My daddy and I went for a walk. In the Croatan National Forest, in the marshes, at the beach. He spotted the osprey nest way up in the tip top of a tree, and the osprey was there, holding a fish with its claw, and tearing off pieces to feed the babies. I snapped a series of photos that National Geographic photographers might have camped out for days and still missed.
I think everyone’s an artist. I hang out with college students. They’re young, creative, and idealistic, ready to change the world, and they will. I am amazed though how many times I hear them, and often my older friends too, expressing a desire to become famous – maybe for their anime sketching, or their painting, or their writing . . . This post is for them, meant to guide them if it helps, maybe to redirect their artistic dreams, or maybe to guide them to where the dreams are within grasp.
“I need to find a niche. I don’t know what I want to paint,” responds my very talented artist friend when I ask him why his brushes are hidden in a closet. “I need to find what people want to see/ buy …” or possibly in his heart, “what will make me rich or famous.”
“How can I get started as a writer?” I have been asked more times than I can count, and often what I hear underneath the words is “How can I become a rich or famous writer?”
And they don’t like my answer, because they want to know how to achieve their rich and famous definition of success right now, by next year, so what little wisdom I might have for them seems to go unheeded. Nonetheless, this is for them, and if you are a writer, a musician, an artist . . . maybe for you.
Rethinking the Goal
First, I encourage all artists to rethink their artistic goal, because a goal of fortune and fame, by its very nature, is harmful to both the creative process and the created product (the book, the poem, the painting, the song). If my goal is to create what will please others, I am missing the purest, deepest, and most unique creative resource – my own creative soul.
Art is a special gift. Art is a means of communication. Art expresses what lives within our spirits, what is uniquely us, unlike that of any other. No other human spirit shares my exact life experiences, my collection of knowledge, my mental, spiritual, and psychological perceptions. I can study all the New York Times best-selling novels and imitate them with hopes of seeing my name on that list next month, but I fear my dreams might be upside down.
What if I leave the question of what would please others, and instead, write/paint/ photograph/create from my soul, whatever that might look like? What if I write/paint for myself, allowing the brush/pen to go wherever it wants to take me? There, if I am not seeking to find my creative self, I just might actually catch a glimpse of her, though I dare not focus on her, lest she then fade away.
What if I channel my passion for black history, and research the history of the black school in my hometown, interviewing older black people who were educated there? A well-researched finished product would not make a best-seller list, but it would preserve a history that’s going to be gone forever if someone doesn’t capture it soon.
What if I write a biographical history of every person buried in the cemetery of my small childhood church? Again, it would take lots of leg work, research, and interviewing older people who knew them, and it would not make me rich. But it would leave that special little spot of the world much richer for my having caught a story that perhaps only I have the means and the passion to catch before it’s too late.
What if we redirected our goals, not for finding fame, but for finding the depth of unique creativity that lies within us?
But someone has to write the best-sellers, and someone's paintings have to hang in the Smithsonian? Yes, and I think almost all of those someones started somewhere like this:
How to Be a Writer
Let’s talk about how to become a writer (or artist, or whatever creative venue is yours). Two important facets, just two, but they’re big!
1. Learn proper writing structure. Take all the grammar classes you can find. Read books, articles, and blogs on grammar. Find resources for learning a new vocabulary word every day, and practice using it in conversation. Care about spelling, and punctuation, and word choices. Your content can be solid, but without the structure to support it, it's not likely to be taken seriously.
2. Live life fully. This is the other facet of art. You can learn every grammatical rule, make an A+ on every academic writing assignment, and still be a mediocre writer, because our art draws upon our own personal supply of experience and passion. The fuller we live our lives, we more we have to draw from. Travel, get to know all kinds of people, try something you never thought you'd try. The more joy, pain, grief, anger, confusion, oppression, love, betrayal, and gratitude we have experienced, the more vividly we’re able to write or paint it.
Write what you know. That advice has been out there forever, but it’s sound! Find your own soul. Write from your own passions. Develop stories from your own experiences.
Read. Read a lot! I know you want the short cut. Just writing, not reading. Like a basketball player wants just game action, not years of practice drills, not carrying the basketball around constantly so it becomes an inseparable appendage. Read the newspaper, read novels, read biographies, read textbooks, read how-to books, magazine articles, blogs . . . read everything. Not as a task, not toward a goal as a step to writing, but read until you can’t imagine not reading! It becomes an intimate part of who you are, like the paintbrush to Picasso, like the basketball to Stephen Curry.
Journal. Write daily, not for anyone else to read, but just for yourself. Not only will journaling develop your gift of writing, but it might also provide a vast well of material years later. When we are 17 or 27 or 37, we think we will never forget what it was like to be that age, but we do forget. As our mind and soul expand, we lose the ability to go back and think or feel the way we did at some other time in our lives. Plus surprisingly we tend to reshape the memories of what we think we do know, and our journals years later can correct those reconstructions. Our journals can become a writing treasure trove.
There was luck in catching that osprey shot. Luck at being there at just the right moment. Luck at being with my daddy who has an eye for spotting anything in nature. But it was not luck that I had my camera in hand, or that I knew what to do with it. Like you, and you, and you, I am an artist. The camera goes where I go. The blogs are always writing themselves in my head. Not for fame or fortune, but as an outlet of the soul.