Every day I see some blog or essay or article that has something to do with tips for writing and writers. How to get an agent, how to make a living writing, how to write a book. Write what you know, write what you don’t know, write on a schedule, write when inspiration hits; write this, not that. But what about the most important tip a potential writer or artist can get—the one that suggests stopping altogether?
Who’s job is it to tell someone they’re just not good at something? A friend, a parent, a teacher? Everywhere you turn, there is another small publisher or vanity press. By my count, there are close to a thousand mostly unknown small presses, most of them publishing mediocre, amateurish writing—at best—and often charging the author for publishing services. Why? Because they can. Because everyone wants to be a published author. Nearly everyone I’ve ever met has told me they are going to write a memoir or the next great American novel, even those who can’t write a paragraph without it being riddled with errors, and those who never read books themselves. While some people do end up self-publishing with the unattainable hopes of being the next E.L. James, most people, besides lacking in skill, are also lacking in patience. This idea of having your name printed on a glossy cover and on display in every bookstore window is much more exciting and powerful than actually sitting down at a desk every night, usually after a long day at work when your shoulders are already tight from slouching and your eyes keep fluttering closed, and writing, writing, writing. And, unlike most things these days, there’s no instant gratification here. Generally, there’s no end in sight. It might take years to finish a book. And then, you have to find an agent, and a publisher, and then edit for another year. That’s a lot of work. Without any promise of reward, financial or otherwise.
In one of my favorite books of all time, Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins writes that “the new American Dream is to achieve wealth and recognition without having the burden of intelligence, talent, sacrifice, or the human values that are universal.” Since this was written about twenty years ago, I will take this one step further: it used to be office jobs and houses in the suburbs, but now it seems the American Dream is to achieve wealth and recognition through an artistic endeavor. And—like everything else in the twenty-first century—as quickly as possible. What else explains all the various reality TV competitions for singing, modeling, fashion design, even art? Everyone wants instant fame, and it almost doesn’t even matter for what anymore (i.e. housewives of various cities, Kardashians. I still have no idea why these people have TV shows, they don’t seem to do anything).
One problem, which I mentioned in an earlier blog, is that people are just too polite. No one ever has the courage to tell someone that they aren’t good at something, so entire industries are created around people that will never succeed in those particular avenues. The majority of people that come out of MFA programs or self-publish never even continue writing and are generally thousands of dollars further in debt. Because you really can’t teach art. You can definitely make someone better, but you can’t make someone with no talent have talent. You get better from practice. Lots and lots of it. Or you don’t get better, and you move onto something else.
It’s not just writing, either. I’ve lived with many art majors in my life, and in addition to a predilection for dating the worst human beings imaginable, being incredibly self-involved, and wearing mismatching outfits, they all seemed to share this one idea: that creation of any kind, no matter how good or bad, is art. A dollop of thick acrylic paint dropped onto a wooden board. A dress made entirely of orange peels. A doodle from a notebook. A piece of string hanging from a ceiling. A naked woman cutting herself out of a black plastic bag. (Yes, these are all things I’ve seen called ‘art.’) No longer does art have to be, in any way, shape, or form, beautiful—in fact, one of my former roommates claimed it’s not art unless it’s ugly. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all, it doesn’t even have to involve tools like paint or charcoal or pencils. Just thinking something is a piece of art seems to be sufficient now.
Enough already! First they start giving trophies to children who lose basketball games so that they don’t feel bad, now this. Creation is not its own reward, unless you’re really and truly creating for your eyes only. And in that case—by all means, paint away, just please don’t show me. Art, real art, is for other people. If it wasn’t, bookstores would be empty, art galleries would not exist, and you would never hear music at coffee shops, malls, bars, concert halls. Saying that you’ve created something for yourself only and yet posting it on Facebook is just a way of avoiding responsibility for its greatness or lack thereof.
In the same way that not everyone can be a professional soccer or football player, not everyone can be an artist or musician or writer. In most professions, there are a litany of doors one must go through to be deemed worthy, several people with the responsibility to critique, judge, and decide, between you and your profession. I would hope that a prestigious medical school would not allow entry to someone who is deemed subpar—and even if that were to happen, I would hope that the student would understand pretty quickly if they are not meant to do that line of work and choose something else (I’m sure there are still cases of this, but far less than in the arts). However, because every year there are only more and more MFA programs, and they have to fill up these classes to make enough money to pay the teachers, who also probably came out of MFA programs, it creates an endless cycle of people in their mid-twenties delaying the start of their adult lives, because they haven’t been prepared for what might happen if they don’t achieve instant stardom for merely picking up a pencil at the right place and time (for more on this, read my previous blog, The Marriage Plot, or just watch Girls).
It can be very confusing when your entire life someone is telling you anything is possible, that you’re great at everything you do, that you’ll be famous one day, and then you get out of art school and no one will hire you. No one notices you. This is a very confused generation. Ask anyone that works at Starbucks. Isn’t it time we start telling people that something just isn’t good? I heard this about most things I did growing up and I’m still alive. Plus, if that person is really, really passionate about whatever it is he or she is doing, they will just keep doing it anyway. Perhaps they will prove you wrong. But if they have been sliding by on the belief that they are good because their doting parents and friends never wanted to hurt their feelings, perhaps it will jar them enough to really reevaluate what it is they want to be doing, if the arts is where they want to spend their lives at all. And then we’ll have one less confused twenty-something on our hands. Because the writing life is hard and it is very unlikely you will ever become successful, unless you’re really just that good, or just that lucky. And I don’t want to turn into yet another tip-giver, but if there is anything in the world you like to do better, or that you’re good at, you should really do that.