It’s never what you think it is

Sticking with it: it’s where we separate real artists from the people who used to make art.

Because real art making is not about your amazing idea. It’s about not stopping. Real art making is about learning that ideas are only worth their executional salt. If you only dream it, if you never do it, you haven’t actually made anything.

And that’s as it should be, no? A cook who dares not near a stove can’t really claim his title. A swimmer who never hits the water doesn’t have much credibility. And plumbers are only made so by, well, plumbing things.

Do you feel despair, my dears, as I do between those long stretches of making anything? It’s because until you create again, you are just another person who used to make art. It’s because you can feel that impulse, that inertial force, that ease in which you just might stop and give up. Unless you’re making some art, you aren’t actually an artist.

And isn’t it just the bitterest of pills to swallow?

I look at the people younger than me and I want to ask them: How many of your fellow artistically minded graduates really hunkered down and decided to make a life in the arts? How many incredible creative compatriots decided to do something else? How sure are you that you’ll never give up?

I look at the people in my own age bracket and I want to yell: Think of all the people you’ve made work with in the last decade? How many of those people are still doing it? Isn’t that scary?! Aren’t you tired like me? Do you worry that you will keep going?

I look at the people a generation ahead of me that are still doing it and I want to inquire: How? How are you still here? Can you promise me it gets better? How did you make it work? Do you still worry about giving up?

In those times between being someone who used to make art and being an artist, how do you keep summoning up the energy and effort and love and vulnerability?

I don’t mean to say that if you aren’t cast in a show you don’t count. Art work is not limited to the opportunities that others afford us. Our work is so much more than the moment of performance in front of an audience. Our work is reading about the subject we want to create from. Our work is learning a new monologue or asking a friend to come and read our freshly written scene. Our work is discussing an idea and creating a plan of action. It’s searching out objects and finding inspirational images or writing 500 words a day to figure out what kind of stuff we actually want to make.

Our art is so much more than just an outcome. But it also must be more than just an idea.

The art in our mind – the play imagined, the painting visualized, the text  to be written – is always perfect. And the actual work we make is always something short of that ideal. Ideas are not art. Art is when the wheel hits pavement and starts to generate friction. It’s when reality begins to pierce the perfection.

Want an ever bitterer pill?

Your good ideas and intentions simply won’t matter if they never get implemented.

Your beautiful dreams are of no substance if you do not hang out long enough to get them done.

There is a new push in teaching and child development to stop telling kids how smart they are and to instead praise how hard they work. Turns out that when someone is praised for being good at something, they are incentivized to keep this image of themselves intact. If you think you are smart, if you want to keep this idea of yourself intact, doesn’t it make sense that you won’t want to put yourself in a situation that would prove otherwise? And it turns out that when you tell children they are “smart” they are a lot less likely to try something beyond their current capacity to succeed. When you are afraid of failure, you play it safe.

What to do? Tell them they are good at working really hard. Teach them that they will get a lot from trying really hard. Tell them the amount of effort and work they put into something will reap an equivalent reward. The difference between being smart and working hard is that one is a state to maintain and the other is an action to perform. Which one do you think is more productive?

You young ‘ens, with your amazing and fancy new ideas! Oh! How can I express how much I know where you are? Your artistry is like clay in your hands. You feel its heft and weight and shape. You know you are capable of making it into whatever you need it to be. You are strong. You are artistic potential incarnate, if only you could just get started. You know you can make awesome things. You just don’t have the right tools yet to shape this beautiful raw material. You just haven’t been given the opportunity to present what you can do.

Forget that opportunity. It’s never coming. Just throw that clay on the floor and start making whatever you can in the best way you know how.

I spent a year out of school waiting for the moment to become the artist I knew myself to be. I worked for others and held my own ideas tight inside myself. I waited and waited for the right place to display myself, to unveil what I knew I had to say. In that waiting I kept thinking “Oh how surprised all of you will be when you see what I really am!” In that year that I waited and dreamed and hid myself I wasn’t just less than the artists I wanted to be, I just wasn’t an artist. And it took me realizing that I’d spent a year working in a coffee shop and a cheese store (and that this was NOT going to be the sum of my very expensive education) to realize I needed to stop waiting and start doing.

That play you’ve been half working on for the last six months? You know, the one that you’re already not that excited about?  You know that essay you have been meaning to write but just can’t get into? That painting that’s already a little underwhelming?

All those works of art, the ones that feel like they are already imperfect and kind of one dimensional and boring and maybe I hate them and this isn’t the art I was really meant to make…

Go finish it.

Not because it’s going to be good. (It probably won’t be.) Go finish it because it teaches you how not to give up. Go finish it because it teaches you to soldier on in the face of your own limitations. Go finish it because it teaches you the value of “working hard” and not “being smart.” Go finish it because this kind of work is the lesson that will teach you the most about what it really means to succeed, which is not leaving the work undone and unfinished.

I defy you to show me any company that you love, any artist you admire, whose cannon does not include some seriously stupid and poorly executed crap. I look back at the things I’ve done and I cannot help but wince at over-long and flowery writing, at “dramatic” directing choices that now simply read as amateurish and scene work that I intended as intense but simply came off as inane. There are essays I have written in the course of this writing project that I seriously hate, but I published them anyway. And truth be told, the ones that I deemed most perfect are not the ones that have flown into people’s hearts. They are often the ones I might have sat on if I hadn’t forced myself to put it out there.

Folks a bit further on in your careers, correct me if I’m wrong here, but as far as I can tell, the need to succeed only gets worse. As you develop better taste, you’re that much more aware of the gulf between what you want and what you actually are.

But isn’t that better? Would you actually want to know that there is some pinnacle of artistic prowess and you’ve achieved it? That what there is to learn is something you’ve already gleaned?

