The Artist’s Journey, #13
We’re now well past halfway in The Artist’s Journey. The finished book (which Shawn and I have been putting together over the past month) has altered quite a bit from this serialization. Shawn found some chapters in a file that we’d been working on, preparing for a live seminar. Those went into the book. He tweaked and added other stuff and reordered a bunch of chapters. And as always, he took my eight “acts” and consolidated them into three. Why didn’t I think of that? If you’ve missed any of the prior posts, you can catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. And Part 12.
57. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO LET GO
I was visiting my friend Robert Bidner at his studio in Brooklyn. As Bob was showing me the paintings he was currently working on—about half a dozen on easels in varying stages of completion—I noticed another sheaf of canvases stacked against a wall in back.
“Those are my clinkers,” Bob said.
In the days when homes were heated by coal, he explained, every load inevitably contained one or two lumps that refused to burn.
Those were called clinkers.
I couldn’t stop my eye from returning to those abandoned paintings. I asked Bob if he ever hauled any back out and tried again to make them work.
I used to, he said.
Then he shook his head.
“You gotta know when to let go.”
58. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO BE ALONE
She trains herself to find emotional and spiritual sustenance in the work.
Her need for third-party validation attenuates. She may still ask you of her work, “What do you think?” But she evaluates your response within the framework of her own self-grounded assessment of her gifts and aspirations—and of how well or poorly she herself believes she has used the one in the service of the other.
59. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO WORK WITH OTHERS
She lets go of the need to plaster her name over everything.
It’s fun to jam, she decides. And even more fun when the finished product is better than any of the constituents could have produced on their own. She sees the beauty now in “Rodgers & Hammerstein” and “Jagger & Richards.”
Note please, as we delineate these skills, that their absence is the sign of the amateur.
An amateur can’t start, can’t keep going, can’t finish, can’t work alone, can’t work with others.
We ourselves were amateurs before our hero’s journey. That ordeal has chastened us. We have peered into the abyss and it has bitch-slapped us into reality. We might not, now, want to start, want to keep going, want to finish, want to work alone, want to collaborate—but we have confronted the alternative and it has scared us straight.
60. THE ARTIST LEARNS EMOTIONAL DISTANCE
I used to write novels that read like personal journals. To slog through them was excruciating, even for me.
The artist learns to detach himself from his expectations. He learns to separate his personal identity from his work.
No, he is not Holden Caulfield.
No, he is not Luke Skywalker.
Nor is she the book itself.
She is not Beloved.
She is not To Kill A Mockingbird.
The artist learns to interpose an emotional distance between herself and her work.
She acquires the capacity to zoom out, to see her material not through her own hope- or dread-freighted eyes, but through the lens of the impartial, impatient (and, yes, sympathetic) reader.
She stops looking at her stuff like an amateur and starts viewing it like a pro.
61. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO HANDLE REJECTION
Can you see the theme running through these chapters?
The theme is maturity.
The theme is professionalism.
The theme is mental toughness.
Every one of these skills (and the ones in chapters to follow) requires of the artist a profound shift in perspective and a quantum breakthrough in emotional self-possession. This work is hard. It hurts. We are beating our heads into a wall, hoping to teach ourselves to stop.
You may scoff at what I’m about to say, but we are becoming Zen masters.
We’re training ourselves to be Jedi knights.
I know, I know. “Every writer and artist I know,” you say, “is a lush, a sex addict, an emotional infant, simultaneously a tyrant and a coward, an egomaniac, a depressive and a flaming, incurable asshole.”
That may indeed be true.
But that’s not us.
That’s not you and me.
We are not going to be beaten by a pile of rejection slips (or even that excruciating close call that put us within inches of our material and artistic dream and then was snatched away at the fatal instant for reasons that were inane, arbitrary, or nonexistent altogether.)
No one said the artist’s journey was easy or without pain.
I once heard someone say that artist put all of their pain and soul into their work that is why they are so famous.
I think that follows Hemingway’s quote “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.” I for one am a fan of Hemingway’s work but feel the romanticizing of his suffering and alcohol abuse had little to do with his talent for his craft. I heard an excellent podcast from Seth Godin called “Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist.” I recommend it but the point I want to share is he said aren’t chefs, carpenters and plumbers professionals? How come we don’t hear about chef’s block or carpenter’s block? Because to be a professional you show up on bad days as well as good days.
On a side note I avoided using plumber’s block for the obvious play on words until now, for a dash of low-brow humor.
Clinkers, Alone, Others, Distance, Rejection, brief but a lot to unpack. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time.
What John said – there is a lot to unpack here. Thanks for an amazing post!
These are all gems. I love them, and the spirit of generosity in which they are given. Thank you!
When I grow up, let me stand in your shoes. No words can thank you enough for the guidance, wisdom and insight found through your posts. I eagerly await the book!
I find your work so amazing because I’m not even a writer-at least not a literary writer. I am a medical doctor and academic and virtually all your writing is applicable to my field. The War of Art was such an eye opener and now this-The Artist’s journey. I had to drop a comment today and appreciate you deeply. One day I will organise a seminar for fellow early career academics and I will base it on your material- letting go(clinkers), working alone, working with others, handling rejection. These are the thjngs we need to learn.
We have peered into the abyss and it has bitch-slapped us into reality. We might not, now, want to start, want to keep going, want to finish, want to work alone, want to collaborate—but we have confronted the alternative and it has scared us straight.
LOVE this. Made me laugh. It’s so true. The honesty in these is priceless.
You “gotta know when to let go”….pure wisdom, and forgotten so quickly and so often until properly ‘bitched slapped into reality’. Was it Detective Callahan?: “a man’s got to know his limitations”, he was talking about creative pursuit. I am really looking forward to this book.
Love this. Thank you so much!
I. Love. This. Thank you.
“We are beating our heads into a wall, hoping to teach ourselves to stop.”
We generally think of “art” as the product we leave behind–words on a page, paint on a canvas. But often it feels more like ash from the fire that burned through us.
We are our art, and what we produce is its reflection.
Amen, brother. Nothing to add to your brilliance.
Whew! How did you get inside my head? Yikes!
Hello Steve – the way you manage to write about such complex matters of the mind, the heart, and the soul of the artist, using such simple words, amazes me every single time. That’s remarkable!
Great post. No one can wait for the book!!!
Thank you…it is all about who we are becoming, without expecting anything from it, yet putting everything into it.
In the artist world I learned that when you have clinkers you don’t sign them.
This is so timely. Needed this as I sit at my computer today to work on my manuscript. It started as a memoir, which did not sell. What did sell is the story, and I now have to transform all that emotional whiney crap into a readable piece of work. I am slashing and burning! And it is so painful to read my pitiful sob story!
Thanks again for your wisdom and encouragement. It’s time to grow up.