We all know being an artist isn’t easy. Sure, we have notoriously better sex, but the climb to what we consider success is not just steep but seemingly impossible. Often, our fears feel very isolating: most people around us have regular jobs, families and financial security — we just have the sex thing. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the fear and doubt of it all and it’s especially easy to feel like you’re the only one who’s going through it.
This is why I’m writing this blog thing, titled, appropriately: NINE PROBLEMS OF BEING AN ARTIST (in caps lock and everything) with my own solutions to each. Because this road, while paved by genius, is lined with failure and it’s nice to know you’ve got company.
Okay, here we go.
1. NO TIME FOR ANYTHING ELSE EVER
You’re going to want to do everything, but will have time for nothing. You know that blog you promised to write, the one that breaks down every step of, say, a web show production? Yeah, even though you promised, you won’t have time to do it. You’re going to lose friends. People are going to get mad at you. Relationships will crumble. The eighth time canceling a date for a project no longer comes off as mysterious and artsy, it’s just plain ol’ annoying.
The problem is it’s very hard to explain to people why you’re canceling on them for a project that, say, you’re not getting paid for. When we did our first web series, Break a Leg, it was four years of self-funded madness. We released episodes every week — but why? No one was making us. No one was paying us. It was just something we had to do for it to succeed — but how to explain self-made restrictions to people who have “real” jobs? It’s hard.
The thing is, if we want to succeed in a field filled with thousands (billions!) of highly competitive, often more talented people, we have to outwork them. And to outwork, we have to spend as much of our time on our art as we can. It’s not always fun, it hardly ever pays, but it’s the only way to get ahead of the people you’re behind. And sometimes, it kind of sucks.
SOLUTION: Give yourself some kind of regimented schedule – work a lot, but also give yourself scheduled breaks and times where being lazy is allowed. You can’t constantly be expending energy, you also need to go outside, see friends and just relax. Otherwise, your work will start to suffer too. That said, you still have to outwork the other guys, so, it’s all about finding a balance for yourself.
Crushing, hopeless doubt. Even when you’re doing well, even when you’re being paid well for your work, there’s that feeling that at any moment it can all fall through and everything will be over forever and ever and ever. It’s hard to get excited about anything because of the constant feeling that you’re tightrope walking along a very narrow “paying work” rope, and at any moment, someone will say, “Wait a minute – that dude’s a fraud!” and then you fall, fall, fall, down to the very pits of unemployment.
And when you’re not doing well, finding new work feels a little bit like taking full, running leaps into a brick wall. You know that behind that wall lies success and riches, and yet, it’s a pretty big wall and all you’ve got to break it down is your face. So you doubt. You see people around you working, climbing ladders, buying houses, cars, slaves, and you think — I’m going to make no money forever and one day they’ll buy me as a slave and that’ll be my life.
Or, you know, something like that.
SOLUTION: Remember why you dove into this in the first place. Sure, there’s no stability, but what’s the fun in stability? At the end of the day, you’re creating for a living (or trying) and that tops pretty much everything. So, chill the hell out and focus less on your doubt and more on the hope that if something didn’t work out, there’s an even better something along the way — and I mean that in the best, hippie-dippie-the-Universe-is-watching-out-for-you-man kind of way.
3. NEVER HAPPY WITH YOUR WORK
You’re happy when you do it, and then you look back on it and all you can see are its faults. It’s maddeningly maddening. The problem is that, as artists, we seek perfection in our vision but perfection is unreachable. You’re never going to have enough time or money or omnipotence.
We can’t create perfection, but we always strive for it — it’s a delightfully unhappy Catch-22.
SOLUTION: My mom once told me that I should never be truly happy with my work. That a real artist will celebrate a victory, but will see the problem with every new project and try to get better. It’s very valuable advice. Some artists think everything they make is perfect — they will not succeed. Treat your neurosis as a badge of honor — it’s how you get better, how you sharpen your craft and how you become the best at what you do. Or close to best. You can’t ever be the best. Or maybe you can. I don’t know. Try.
