(Note: This blog originally appeared on my website two years ago, on 3/3/15)
I am a certain brand of crazy.
As a child, I responded best to tyrannical gurus: a figure skating coach who would be so mad at me for not landing a jump that he’d spit on the ice, yelling at me God, I could just KILL you or, worse—far worse—he’d just look at me with disdain as I fell on my hipbone again and again, that motherfucking Axel jump, that goddamn double salchow. I’d look up at him, my twelve-year-old body splayed on the ice, face first, my chin inches from his blade. Again, he’d say, waving a hand in the air—two rotations I always fell short on. I was never going to be good enough for the Olympics and so I had to stop skating. Didn’t matter if I loved it. There was no point unless I was going to achieve the literal and metaphorical heights I’d dreamed of. My coach agreed in the only way he could: he stopped showing up for practice, he turned to another student, one who landed her jumps.
I loved the hell out of him.
In high school, my favorite teacher was known as an irascible grump, a man who refused to accept anything less than a masterpiece. He scowled, slumped his shoulders, and glared at the half-brains he had to teach. He rarely smiled—unless he was discussing Hester Prynne, the only woman he might have left his beloved wife for. To have him ask for a copy of your paper to keep in his files was the highest recognition a student could hope for, an honor above all honors. He made me cry once. Then he wrote me a four page letter. Not one that said I was brilliant, but that suggested, with some hard work, I might get on okay with this whole writing thing.
I dedicated my first book to him.
In undergrad, I worshipped the acting teachers who terrified the students with their harsh critiques, feared and trembled with pure joy when they got that look in their eye when you finished a scene or monologue that said, You’re wasting our fucking time. The teacher that just shook his head in disappointment during my last scene (A View From The Bridge—I hate you, Arthur Miller), the one who’d seemed to shine a light on me ever so briefly, only to leave me out in the cold after I didn’t measure up: he ignited a fire in me like no one else. His unkindness, his disenchantment with my performances–they made me decide I didn’t want to be an actor: I wanted to be the one to tell the actors what to do. I wasn’t actor material-not a Miles Teller or a Cate Blanchet-but I knew who was and what they should do to be better. If my acting teacher had taken pity on me and nursed along a dream that would never, ever have come true, he would only have been doing me a disservice. As it was, I got off the stage unless I was blocking a scene or yelling at an actor. My first professional production as a director and producer was for a theater company I, along with my husband and a group of fleetingly stalwart companions, created. I wasn’t a nice director, but I got the performances I wanted, the ones the shows needed, and-whether they admited it or not-some of the best work I’d seen my actors do. We received decent reviews from the LA Times and this only happened because of a pitying look on my last day of acting class from a teacher who no longer gave me the time of day, who realized I wasn’t good enough and didn’t want to waste his fucking time. Or mine, for which I’ll be forever grateful.
Okay, I still hate the old bastard.
In grad school, I hung on every word of the MFA teacher who made me cry, who made me angry as hell, who made me work harder than I ever have before. I’ve never had my writing judged so harshly, never felt so utterly incapable of stringing together a decent set of words. She never once blew smoke up my ass THANK GOD. She set the standard for my fiction, taught me never to pat myself on the back. Give it to me straight, I’d tell her. Don’t hold anything back. Fifty Shades of Writing. Hard-core, all the way.
I continue to bow at her feet.
