7 Lessons from Artists
Four years ago,
I was a frustrated, fed-up writer, sitting in a Starbucks in
Times Square in tears. I’d gotten 27 rejections on my book —
it was about how to live your dreams — and I was sure my
own dream of being a
successful author was dead. At that moment, a little voice whispered
in my ear
that I would only become a writer when, and if, I chose it. Like
really chose it — deep in that secret place we all have in
So I chose it, simply
because there didn’t seem to be anything
else I could do at
the time. I decided to walk out of Starbucks a writer, absurd as
it seemed. Two
days later, I got fired from my temp job, giving me more time to
write. Ten days
later, I spontaneously got two assignments from a major magazine
I’d never even
considered writing for. Three weeks later, I finally got a publishing
deal on the
self-help book. Another month later, Hollywood called seeking film
rights on a
novel I’d published 8 years earlier that had died in the
75,000 copies later, my self-help book, How
Much Joy Can You Stand? (Ballantine
Wellspring) is a creativity classic, a major star is making a movie
of my novel,
and I am a successful writer. But more than a writer, I am a coach.
process, I have found myself on a one-woman mission to move people
I’ve discovered that the reason more
express themselves is not
because they can’t — but because they don’t realize
how universal their fears
are, and how necessary their work is in the world. In short, they
suffer from a
lack of information. It’s the very same information all of
us writers, artists,
entrepreneurs, and other dreamers uncover as we return to our dreams,
day, month after month, year after year. So, in order to expedite
curve, I thought I’d share some of these hard won lessons
with you, in hopes that
you can pass them on to your own clients.
- Go with the flow (or without it.)
If you're going to create anything in life,
pray for flow but don't count on it.
'Flow' is a much bandied-about buzzword that describes creating
at max. You
concentrate intensely on what you're doing, the words/images/ideas/thoughts
tumble straight from your mind into your hands, the telephone
and you look up three hours later, convinced only minutes have
Creating in a state
of flow can convince you that you are, indeed, on the right
track. Yet, the converse can
be true, too. If flow is missing for too long,
artist will start to feel blocked and miserable, like a constipated fish
water. And yet ... no artist experiences flow all the time or even very
had to break this news once to a client I’ll call Amy, who was angrily
that her speaking career should just fall in her lap, in a great sweep of
synchronicity. Sorry, Amy, I had to say — there are good days and
there are bad
days, just like with anything else.
The illusion is
that if we’re really
doing our dream, the whole darned thing
should flow. Yet, some days are downright tedious, just as some days are
miraculous. Professional artists know that flow cannot be counted on, so
they learn to create without it — putting their work together every
whether or not they’re ‘in the mood.’
- You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.
Out there in the rational, logical world,
many people strive to get things right
the first time. In an artist's studio, however, it's the mistakes
In the book, Mastery; Interviews with
30 Remarkable People, juggler and performance artist Michael
Moschen says, "My process works very well when
time to try it and fail, try it and fail, try it and fail. Sometimes I'll
piece for three months and get rid of it. Then I'll go back to it again
it several more times, because I have to fail a lot to find out all about
what the piece wants and really needs. Once it clicks and I
start succeeding, you
can't stop me."
Or, as Miles Davis
said, "Do not fear mistakes; there are none."
- Not every work of art is actually art.
Over time artists become adept at sorting
out which of their creations are true
'keepers' and which are mediocre 'also-rans'. This distinction
comes from no
place other than your gut, and can only be learned by experience.
gut distinctions can be subtle at times, and take time to learn.
all, who really wants to admit the dark truth that the screenplay they've
been writing for the past three months is actually a bore. Better
to let the
marketplace tell you this truth ... and it will. Yet, you may also create
something that you just know is a keeper — and the marketplace won't give
break. The way you can distinguish what’s truly a keeper is simply
intuitive. Learning to make that distinction comes with learning your craft.
- You are usually your own worst enemy.
It's a classic Catch-22.
