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Letter to a young artist

Letter to a young artist

(As if we aren't all young artists.)

Don't quit. This might be the only real thing of value I can say here. But I know sometimes the words and their feeling need extra support to get where they're going, so I'll elaborate.

It takes an unreasonable amount of self belief to develop into an artist. It's why kids are so good at it–they haven't yet learned all of the ways they aren't good enough. In lieu of belief some denial can be useful. Whatever it takes to put on the blinders, to stop thinking about how crappy your art is long enough to actually get real practice in. Because in the beginning it's going to be crappy.

If you're going after something impossible (and let's be honest: making real art is at some level an impossible task) you'll do well to practice forgiving yourself. The more you forgive yourself for your flaws, failures, humanity, the more you will be able to attempt the impossible. You might suffer in the process–it's hard work, after all. But it's not about the suffering. The tortured artist is not something to become, but something in a process of becoming.

In other words: it gets better. You spend enough time floundering in the dark, in the unknowing that is required to surface anything new, and eventually come around to some amount of confidence in the ridiculous idea that yes, you can do this impossible thing.

And, if you're anything like me, your mind will fight you on it. It will ask how. How does it happen? How do I do it? But if you give a child a description of riding a bicycle, can they ride a bicycle? At some point this description of how, this attempt to understand, must give way to a wordless knowing afforded by practice itself as that which constitutes knowledge. An artist does not, at some level cannot, truly explain themselves any more than their practice explains itself.

So practice. Practice, practice, practice. That is the work. The things which come out of practice are not the point any more than yesterday or tomorrow are why we get up in the morning.

If you feel a creative urge, as is typical in human beings, I beseech you to allow it. Give it expression on its own terms. Treat it like an infant learning to speak–attentively listening, repeating back so that understanding may arise out of babble. We need it, and we need it desperately.

So whatever you do, please don't quit. Know that wherever you're at in your process of creating, listening, learning, feeling, it is always worth it. Your practice has unmistakable value just as your being has unmistakable value.

Thank you.

(Postscript: I've begun offering affordable, private teaching for those who would like to develop their writing practice. If that might benefit someone you know, I'd be grateful for you sharing with them.)