I saw Whiplash at home, curled into a corner of my couch, tense, breathless, every part of me alive and saying yes to blood on drumsticks, yes to a teacher that broke you. Did I mention I’m a certain brand of crazy? My actor-writer-musician husband sat beside me, keeping time with his fingertips on his knee cap, nodding along. Maybe he’s a certain brand of crazy, too. The teacher in the film, Terence Fletcher, is a man after my own heart. A music fascist, hell-bent on a quest for perfection—for himself, his students, his school. He screams in his students’ faces, makes grown men weep, scoffs at blood and sweat and says again, again, not my tempo, play it right you cocksucker. He is a certain brand of crazy, as is his prodigy of a drummer, Andrew. Oh, Andrew. Sweat flies from his brow, his fingers are coated in blood, bandages slipping off wounds. The lengths to which he goes to win the approval of his teacher, to match the greatness of the jazz drummers he loves, to do the thing he is so passionate about, is as heroic as anything Jason and the Argonauts ever attempted. Andrew and Fletcher. Fletcher and Andrew. Theirs is a dysfunctional relationship, to put it lightly. At times even life threatening. Fletcher is the Bela Karolyi of jazz. (Another coach whose tutelage I would have lapped up). Instructors–gurus–like him seperate the wheat from the chaff. They know who’s got it and who doesn’t. If you’ve got it, they’ll fight like hell for you, but only if you’ll first fight like hell for yourself. Don’t waste their fucking time and they won’t waste yours.
Sometimes they’ll even give you the keys to the kingdom.
I love these kinds of teachers because they push you. They make you a masochist in the best kind of way, for the best kinds of reasons. You see, the fire burns in them too. They expect excellence and they are never, ever satisfied. If you are an artist and you are satisfied with your work, then I guarantee you it is likely not good enough. Not nearly. If somebody tells me I’m a good writer, I’m at a loss for words–and not because I’m flattered. Good writer? I want to say. I’m assuming you’ve never read Tolstoy, then? In Whiplash Fletcher says:
I’ve written before about my boundless ambition and for that I do not apologize. Is it egotistical, these heights of hubris? No. (Re: my penchant for teachers who make me feel like shit—I like it. Feeling like shit means I’m getting somewhere. Self-satisfaction: the work is drivel). Ambition as an artist isn’t about money, although sometimes I get lost in the forest of self-pity and think it is. It isn’t about commercial success (and if you have that while you’re still alive, treat all your good fortune with suspicion). To me, having ambition as an artist means wanting to be the best—and being fucking unapologetic about it. In Whiplash Andrew explains it this way: I want to be one of the greats. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s all kinds of right. He wants to go down in history. We storytellers, we artists, we dreamers: this is what we do. We create history, we mold it with our words and our songs and our slashes on the canvas, our ephemeral dances. We embody it, heart and soul. You see, it’s never good enough for us, what we do. All the awards and applause and contracts and good reviews and lists will never be enough because we can nearly always go further, push harder. Be better.
This is not healthy. Then again, nobody ever said it was.
Is art supposed to be healthy? I’m sorry, but hell no. I’m not talking about Paris in the twenties unhealthy: Hemingway, Fitzgerald—they can keep their booze-fueled depression. I’m not advocating for tragic ends: Virginia’s and Sylvia’s and Hunter’s and and and… Sleepless nights because the plot isn’t working? Yes. Pacing and muttering to yourself, cursing yourself because no matter how hard you try you can’t fucking get it right? Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. Despite this, I love Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way. I view struggling artists with the utmost compassion and encourage people to take care of themselves in the hopes that, at some point, they will be able to shrug off the crippling mantle of self-doubt that takes the best of us down sometimes (hazards of the job). Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself (it wouldn’t be a Heather rant without some Whitman thrown in for good measure). I tell my students to read Ms. Cameron. I try to take her advice and be kind to myself every now and again, but I always eventually tire of that kind of coddling. Still, you’re allowed to take a breather every now and again. You’re allowed a nervous breakdown or two. There’s a reason so many artists struggle from mental illness, depression, and a host of other emotional and spiritual mindfucks: yours truly included. An artist who’s died of stress can’t make anything new, now can she? So sometimes you have to get a little chicken soup for the soul.
