. Although it’s no secret formula, it is great, valuable advice.

Where’d Ya Get That Idea?

Created with Microsoft Fresh Paint

Often well-meaning people say this phrase all the time to artists. It would always throw me off because I would scramble to find a concise answer to satisfy the asker. “Uh, I’ve always been interested in X and Y, and then I eventually put X and Y together, and there ya go…” If I weren’t polite, I’d just say “OH! I just hopped over the the idea store and picked up an idea off the shelf and took it to the checkout where I paid for it in IdeaBux!” But really, people who have never spent much time really creating things often have this misunderstanding of how grand ideas come about.

Honestly, this whole concept that ideas are just something you stumble upon randomly is kind of insulting. It implies that what we do as artists is not the result of hard work, dedication, toiling, and careful cultivation of a body of work over many years, but is just some sort of weird fluke. Like we were walking through the forest one day and just stumbled upon an idea in the middle of the road.

In reality, ideas are the result of a soupy, internal, evolutionary process of our experiences, thoughts, and dreams, stirring and boiling together in our brains. Whenever I’ve taken what seemed like a sharp turn in my work, I’ve always been able to look back and see ripples of that idea in my past work, sketches, writings, and general interests or experiences. An idea that may have seemed spontaneous and sudden at the time, I often find, was really the result of years and years of exploring peripheral ideas or concepts.

We all have ideas every day, whether we acknowledge them or not. And that’s the thing- most people have them, and then let them peter off into nothingness. Artists, on the other hand, run with them, carefully nurturing, exploring, and developing them until they become something great- something impactful and meaningful. And that’s not something that happens by accident.