When I was a young, would-be writer and artist, like most others around me with the same aspirations, I thought success and achievement came from having talent and perspective. Wanting to be novelists and poets, painters and musicians, dancers and filmmakers, we worshiped talent in others and doubted it in ourselves. We saw the affectations of attitude and pretension in others and embraced those like a faith. We thought if we could find the talent and act the part, success would naturally follow.
But while talent and attitude have their place, neither of those things will an artist make. When driving a car, pressing on the gas and turning the wheel are important... but if there is no gas in the tank, it does not matter how hard we press or how desperately we yank. We're going nowhere.
Art, and every other achievement, is an act of faith. It argues that if the time is taken today to work on this small thing, that thing will bear fruit in the future. If I start a book, if I start working on my game design, if I buy the tools and start building a wall across my back yard, one day, one day, the book and the game and the wall will be finished.
Without that faith, without conviction that the work done today is not wasted, nothing today gets done and there is nothing in the future.
That is why so many of the would-be musicians and painters, dancers and filmmakers that I surrounded myself with in my youth are none of those things today. They have gotten rid of the studios in their basements and have stopped practicing; they work in the trades or sell insurance; they have families and mortgages. After years of working and trying and failing, they lost their faith. Nothing they did bore fruit and they stopped believing that it would.
It is the enormity of the task that destroys. Bad work can be corrected and made better. Having the wrong perspective can be righted. But working day after day without the apparent value of that work coming into evidence... that strikes deep to the root and withers the vine. The tools that once brought joy and aspiration now sit in the corner, unemployed and even hated. They lay there and they lay there until they must be gotten rid of, else they cast a pall upon every moment of opportunity and life that can yet be had.
This is what is happening as young artists sense their worlds slipping away; as the projects that endeared us in our childhood now seem harder to appreciate in a world with jobs, responsibilities, children and the fear of failure. A week's labour for a week's pay gives proof of time spent like an artistic exercise denies. There is no need for faith. The immediate transaction of money for ordinary service washes away the uncertain ambition of art like a flood scouring a valley clean.
Why, then, practice the artist's habit of working quietly and ineffectually in ground that may well be sterile, that even seems certain to be sterile, after a decade of planting seeds that refuse to sprout?
Faith, for some, can be a habit. If it is there in the early years and is sustained with imagination and ardor, its presence becomes a balm. When things are finished, one thing after another, the sustenance of the work becomes evident, until the effect of the work on others ceases to matter and the work becomes the principle upon which the artist moves forward.
Frustrated creators ask, what can I do? What will get me there? Where is the door and what is the key and how do I use one to open the other? I tell them as best I can; I explain the work and the method, I give details for the strategies they might try, I propose easy paths upon which they might embark within a few hours or a few days... and for the most part, it all comes to naught. The advice is never taken, never set in motion, never embraced.
That is because what we can do in a few hours or a few days will never produce the kind of fruit we want right now, the fruit that can be gotten with the transaction of a job. Worse, all the work that can be done in artistry will never be the sort that we can manage in a few hours or a few days because artworks are not made from pouring barrels of paint onto a canvas or backing up a dump truck full of words. The fingers and the breath are not empowered by the instrument; the physical body must be remade and molded to the tool. This takes immeasurable amounts of time; time that differs from human to human. There's no straight path, no set hours, no unqualified promise of a pay cheque, no warm and friendly face to chat with in the next cubicle or over a coffee break. From the start, it all looks hopeless and, for most of the time, it stays that way. At the beginning, through the middle and towards the end, for years and years.
If we act right now, however, and we believe, we will find that one day we will have done it. This is the formula. There is no escaping it. But it is a beautiful thing, too; for it will change us and help us see the world differently. Once that has happened, through our work, we will enable others to see the world differently, too. And they will not have to pay the cost we paid.