As an occasional writing teacher, as a friend of writers, and as a student of writing and quote unquote professional writer, there is one thing that boggles my mind, time and again: writers who don’t work and who still claim to be writers. “Writers” who dabble, writers who always have an excuse. Sometimes those excuses are legitimate. Except they aren’t. Beethoven was deaf by the end of his life and was still composing masterworks. Let me say that again: Beethoven was deaf. That’s an excuse for a composer if I ever heard one. Interesting, don’t you think, how that didn’t stop him? I can think of only three writers in my life who have legitimate excuses not to work. They are all very sick and must have pissed off the gods in a former life because life keeps throwing tragedy after tragedy their way. Here’s the thing (and this is why they’re my people): they still work. A lot. And they are beautiful writers. I’ll be honest: I also love them. So I exempt them from my judgment, which does them no service, but every tyrant has their soft spot, don’t they? I gently push because their work feeds them and is how they survive and because the world needs their words – and then I back away. Because, you know what, at the end of the day, it’s not my fucking place. If they want to write, they’ll write. But here on my blog or in the classroom, it is my place.
But back to the writers who make my blood boil, and not in a good way. These hobbyists wouldn’t bother me if they didn’t bitch and moan about wanting to be published or published more or wished they could be as good as so-and so (cue long sigh, aggrieved expression). They wouldn’t bother me if they just admitted that they’re not really very serious about the craft, that they’re just doing this for fun. Unfortunately, so many of these writers claim to be one of our tribe. They claim to want it. Yeah, I don’t get that. Sorry. And, frankly, that’s an insult to those of us who do put in the time–the obsessed ones, the ones the hobbyists pull aside and say, how do you do it? If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…And I smile and make up some excuse, belittle myself because I’m embarrassed, because they don’t want it, but they think they do and what I want to say is, I sit in a chair and put my fingers on the damn keyboard, that’s how I do it. Instead I say something silly like, Oh, I don’t have kids, so I’ve got the time. Because saying anything else at a cocktail party is simply not polite and my mama raised me better than that.
Side note here: that is not to say I’m not grateful to my editors and agent who say things like that to me, though they do so with somewhat concerned expressions. They hold their breath, I’m sure. She has to break down at some point, right? Will it be when she’s on deadline? I imagine they bite their fingernails. And when they are pleased with my work, I am grateful, not satisfied. Their support and pleasure in my work is what keeps food on my table. It’s what allows me to have this journey of striving for excellence without dealing with the hell that is The Day Job. I love them and appreciate their encouragement and praise. I really do. When these people – or my readers – say nice things, I’m not bothered, but I don’t know what to say because they’re complimenting me and compliments don’t make me better so I’m not quite sure how to respond to them (re: look at that image above of Fletcher and Andrew). My frustration with how do you do it?? comes when I get that question from fellow artists. Because if they don’t know how I “do” it and yet claim the title of Writer or Artist, it’s an unearned title until they don’t need to ask that question. We are not we. In the interest of full disclosure, I myself have said this (how do you DO it??) to or about two fellow writers: David Levithan and Maggie Stiefvater. But this is not because of their writing output so much as because of what they do on top of it: David is a top-notch editor and the unofficial director of the YA social crew in NYC. Maggie is a visial artist, a musician, a mom, and a social media queen. I get how they write so many books: I just don’t know how they do the rest of it. In their cases, I suspect deals with the devil.
By now you think I’m not a nice person. You’re right, I’m not. Nice girls finish last, don’t you know that?
If I’ve offended you, I hope it results in the kind of anger that helps you make good art and then blame me for it. That’s what a passionate art teacher does and if you don’t know that I want to be good at what I do by now, then…wait, you can read, right? I suppose my best teachers have rubbed off on me. I suppose I’m becoming like them. I literally do not understand writers who tell me they don’t have time to write. Or writers who only write a few hours a week. Or writers who don’t fucking read. These people aren’t writers, not to me. Listen: if you aren’t tired, if you aren’t getting the equivalent of bloody hands (carpel tunnel, tendonitis), then I suspect you aren’t working hard enough (or have miracle genes, that might be a possibility, too). Do I sound harsh? Oh, I hope so. If I could ever push a student or a friend or myself as hard as my teachers pushed me—and harder still—than maybe we can touch the hem of Tolstoy’s garment, or E.B. White’s, or Anne Lamott’s.
I in no way think I’m an expert or a master of my craft. I am not The Best Artist In The World. I’ll never think I’m good enough, no matter what I create, what I achieve.
