The Artist’s Most Important Skill
What single skill is most critical to the artist?
Is it talent? Imagination? Mastery of her craft?
Is it profundity of insight, depth of compassion, understanding of human nature? A passion for truth? Capacity for hard work? The ability to overcome criticism and negativity?
Or is it something more crass, more commercial? The ability to brand herself? To network, to pitch, to create buzz?
In my opinion it’s none of these.
The single most critical skill for the artist is this:
The ability to sit down and do her work.
It sounds so simple. So obvious. It’s almost embarrassing to state it because it’s so self-apparent.
And yet …
And yet, how many people can do it? I mean really do it. Not in bursts and not on occasion. Not for three days or a week or for the duration of one novel or one screenplay?
How many people can turn off Facebook, close the door, and sit down and focus?
How many can stop drinking, stop partying, stop distracting themselves?
I’ve been in this racket for almost fifty years and I’ve heard every variation on “I’m a writer,” “I will be a writer,” “I know I can be a writer.”
Let’s examine this skill—the ability to sit down and work—which is not really a “skill” at all but something far more elementary and primal. It’s not a skill like carpentry or brain surgery, in the sense that you have to study it and work at it and eventually acquire mastery of it.
A child can do it.
A novice can make it happen the first time out of the box.
Nor is it a skill that requires talent or genius.
You don’t need an IQ of 138 or a degree from Stanford.
This skill has three components:
1. The negative. This is the ability to NOT do what you know you shouldn’t. It’s the capacity to say no. Alcoholics Anonymous is built on this component. “I will NOT take a drink.”
2. The positive. This is the flip side of #1. It’s the ability to take action, to DO what we know we should. This is “Put your ass where your heart wants to be.”
3. Duration. The third component is the ability to enact #1 and #2 over time.
Have you heard of Mussar (pronounced moo-SAHR)? Mussar is a spiritual discipline from Jewish mysticism. It’s like a mental version of yoga or the martial arts.
The first two principles of Mussar are:
1. Identify the sin.
2. Cease engaging in it.
I love this concept. (It’s really the principle behind AA.) Mussar is the opposite of psychotherapy. Adhering to this discipline, we don’t spend years investigating why we can’t stop following the Kardashians.
We identify the sin: keeping up with Kim.
And we stop doing it.
This is the artist’s skill. Nothing could be simpler.
The sin is not doing our work.
The solution is doing it.