Persistence

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.]

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Dave

My name is Dave Beckerman. I am a photographer and programmer working in New York City.

9 thoughts on “Persistence”

  1. When I came out of theater school as a lighting designer, I made an appointment in NYC with an alum of that school who was a successful NY lighting designer. He was wonderfully gracious, looked at my portfolio, told me I had a real shot, and at the end of the interview, gave me the following advice: “Just hang in there. I will be a long slog. It is for everyone. But if you keep hanging in, what will happen is that, over time, some or most of your competition with quit. They will give up theater and go into architecture or something more ‘stable.’ And one day, you’ll wake up and, in your peer group, there won’t be as many other choices for producers to pick instead of you as there had been. And you’ll start getting more jobs, and suddenly your career will have a momentum it never had before. This happened to me, and I know of other people it happened to as well. Be patient. Do what you need to do to hang in.”

    He continued “Now, I’m not the BEST lighting designer of my generation, but I hung in there.”

    That year he had won many awards for his design of ‘Dracula’ starring Frank Langella, on Broadway.

    I didn’t hang in there. I gave up. I wasn’t making much money, I felt the continued pressure of trying to scramble for the jobs, and I gave up.

    And now, every year, I watch the Tony awards and see designers of my generation, designers no better or worse than I, win Tonys, and I think “what if?”

    Most days I think I made the right decision. Most days. But there are certainly days, days when I meet a classmate or two for lunch in LA who have worked in TV or film, days (for example) when I watch the Tony’s, when I’m just not as sure.

  2. Chris – this was about the dark side of “hanging in there.” I know many people in the arts: actors writers, musicians… who stayed with it, and never did make it; but never made practical compromises either.

    “Staying with it” is a necessary, but not sufficient condition (to bring out an old philosophy phrase). The results of “sticking with it” can result in a sort of Norma Desmond situation where you get lost in a world of your own delusions.

    “I’m ready for my closeup Mr. DeMille.”

    When you meet the aging “still hopeful” artist – this can be a horror, both for you and them. And I know people who have been destroyed by the process of “hanging in there.”

    But it’s also true, that without persistence you don’t have a chance. It’s just a question of how long and at what level.

    In my own case, after several years of screenwriting, I quit, even though I was offered another project. I hated it. I was sick to death of it. People ask me if I don’t miss it, or wonder what “could’ve been” and I can honestly say “no.” Not for a moment. I would rather write a novel that nobody reads, than another screenplay.

    And I had a few years doing lighting on independent films in New York. Not for me. I wanted my own voice. Lighting a good film or a crappy film – it wasn’t enough for my ego.

    However, unlike screenwriting, I did enjoy that lighting and camera work, and I do miss the group experience of a film crew sometimes. That was fun.
    But in the end, I wanted control over the end product.

    The puzzle pieces:

    Luck
    Hanging in There
    Obsession
    Talent

    In that order. And if the artist really does “love it,” then there are ways to find work on the weekends or nights or whatever without giving up everything. I don’t believe it has to be “all or nothing.”

    I think that was the point I was trying to get at.

  3. Luck shouldn’t be first and talent shouldn’t be last. Supreme talent will always win out over the regular folk. Persistence is also an inevitable byproduct of obsession, so it isn’t a decision for many. Luck does help those less lucky of course. Think of the best of any field and luck wasn’t the main reason for their success. Of course they all had luck, but most of the greats were born with a special gift that the rest of us can only dream of…

  4. Speaking of luck, I taught English in middle school and high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for many years I had a student named Rosario Dawson, who happened to be sitting on her stoop one day, watching the filming of the movie “Kids”. The director noticed her and called her over, and the rest is history. She has since starred in over 40 films, including “He Got Game”, “Men in Black II”, “Alexander”, and “Sin City”.

    If she didn’t happen to be sitting on that stoop that day, if she was, for example, upstairs doing her homework instead, she might be completely unknown today. But she never would have been noticed in the first place if she wasn’t beautiful (that’s genetic luckiness) and she never would have been picked to act in the movie if she didn’t have some talent.

    Rosario was a great student, one of the better writers I’d ever taught, and very vivacious, so when she had a choice upon graduating high school whether to pursue acting or go to Brown University, to which she was accepted, her advisors told her to play it safe and go to college.

    I basically gave her the same advice. We were sitting together on a senior trip to see “Cats” on Broadway and she told me about “Kids” and Panteen hair product ads she was asked to do. I told her that Brown was a prestigious ivy league school and she shouldn’t miss the opportunity to go there. I told her that making a career as an actress was a long-shot.

    Fortunately, she didn’t listen to any of us. I guess the moral of the story is that even if you have the talent and the assets, you also need luck. You also have to take a stab against the odds, at least in your youth. The wonderful thing about Rosario is that she hasn’t self-destructed like so many young stars. In fact, she is involved in a lot of noteworthy causes. So even if you do “make it”, it takes a very special person to keep it.

  5. In a similar vein. A student that I went to school with was invited one night to a friends house. It turned out that the friend had discovered a bunch of letters relating to a famous Hollywood murder in the 30’s (or thereabouts). I don’t remember the details about the discovery, but it was pure luck that this student was there and was able to look at them.

    He publishes the material. Next thing, he’s on the tonight show circuit. He’s writing a script with Robert Towne (Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid).

    But sometimes, esp. in the movie business, pure luck plays a gigantic role. The idea of “the big break” is commonplace in show business. Maybe less so in other artistic endeavors.

  6. Umm, as a big fan of William Goldman, I feel the need to point out that Mr. Towne wrote Chinatown and Mr. Goldman wrote Butch. But I’m sure you knew that.

    My earlier post was simply saying that you’d better be sure you’re gonna be okay walking away from something that close to your heart. I don’t think I made the wrong decision, per se, many wonderful things have happened to me after I went into the game business, but I do wonder. I think that my passion for light comes out in my photography. I hope it does, anyway.

  7. About Towne / Goldman – yup. (It was Towne that the student ended up working with). I also love Goldman’s work.

    And being sure before “walking away” – that’s a good point. But I also think that sometimes it takes some compromising, and that the creative impulse (as you know) will find a way to resurface.

    Another student from our film group ended up teaching drama in public schools and working in a neighborhood playhouse on the weekends. She’s very happy with this arrangement. And of course there’s always Grandma Moses to hold up as a role model. Or the woman (don’t remember her name) who spent her entire life writing one book, which when published became a best seller.

    P.S. Glad to see some thoughtful comments on this post as it wasn’t just dashed off as I usually do in the blog; but I let it roll around in my mind for a morning before sitting down to write it out.

  8. My own perspective right now is one of supreme gratitude to even be working, successfully or otherwise, in a medium that I love and cherish. There are so many who don’t even get the chance. I think it’s important to remember that always.

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