You cannot truly create something great unless you are
willing to share your tenderest, most vulnerable thoughts and
feelings. Yet, once
you do that, you may be racked with self-doubt and fear. Few
artists are able to
accurately assess just how valuable and great their work is — or
how much it will be appreciated by its audience. In other words,
is the name of
A woman who took one of my workshops wrote
to let me know she had a story appearing in one of the Chicken
Soup books. "The story is too raw! It's
personal! Everybody is going to know how I feel! Everybody is going to hate
it/laugh at me/roll their eyes! I'm going to die of
shame/embarrassment/rejection!" She was writhing with all that exposure,
sure. But then this was how she closed: "Thanks for reminding me why
I write. For
The problem is that it is hard to believe
that anyone actually needs and wants what you create. And yet,
this is patently untrue. Out here
in Audience Land,
we're all patiently waiting for the next great thing to love. Most
of us (at least those of us who aren't professional critics)
a place of
appreciation and acceptance.
This is why the artists who make it continue
to produce, despite the dark sense of foreboding, which often
accompanies their very best work.
- It's good to get dirty.
The dirtier you
get, the more intimate with your work you get, whether you
are messing around with sales projections or oil paints. Artists
deliciousness of surrendering completely to their process.
So don't worry about
having to research things without a firm sense of where you're
going, or whether
you get some burnt sienna on your jeans. It's good to get dirty
because it means
you're closer to that exalted state of flow — a place
where spelling doesn't
count (for the moment), amazing synchronicities can take place,
brilliance pop up out of nowhere, and things blend in new and
When I lead my How Much Joy Can You Stand? workshop,
I give everyone an unconventional material, like toilet paper,
paper clips, or tin foil, and ask
them to create something from it. I’ve seen people create entire wedding
from toilet paper, and exquisite wall hangings from a ball of string. The
fact is, when you’re given total permission to get in there, be messy,
intuition and make mistakes, the results can be incredible. You want your
coaching clients to think big and loose — to create with a sense
of danger to
what they're doing. That is how greatness always begins.
- You can't create for the marketplace; you can only
create for you.
I once heard an
interview with a pop singer who had carefully dissected and
repackaged the rhythmic patterns, vocal technique, lyric phrasing
and dance moves
of Michael Jackson, in an attempt to be Michael II. You have
never heard of this
guy because … guess what? It didn't work. You can't buy
success any more than you
can duplicate genius.
The key is to do
the opposite. You want to begin with your own organic idea
that is born out of who you are and what you are here to do in
life. Start with
concept that sparks your passion, then follow that spark as it guides
you through its development. It may even lead you into the slightly
absurd — like
client I had who found herself equally drawn to interior design and spirituality.
Instead of denying the connection, she used it. Now she runs an organic
interiors design consulting business, creating spiritually
sensitive interiors for
corporations. Her business is going gangbusters.
- It's the work they're rejecting, not you.
Sometimes you go out there and dangle your
creative product in the marketplace,
and you get back a big, wet raspberry. Experienced artists
know this has less to
do with the quality of the work than what people are buying
at this particular
moment in time.
I used to cast television commercials in New
York, and this was always a dilemma. You'd get fifteen incredible
Broadway actresses vying for the role
Mom in your toothpaste commercial. (Such ads can provide several years
of income, so everybody wants them.) What it always boiled down
was not who was the
Mom, but which one was a redhead, or reminded the client of his wife.
Arbitrary, yes, but unfortunately true in a crowded market.
is why artists never take rejection personally. They simply keep
for the next opportunity to show their
work, with the understanding that
playing the odds. Sooner or later, someone's got to buy — and
if they don't, then maybe that particular piece was not destined to
at this time. (And
doesn't mean it won't sell later.)
© 2004 By
About the Author
To learn more about creating and leading
workshops, check out Suzanne’s How Much Joy Can You Stand
Facilitator’s Workshop at www.howmuchjoy.com.