4. SOMEONE IS ALWAYS BETTER THAN YOU
No matter how hard you try, no matter how good you are, no matter how talented, unique, interesting, whatever, in your mind, there’s always going to be someone better than you. It might not be true. You might be a generational talent, a Michael Jackson or a Paul McCartney or a Spielberg or a whatever, but the nature of art dictates that even if you’re at the very top, chances are you got there by never being happy with your own work.
Most artists are incredibly competitive people — you have to be if you want to succeed — so this particular one can drive you crazy if you let it. I personally have a very strange and unreasonable competition with Joss Whedon. I love your work and think you’re brilliant, but like… let me write Avengers 2.
SOLUTION: Take a deep breath and accept a small measure of defeat — someone will always be better. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to be the best. In fact, as long as it doesn’t drive you crazy, let it just drive you. Otherwise, it’ll lead to jealousy — and being bitter of your friends’ successes is just about the worst thing you could ever do.
5. YOU CAN’T JUST BE AN ARTIST
We all want to hide away in our basement suite and make hot, dirty art that no one ever sees. But if you want to succeed, you simply can’t. There are way too many people who are better than you, and there are even more people who might not have your skill but have more hustle. If you want to compete, you can’t do it from your basement.
Furthermore, in our time, the excuses to fail have been stripped away. Where there was one road to success, there are now hundreds — each incredibly difficult, but nonetheless there. That means that while at night we can be the creepy, artsy, basement-goblins making genius, in the day we need to be sharply-dressed businessmen, card-flashing social media gurus and oily-haired salesmen. And we have to be good at all these things.
The problem is, the majority of us hates doing all that other stuff. First of all, it feels gross and mildly like prostitution. Secondly, we don’t want to do it. It’s not what we’re good at — if we wanted to be businessmen, we would have listened to our parents and gotten a real job being businessmen. Art is not business, it is creation and love and song and dance and new worlds and all those other things that other artists paint or film or rhyme about.
And yet, here I am, looking shamelessly for a pimp.
SOLUTION: My dad (I have good parents) once told me that doing something well means getting that talent, profession, whatever, to a place where it is art. Be it bartending, teaching, business or whatever — the very best are always the ones that bring their work to artistic heights. So embrace the things you hate to do, and learn to love them. If you can paint, learn to sell as well as you paint. If you make movies, know how to get those movies seen and funded. It’s not selling out; it’s taking charge of your own future and career. And in the end, any new talent, any new profession learned and new experience gotten can and will become an asset and inspiration in your own art.
6. NO SECURITY
The scariest thing about picking art as a profession is the very real chance that you will never, ever be successful at it. And even if you are successful, it could be brief and spark out as suddenly as it sparked in. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with an unemployment-loaded gun (and it’s got 2,000 chambers, and only one of them has the ‘success’ bullet), every day for the rest of your life.
Someone who wants to be a teacher will more than likely be a teacher. Someone who wants to be a mechanic will get a job as a mechanic. Someone who wants to make a living paint? Keep firing that gun.
SOLUTION: You picked it because you’re a crazy artist, so deal with it. It’s better to try and fail than to live your life doing something you regret. Live your life like it’s the only life you’ve got – unless you’re a cat or Christian or whatever.
I’d rather pursue what I love and fight through blood and tears to get it than to do a thing I do because it’s a thing I can do to survive, and live my life with regret. That’s an overly simplistic and optimistic solution but, welcome to art, check your reasoning at the door.
7. SUCCESS JUDGED BY OTHER, DUMBER PEOPLE
In art, our success is judged by the tastes and opinions of other people. Yes, you could love your book, but everyone has to love it for it to go anywhere but your mother’s bookcase. It’s a little different if you’re an accountant — you hardly ever need applause to be good at Quickbooks.
This can be the most maddening thing of all. Nevermind the challenge of getting people to actually watch the thing, but to like it? That’s a whole other beast. And you really have no idea what’ll hit and what won’t. It’s a game of chance and hope — some people have an instinct for it, some don’t, some just get lucky. Regardless of which one you are, the threat of putting in hours upon hours of work into a project only to have people hate it is, well, unpleasant. Unless you go for the fart joke. Oh, man, people love a good fart joke.