Artists that survive are not the most brilliant or the most talented or the smartest. They are the ones who don’t let the idea of their work get in the way of the work they’re actually doing. They are the ones that do not look at failure as referendum on their worth. They look at process and see if they did they best that they could do. Artists who are successful are the ones that keep making art.

Here’s a hint: some of your work will suck. No matter what you do, some of those babies you bring into the world are big fat ugly stinkers. And even if they aren’t, even if they’re great, even when they’re earth-shatteringly groundbreaking, they’re likely never as good as they were in your head.

Let me repeat that for emphasis:

It’s never going to be as good as it was in your head.

We all might as well get used to it now.

(I’m looking at you.)

Stop making excuses. Stop waiting for the impulse to appear. Stop waiting until you are as capable of execution as your idea is worth.

Stop waiting. Start making.


PS: You folks who’ve been around the artistic block a few times, help some of us feel better. What’s the worst thing you ever made?


  1. The worst? Easy. I gave a huge amount of time, love and soul to a verse-play, vanity project, piece-of-crap called GLORIA. A day into tech every card carrying brain on the show knew it was unbearable, but by then we were trapped. It was a great idea when we all got on board at a meeting in my best friend’s living room. From a distance of many years it was a great mistake and made mean that both happily and sadly.

  2. as i have aged, i have found my artistic ambition lose it’s laser focus. there are so many things i want in this life….so many mountains to climb (to use your analogy from a previous post). theater, family, self discovery….these are all intertwined and yet so very separate at times. i think my most recent mistakes have been when i didn’t trust my gut and did a show just to “be working”. i am far choosier than i have ever been artistically (and hence, less “busy”), but in some ways i am far more invested in the projects that interest me/challenge me/feed my soul. my definition of what it means to be an artist has evolved significantly since i was in my 20’s or 30’s, that’s for certain.

  3. I would expand the notion that “making” or “creating” equals an artist’s life, to the idea that learning, investing and dreaming are also big parts of the process. I am a perpetual student, even at my age. And some of my most significant artistic alliances have come from people I encountered in workshops. Some of my more significant artistic discoveries were prompted by new thoughts learned, either directly or indirectly, in workshops.

    To me, the notion of being settled, or done, is the death of my artistic soul. My job is to expand. I remember signing up for a free workshop sponsored by Headlong Dance Theater, as part of their “camp”. I went to the information session to see about courses. I was immediately drawn to a course in “Clown Striptease” taught by Charlotte Ford and Manue Delpeche (who wouldn’t be?), and a course in Pilates. I was NOT drawn to a course in “Roy Hart Voice Work and Shakespeare.” “ Why not?” you might ask. Well, because it was about Shakespeare, whom I have made a practice of despising, and it was taught by two young women I did not know and had never heard of. YOUNG women. Not many others signed up, though. And I was available. And I like to be supportive. And it frightened me. So I took it.

    That decision sent me on an entirely different artistic path. Roy Hart was exciting. My Lady Macbeth monologue interesting to work on. And the young women were AWESOME. I felt kinship and deep love of the work. We decided to partner up and create a piece based on our work together. The piece became Lady M, which we performed at the Live Arts Festival, and we are continuing to work on it today.

    Part of being an artist is being available and open to new experiences. The partner of “hard work” must be a willingness to step into the unknown. And to accept that art making need not be a solitary venture – alliances matter. Making art is not a great competition where you need to go out and beat all others who are trying to do it too. Why not make alliances instead? When you are facing an artistic dry spell, having compatriots, a team, partners, will not only give you comfort, but they will spur you on.

    I know you asked for examples of great failures. I have to say; my artistic failures are more about not being brave enough to try something. Or being too judgmental. Or seeing my peers as competitors and not co-creators. The best advice I got as a young artist? Share information. Share opportunities. The best way to sustain a life in art is to have friends who are sustaining a life in art.

    1. Amen to this!

      I think at the core, “working” is both an effort and a leap. It is continuing to feed the artistic self by discovering, changing and learning about how one is a maker. It is fearlessness and tenacity in combination/alternation.

      “To make” requires a strength and will that is ACTIVE and ENGAGED in a way that simply imagining the day when one will create is not. To do, with oneself, with others, especially in the times when it feels most directionless takes the creation process off a pedestal and requires immediacy. We have to knock the work off that perch once in a while lest it gets so high one just stops reaching for it because it’s so much easier to look at it from afar.

      That same voice and Shakespeare class was one I was loathe to start. I too hated everything that Shakespeare signified to me at the time – a cannon that is imbalanced, a deification of the writer I disagree with, and a rarefied fanciness in theater. But I thought, this stuff is everywhere, don’t define yourself in opposition. When a certain well known actress joined the class I was a little more than terrified. I thought, “Crap, what the hell can I teach this really successful person? And why of all the things, does she have to take THIS class?” I was a deviser, an experimenter, a boundary-breaker, not some cannon toting Shakespeare lover!

      I feared I couldn’t convince someone from the other side that MY approach was more than just rolling around and moaning. And though I knew it mattered to me, but I was afraid that others might not see that.

      And instead of holding in the idea of my precious approach, I worked my butt off to shape it and bring in stuff that was interesting. I took time and energy to work out my approach so that it was something I could communicate and believe in.

      And having done all that hard work, I packed it up in my notebook, and stepped up to the cliff’s edge and jumped. And I threw much of it away, and things happened that I just had to run with. And lo these many years later I’m still in the midst of it.

      Both are needed: the effort and the jump.

      PS – “Roy Hart Voice Work and Shakespeare” sounds boring to me too. Good this my class was called “X-Treme Shakespearian Voice”. (Commence holding arms in an X position!)


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