View profile

Weekly 3: Uncommon portraits of an artist's life


Idea Journal Weekly 3

December 8 · Issue #116 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Stay alive for longer. Learn from Marines. Be boring. (~5 min read)

#1. "Dying young is overrated"
In his manifesto How to Be Creative, cartoonist Hugh MacLeod writes that he’s seen many young people pursue the idea that drugs and alcohol will make them a better artist: “A choice that wasnʼt smart, original, effective, or healthy, nor ended happily.”
MacLeod notes that this trend reflects a familiar story: a kid reads about Charles Bukowski, or Charlie Parker, or Jimi Hendrix and decides that those artists’ poetic but flawed examples give him or her “permission and/or absolution to spend the next decade or two drowning in his own metaphorical vomit.”
The older you get, the more casualties of this misguided thinking you meet. The more time has had to ravage their bodies, and the more pathetic they seem. 
The smarter the artist is, the less likely she is to choose this path. She might waste some time when she’s young and naive, but she will move on quicker than most. 
But as MacLeod puts it, the inferior artist thinks it’s all about talent and potential. He underestimates how much discipline, stamina, and time are involved. He looks to exceptional figures like Bukowski and Hendrix, believes he too is exceptional, and overestimates his chances of success. 
The inferior artist “is a sucker for the idea that there’s a way to make it without having to do the actual hard work.”
One result is that the bars of New York and West Hollywood are filled with young people throwing their lives away in the desperate hope of finding a shortcut. Sadly, many of them aren’t even young anymore – their plans having been washed away with vodka tonics years ago.
“Meanwhile their competition is at home, working their asses off.”
#2. What artists can learn from Marines
Author and military veteran Steven Pressfield writes in his book The War of Art that the Marine Corps teaches a lesson that can also be valuable for artists: how to be miserable.
Recalling his own experience in the military, Pressfield writes that Marines love to be miserable: “Marines derive a perverse satisfaction in having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any other outfit.”
For Pressfield, the artist must be like that Marine. 
Whether he knows it or not, the artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell: “He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”
To survive that onslaught, the artist has to know how to be miserable, and to love it.
Pressfield shares a story about facing adversity in his own career. 
He he been in Hollywood for five years and had finished nine screenplays – none of which sold. 
Finally, he secured a meeting with a major producer.
During the meeting, the producer kept taking phone calls, even as Pressfield pitched his material. Then a call came in that was personal, and the producer asked Pressfield to leave the room and give him some privacy.
Pressfield stepped into the hallway. Ten minutes passed. Twenty more minutes passed.
Eventually, the producer’s door opened and he came out, pulling on his jacket: “Oh, I’m so sorry!” 
As Pressfield tells it: “He had forgotten all about me. I’m human. This hurt. I wasn’t a kid either; I was in my forties, with a rap sheet of failure as long as your arm.”
But as Pressfield points out, the professional can’t let himself take humiliation personally. The professional keeps his eye on the doughnut – not on the hole.
“He reminds himself it’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
#3. Living a “boring” life is the only way to get work done
In his book Steal Like an Artist, author Austin Kleon writes that it takes a lot of energy to be creative: “You don’t have that energy if you waste it on other stuff.”
He describes himself as a boring guy, who lives with his wife and his dog in a quiet neighborhood. 
For Kleon, the romantic image of the creative genius running around, doing drugs, and sleeping with everyone is worn out: “It’s for the superhuman and the people who want to die young.”
Here are a few of Kleon’s tips on how to survive as an artist:
1. Take care of yourself
You may as well assume that you will be alive for a while. Eat breakfast, do some push-ups, get plenty of sleep, go to the dentist.
The musician Neil Young sang: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
But as Kleon puts it: “I say it’s better to burn slow and see your grandkids.”
2. Marry well
Kleon writes that whom you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. 
As he points out, relationships are hard enough, “but it takes a real champion of a person to be married to someone who’s obsessed with a creative pursuit.” They often have to be a cook, an editor, a motivational speaker, and a parent – all at once. 
A good partner keeps you grounded.
Kleon cites a quote by the musician Tom Waits, who’s reflecting on his relationship with his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan: “She rescued me. I’d be playing in a steak house right now if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t even be playing in a steak house. I’d be cooking in a steak house.”
Quote of the Week
“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
- Novelist Gustave Flaubert in an 1876 letter to Gertrude Tennant, as captured in the book Correspondance
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
Did you enjoy this issue?
If you don't want these updates anymore, please unsubscribe here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue
New York, NY