The worst, the absolute worst, is for a lot of us, it’s the one negative comment that drives us insane. For example, just today, a friend of mine jokingly or half-jokingly or seriously said, “Your tweets aren’t funny.” That’s a stupid thing to care about, right? I mean it’s Twitter. It’s a rehearsal ground for jokes. It’s a way for me to warm up my brain. It shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Why would it matter? Most people seem to like it. But one person didn’t. What if other people don’t and just haven’t told me? Like me everyone, like me!
Won’t you please, for the love of God, like me?!
SOLUTION: Listen, but not too much. Ignore it, but not too much. Don’t obsess and judge for yourself if the comments given are ones that you should value – oftentimes, even the most venomous negative comments have something you can take away from them. Don’t make therapy — that’s purely for you to enjoy – make art. Let your instincts guide you, let your creativity lead you, but don’t turn off your brain. Certainly let general opinion guide you, but not lead you. What I’m saying, with my fortune-cookie-like wisdom, is find a balance but always go with your gut.
What I’m also saying is, dammit, I’m funny.
8. IDEAS, LIKE BABIES, CAN EASILY BE STOLEN
You get excited about your story idea, or art piece, or script but you have to guard it like it’s the goddamn One Ring. You want to tell people your ideas, you want to hear their opinions, but what if they take them? What if they turn them into their own art project?! What if you die penniless and alone while they reap the rewards of your imagination?!
Aside from that, ideas seem to float around in some bizarre collective consciousness where, if you don’t hurry and produce yours, it’ll appear as a movie, or a book, or a whatever. In fact, 2 of the last 9 show pitches I’ve written have appeared, in their own form, on TV (Smash, Grimm, I hate you). Even when we released Break a Leg, NBC suddenly released Studio 60 and 30 Rock (all shows about making a show).
It’s really strange and frustrating and makes you feel like you have to guard your thoughts like some kind of a crazy person.
SOLUTION: I have two. #1: You’ll always have other ideas. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be doing this. #2: Your ideas are your ideas because they’re your ideas. In other words, it’s not necessarily the idea that makes a piece of art great, it’s how the artist approaches it. Worry less about who is going to steal from you, and more about how you’re going to make it original.
But also, don’t make a habit of telling your ideas to everyone. You know… just in case.
9. FAIL, FAIL, FAIL
You have to fail to succeed. And failing is miserable. A comedian has to tank to know what jokes work and what don’t, a writer has to hear his dialogue suck to write something good — it’s just the way of the thing and it’s stupid, and I hate it, and I want it to go away.
Failure is an essential part of life — and in art, failure is your goddamn lover. You date it, you take road trips with it, you sleep in its bed, you introduce it to your friends and your parents, and sometimes, when the condom breaks, you make little failure babies who continue failing in your name.
It’s that failure that terrifies even the most talented from pursuing their art. And why not? It’s just about the worst feeling in the world.
Other than delivering a failure baby.
SOLUTION: Fail. You just have to. The way to survive is to take a step back and ask yourself, okay, why did I fail? How? What can I change next time? How do I learn from this? It’s the simplest advice I can offer to not only artists but everyone. Failure isn’t scary, it’s necessary, we all do it — what’s scariest is being paralyzed by the fear of it. So dive in, love it, enjoy it, dance with it, learn from it, and eventually it’ll introduce you to its best friend, Success, and man, is she hot.
You may have noticed that a lot of the solutions have the same basic through line – “get over it,” “relax,” “chill out,” and so on. That’s because I think as artists, our neurosis tend to control us. And art is that sweaty, scabby area in life that appears to be the perfect breeding ground for that kind of thing.
The main thing we can do is to focus on the work – the rest is just distraction. You’ve picked this road and you may as well take whatever comes with it. It’s kind of like being on a plane: you’ve already boarded it, you’re already flying through the air, you can’t get out, you can’t turn back, so, the best you can do is swallow up your fear and enjoy the ride. If it crashes, well – at least you got to fly for a little while.