And that is why there’s a tiny, infintesimal part of me that allows myself to hope that maybe, someday, when I’m old and gray and even more ornery than I am now, or when I’m dead and gone, the grass under future generations’ feet, I just might be able to be one of the greats.
But probably not. It’s the journey, not the destination.
Inside me there is a Fletcher, cursing in my face, telling me what a sorry excuse for a writer I am. He’s there all the time. Telling me I’m a failure. And I do fail. Every. Single. Day.
Side note added on 5/4/15:
I wanted to respond to something readers of this post have said a few times. I don’t think I clarified that I’m not equating being a writer or artist with output. Some projects take days or weeks or months, others require years of toil and struggle. One of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read is I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. It took her YEARS to write. In it, she includes what has become a mantra for me, a quote by Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That carving could take a good long part of your life. Would I say Harper Lee isn’t a writer because she only published one book in her life and her second one is only coming out at the end of her life? Hell no. Harper Lee is one of the greatest American writers that has ever lived. I think that being an artist is a state of mind, an act of will, a commitment of the soul to the work – a commitment to your LIFE of the work. You might have kids and I hope you hope you have work-life balance and love them well – none of us want to have to call Child Protective Services on your ass. When I say “commitment to your LIFE of the work” I add this: That doesn’t mean you have no life outside your art. I travel, I walk my dog, I do fun things around New York City with my friends. I also do the not so fun stuff of life: write eulogies for people I love that have left us, help people I love through crises, clean my bathroom. But the work is always on the tips of my fingers, the ideas simmering under my skin. I don’t forget about it. I can’t survive without it. If you can be happy without your work, great. But don’t call yourself an artist. Call yourself a lover of art, a patron of the arts. We need and cherish those people too.
Another thing I’d like to clarify is that these hardass teachers might not get the best work out of every artist. Many of us, myself included, are fragile. Some of us are on meds or are ill or have experienced tragedy. It takes a certain personality to see that angel and to want to carve it, to set it free. Nurturing teachers are wonderful. All kinds of teachers are wonderful. I love the mean ones because they push me, they make me want to be better. But sometimes they can push their student’s over the edge – and that’s not okay. I’m not saying you’re not a good teacher or artist because you respond best to a kinder way of being. Again, this post is a celebration of the teachers who make Marines look nice. But it is not to the exclusion of all those other teachers who champion their students’ work and help give them wings to fly. I love them, too. They just don’t get the best work out of me.
Writing this post is an act of hubris. It is my opinion and not written in the style of discourse that has become so popular today. It’s not PC, it doesn’t apologize for itself, it hurts feelings. Fortune favors the brave, does it not?
Here is the dialogue between myself and the other writers who chimed in after reading my original post above. I was really inspired to see how different people reacted. Some were on fire in a good way, some gutted, and some pushed back. These are important conversations to be having!
So it’s been a little over a year since I wrote my Whiplash post, and I wanted to continue the conversation with an update about some things I realized about myself. As much as I love those hard-ass teachers, I’ve found that when I teach or coach my creativity clients, I’m not quite like that. I think (I hope) I tell it like it is and am not afraid to push or say the hard thing, but I’ve discovered that I’m naturally nurturing. THIS IS HUGELY SURPRISING TO ME. As I said in the original post, I’ve always had a deep passion for encouraging artists, especially hurting artists and those on the brink of really going for it. I’m also super interested in working with people who honestly don’t know if they’re artists and they need someone to help them process it all. Reaching out to artists in need and doing my own writing go hand in hand as my vocation. I found that, despite loving those mean teachers, I catch myself gently pushing those in my tribe (as opposed to kicking them in the face) who are talented but don’t believe in themselves. Surprisingly, I don’t act as though I’m taking cues from a Marine drill sergeant. So while the tough teachers work best for me, it doesn’t work for me as a teacher or motivator or mentor—unless I’m working with someone like myself who is looking for some serious ass whupping.
