Oh sure. Some will tell you that the secret to making it as an artist can be summed up with one word: persistence.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to knock persistence, anymore than I would knock pigheadedness. They have their place. (I’m tempted to say that pigheadedness in moderation is fine – but I’ll refrain from that.)
But I have been first hand witness to this myth of persistence. At least as most people have come to understand the word. I have seen the hopes of youth fade only to be replaced by a face in a bar that asks if you want another with drooping eyes and whitened beard.
Don’t get me wrong – persistence is critical – but not in a dreamy way. It’s okay when you’re in your twenties. Maybe in your thirties. But the years roll by, and at some point most of us have to take a hard unflinching look in the mirror, and ask if this path hasn’t become dark and overgrown with thorny bushes.
What happens then is good. At least for most of these travelers. They find out that persistence in following your dream is fine, but it’s a long expedition, and unless you’re prepared with sufficient stock for the long haul, you will end up as that face in the bar talking about old times with watery eyes.
Who sets out on even a simple weekend journey without some idea of where the motel or camping areas are, or without food or money to get food.
This journey is like that weekend trek, multiplied by a few thousand days.
It’s fine when you are young to set out without proper supplies on a short trip. You are young, and healthy, and able to put up with bad weather, and even lack of food. But when you make the same trip in your eighties and live to tell about it, that’s another story.
So many misunderstood phrases flit through my mind as I remember the young class of film students that I got to know so well:
Follow your bliss. Don’t give up your dream. But also: you can’t beat a dead-horse. (Of course you can beat a dead horse, but it is highly unlikely to give you the results you’re after; though you may feel better as you finally put down the whip.)
To follow this twisty trail, when you are no longer in your youth (don’t say you’re as young as you feel because I don’t believe that); get yourself a backer that you can live with. If you want to be persistent, be sure to also look for financial backing for this persistence. Yes – financing and expeditions have always gone hand-in-hand.
If, for example, you are a person of wealth, then onwards and upwards at all costs. Hire guides to take you to the top of the mountain. For a price, they will carry you on their backs.
But for the rest of us – make sure – as you approach those middle years – that you have some financial support (it could even be a brother like Theo) – but a job is better. Maybe a part-time job in an insurance firm. It doesn’t matter so long as it doesn’t sap your creativity altogether.
It is a tricky balancing act. This job can offer you many shiny baubles, and you may lose your way on the trail. But it’s not the worst thing that can happen, and you can find your way back.
But I say – as one who has had drinks with the wounded and lost travelers – if you are in your middle years – don’t be a kid about it. Don’t think you can live on art anymore than you can live on love.
And always remember this – persistence is not the same as plodding. Persistence needs to be joined with an overall plan.
Some say that luck, pure dumb luck, is the biggest factor in the ultimate rise or fall of the artist. And just like at the gaming tables, bring enough money so that you can stay in the game a while. Don’t go home after one grand moment with nothing but a half of the bus-ticket that got you there.
If you want to persist – you must also exist. Don’t fade away with what-could’ve-been smoke; but stay in the game until you can, “I gave it my all.”
What I’m trying to say is, expand your idea of persistence to include provisions for the journey. Then, if you are in the game long enough and still haven’t struck the motherlode, you can shout out: I GAVE IT MY BEST. Your soul will be clean, and without bitterness. You’ll visit your old friend in the bar, but you’ll know that you’ve traveled separate roads.
[I wrote this after bumping into an old friend from film school. We got to talking about what had ever happened to so-and-so. And there were some sad stories to swap. Both of us knew of one student who had killed himself when he couldn’t “make-it.” There were others who were really nothing but burnt-out drunks. And there were a few who had survived and made it. I got to thinking about what I had learned after all these years about what it took to make it, and the word: persistence always popped up. But as I thought about it more, I saw that persistence, in the general sense of just sticking with it – wasn’t a good answer. That the definition needed to be widened a bit for those of us who weren’t immediate successful, or were late-bloomers.]