When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.” Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out.
— Jerry Saltz in My Life As a Failed Artist
I think there’s a real dearth of “literature” about failed artists. One doesn’t have to look hard to find successful actors, artists, filmmakers, comedians, etc., talking about how they achieved success, often with an emphasis on the follow-your-dreams-and-never-give-up words of inspiration. I wish those talks were more clear about the specific mechanics of not giving up, in terms of what strategies the artists used to adjust to adversity and creatively overcome it.
Saltz had a very common experience — the self-doubt of an artist. But he wasn’t equipped with the tools or understanding to move forward with his work. And I think that’s what bothers me about the just-believe-in-yourself thinking. It’s unrealistic. Even wildly successful artists are plagued by self-doubt. The doubt doesn’t really have anything to do with the work — it’s just a feeling, not an output.
And it might even be harmful to completely believe in yourself. People who want very badly to be very good at something but feel like they are far away from being very good at that thing tend to work hard to get better so they can get closer to being very good.
The supremely confident person who isn’t already very good has no pathway to getting better except for dumb luck. Why try to improve when you already believe that you’re great?
I think the self-doubt, when channeled properly into improving oneself, is precisely what allows people to succeed if they have the right tools for managing that self-doubt and can channel it into improving their work and growing, rather than letting it cripple them or driving them to drink. Maybe if Saltz had someone in his life that could have talked him through this at the time and helped him focus his energy in the right place, he might have found a way to get through the dip and break through.
I try to frame it to myself as “given that I work really hard for a long time and challenge myself in ways that will lead to creative growth and improvement in my craft, I believe that I will get better and eventually create something that other people really want to watch.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful but I think it’s important to think through these things and figure out under what conditions a platitude might be true and under what conditions it might lead to the exact opposite of what you’re trying to do.
Another thing I like about this article by Saltz is that we can also see that failure at one thing, while it can be crushing psychologically, is not the end. You can take what you learned as an artist and use it to become a good critic (I’m assuming he’s good, I have no way of knowing whether or not he is or not). There are probably a dozen other careers he could have transitioned to where his art background would have helped on some level.
I think we should be honest and admit that yes, dreams do fail, and not everyone is going to be a successful artist, no matter how much they believe that they will be. Some will fail for a lack of talent, some for a lack of willpower or hard work, and some because of the dumb fucking luck.
It’s important to talk about what happens when you fail and how to decide when it’s time to move on or when the failure is just one bump in a long road to success.
There’s something in the kitchen, you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear something stirring, in your kitchen you see five burglars, uninvited guests, how they got in you don’t know, through the window, through the door, through the basement you don’t know. One of them comes swinging wildly at you, so you better deal with that one first.
— Herzog on writing, from his Masterclass
I read this on Seth Godin’s blog a couple years ago:
Without a doubt, the ability to connect the dots is rare, prized and valuable. Connecting dots, solving the problem that hasn’t been solved before, seeing the pattern before it is made obvious, is more essential than ever before.
Why then, do we spend so much time collecting dots instead? More facts, more tests, more need for data, even when we have no clue (and no practice) in doing anything with it.
Their big bag of dots isn’t worth nearly as much as your handful of insight, is it?
When I first thought about it, I was thinking about it in terms of analytics and what I do for my day job. But the more I think about it, the more it relates to my film work as well. Writing creatively is about collecting a lot of dots and then connecting them in creative ways.
Sometimes the dots are characters, storylines, forms, angles, shots, etc. Or they can be ideas, themes, concepts. A few times I’ve had an idea for a script rattling around in my head for months or even years and it’s just not enough for a full screenplay — it’s just a dot. And then I’ll watch a movie or see a play or read a book and get another dot that fits perfectly with the first dot.
Sometimes it’s a concept that needs a character, or a theme that needs a story, or it can be a combination of many things. And I’ll consume some other work of art or entertainment and I’ll get a new idea and it just clicks.
I enjoyed this one just as much as the one with Mark Duplass. I really love Joe’s films and while I don’t necessarily work in his style or want to make similar films, I’ve learned a lot from his DIY career approach and the way that he’s making a living as a filmmaker without giving up creative control.
I’ve watched this EFIAP about eight times now. I watched it about a week before production on The Deadline started and I sent it to Nick the DP and he was like “oh man, I just watched that too!” So we ended up stealing the idea of going wide in close-ups and I’m really happy with the way it came out. You really feel like you’re there with the actors.
When I watch the scene in Tony’s video where the camera changes angles on Roger Deakins, I can actually feel an emotional difference–it’s subtle and probably most people can’t tell, but I think it’s meaningful.
I also like the way they shoot from “inside the space” between the two characters. Personally I don’t like dirty close ups because they take me out of the moment. There’s something ‘off’ about a character talking while we’re looking at the back of their head, and it always takes me out of the moment.
Here’s the video:
And here are some stills from the film. They haven’t been colored yet, but you feel like you’re right there with them. At least I do!
You don’t get creative once everything is okay. In fact, we are creative because everything isn’t okay (yet).
– Centered and complete (Seth Godin)
This series is so damn funny. Starring Rob Baedeker of the extremely awesome Kaspar Hauser sketch group (seriously, go find their podcast in iTunes and listen to Mundo de Perros! and Spicy Pony Head).
Canseco has been described as a charmer and a clown, but in fact he is a rogue, a genuine one, and genuine rogues are rare, inside baseball and out. It’s not enough to flout the law, to be a rogue–break promises, shirk responsibilities, cheat–you must also, at least some of the time, and with the same abandon, do your best, play by the rules, keep faith with your creditors and dependents, obey orders, throw out the runner at home plate with a dead strike from deep right field. Above all, you must do these things, as you do their opposites, for no particular reason, because you feel like it or do not, because nothing matters, and everything’s a joke, and nobody knows anything, and most of all, as Rhett Butler once codified for rogues everywhere, because you do not give a damn
We have no style, you and I; only people who don’t give a damn have style.
– “On Canseco” from Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon
Really enjoyed this book. And Canseco would’ve made a good Godard character.