It kills me to see talent wasted, to see lives that seem, from the outside, to be a breeding ground of regret, dissatisfaction, and sorrow. There are few things that break my heart more than an artist who doesn’t give herself the permission to create, an artist who believes the lies of society that says pursuing your creative passion is not a legitimate lifestyle. I’ve spent my entire life–no joke, my entire life–doggedly pursuing my love of art and my refusal to buy into the Man’s idea of what success is. I’ve made lots of sacrifices and I’d make every single one of them again if that’s what it takes for me to be a writer, to live my life intentionally as an artist. I think about this all the time, about the challenges and joys of living a creative life every single day. There have been dark, DARK days and ones so full of light I could scarcely breathe. And it just hurts me so much to see the brokenness of some of my fellow artists, to know that their dark days are far outnumbering the light ones, where they get to do what they love. We’re up against so much, we’re so sensitive because you have to be in order to do what we do, and life just loves to beat us down (let’s be real, it loves to beat everyone down). And sometimes it seems impossible for them to follow their souls’ calling. Some give up. They don’t let themselves do what lights them up.
It’s agonizing to behold.
I’m just starting out my side work as a creative coach, a decision born out of nearly twenty years of puzzling through what it means to be an artist, to live as an artist, to study and train as an artist, and to work as an artist. It’s borne out of studying how the greats do it, and encouraging others on this crazy life path. The decision to nurture the creativity of others is also inspired by nearly a decade of bowing at the feet of Julia Cameron, of The Artist’s Way fame, who completely changed my life and gave me the courage to finally call myself a writer. I’ve been working hard these past few months thinking about the ethos of my coaching and exactly who I want to be working with. My Whiplash post has often come to mind because it has been, in many ways, one of my guiding principles. An essential part of my Artist Statement. But it’s only a part of who I am, both as an artist and a coach.
There is such a need for nurturing and compassion in the field of art instruction and therapy and coaching and mentoring. I recognize that and am happy to see that I naturally give what my people need—at least, I hope I do. I don’t put it on and pretend to be sympathetic when I’m really thinking nasty things about them. Relief! I’m not a terrible person! But at the same time, I don’t go all ooey-gooey, let-me-hold-your-hand or say just-do-your-best (I did once, because there was a serious extenuating circumstance). Your father died? Write. You’ve got a long-term illness? Write. You’re going through a divorce? Write. There are very few life situations in which I would advise a writer not to write. Because if you’re really a writer, then getting words on a page—no matter how shitty they are—is what’s actually going to get you through the shit times. When my grandfather died, I was nearly inconsolable. I love the hell out of that man. What got me through was writing his eulogy.
A quick side note here: my husband mentioned to me that sometimes I come across as though I believe a creative person who is not goal-oriented (as in, a writer whose goal is to be published versus a writer who writes simply for herself) is somehow living a small life, an inferior life. There may be the impression that I seem to view a non-goal oriented creative as a kind of failure. I want to be really clear about this: when I get on my soapbox about what makes someone a writer or an artist, and when I advise them to give it their all, I’m not talking to the people who are happy to have a bit of creativity in their life. People who sometimes paint or take a dance class or sketch or write a story. They are creative people who veer toward creative acts. I would call those people creative people. But I wouldn’t call them artists (again, this is just my personal opinion). And I don’t – I repeat, I don’t – think their lives are small or less worthy than those who believe art is an essential part of who they are. Many of us have talents we choose not to explore or proclivities that only go so far. I know many people who enjoy doing artisitc activities as part of their life, but it’s a hobby or done for relaxation or spiritual reasons. That’s the gift of creativity that we all have and can choose to use or not. I think living the life of an artist is the greatest adventure there can be and I certainly think it’s a pretty freaking cool life path, but that’s because it’s my thing. I find all kinds of jobs and lifestyles fascinating. I also don’t think that being particularly goal-oriented is necessary for calling yourself an artist, although those are the artists I most connect with. Artists who work hard and want to get their work out in the world, who are hardcore, are my people. BUT, they are not the only kinds of artists and they are not *better* than other artists, though I clearly have my bias.
I have a really good friend who is, hands down, the best singer I’ve ever heard in my life. His voice is out of this world. Like, he could be on Broadway tomorrow, if he wanted to be. He took voice lessons as a teen and was in lots of shows in high school and college. He even had a stint in college as a vocal performance major. But, he decided ultimately that pursuing a career in the arts wasn’t for him. His priority is his family, the job he loves, his faith. He’s very active in the community, helping to vocally direct shows at the local high school and leading worship services at his church. He doesnt want the big city, uphill battle of a Broadway actor. It would have taken the joy out of singing for him. He’s an artist, period. You can’t think of him and not think of singing. It’s a huge part of his identity. It’s a gift he uses daily (I wonder how many people have heard him belting along to Hamilton on his ride home from work). Just because he doesn’t want to be famous or get his paycheck doing his art doesn’t mean he’s not an artist. He’s literally the most talented person I know.
Another few things I want to add. First, I haven’t really talked about the sleeper artists. There are some people out there who are wildly talented, but choose–either on purpose or subconsciously–not to pursue a life in the arts. My friend I talked about above isn’t a sleper artist. Everyone knows he sings. Sleeper artists are people who are secretly artistic, so much so that even those closest to them might not be aware of their talents. Sometimes someone is a sleper artist because they’re struggling with fear: they’ve been told that being an artist isn’t a good life choice, or they don’t believe in their own self-worth and talent, or they’re absolutely terrified of ending up homeless and stark raving mad. Sometimes they’re sleeper artists because other things are more important to them, or life is just too hard: single moms come to mind. They just don’t think they are allowed to make time for art in their lives. Or they think they don’t have time. These people are artists–they just don’t know it. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to say, hey, you’ve really got a gift. Talent is something that needs to be nurtured and affirmed–it’s how most of us who are card-carrying artists ever came to be that way. Most people don’t wake up one day and feel empowered to make art. They need people from when they are a young age encouraging their creativity, praising their efforts, applauding. They need to win second-grade art contests and have their story in the school newspaper and get an A on a photo in photography class. There are so many little things–and so many people–that go into the making of an artist. Maybe you’re a sleeper artist. Maybe it’s time to wake up.
Also, and I think I said this at one point earlier in the Whiplash repsonse post, but I don’t equate time you spend making your art with your identity as an artist, although, again, if you never work on your art or do it, then you probably aren’t an artist. Again, my singer friend. It’s not like he’s in a room for four hours a day doing vocal exercises. But he sings ALL the time. He’s always lisening to music, playing music, thinking musically. It’s just an integral part of his day. So if you only have time to write for half an hour a day, but you’re always jotting down little notes to yourself and thinking about your story and reading and all that, then don’t sweat it. It probably goes without saying, but who the fuck am I to tell you that you are or aren’t an artist? Own your shit. Prove me wrong.
I have seriously gone on a tangent here. The whole point of adding onto my Whiplash post was to say that that while I stand behind everything I said in the post, I’ve found that I myself am not like the teacher in the film, although I bet I could get closer to that with the right student, with someone like me, who says, Girl, give it to me straight. And I will delightedly, joyfully, tell you that you suck but you won’t always, so keep sitting in that chair and writing. But I will also love the hell out of you and do everything I can to help you be the artist you want to be and live the creative life you want to live–if that’s what you want.
I thought this update was in order because I realized that I might seem to be totally contradicting myself. How can the Heather who writes gentle, encouraging emails to her friends and students and clients be the same Heather who’s like, Fuck you, you’re not an artist? I’m learning to just accept that I am both of those people. I can both admire the Whiplash teacher and adore Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Cameron, both of whom nurture the hell out of their readers.
Finally, and this is maybe the most important part of the whole post: if you want to be an artist you can start being one RIGHT NOW. No one can stop you if it’s what you want. Paulo Cohelo didn’t choose to really go for it with writing until he was forty years old. It is never, never, NEVER too late. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is. Go pick up that pen, that paint brush, that sheet of music. Say yes.