advice

‘How Can I Make Art or Write When So Many People Expect So Much Greatness From Me?’

Photo: Maria Itina/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I am 22 years old, just out of college, and I feel crushed by the weight of my expectations for myself. In the last eight or so years, seven people have seriously told me they think I’m going to be famous or they think I’m going to “go far” or that I could “do great things.” All my life, I received a competitive, rigorous education obsessed with delineations between “regular,” “advanced,” and “accelerated” math; SAT scores; and “gifted kids.” I graduated from a top university where those distinctions didn’t matter so much anymore because everyone was smart. I made some beautiful art while at this university, and I want to continue to write and make beautiful things.

I truly believe I have the potential to make something great in this life. But the problem is I’m so obsessed with being great that I can’t relax. I don’t just read a novel for pleasure; I read so that I can train myself to be a novelist, which is a fine reason to read, but it’s always accompanied by an ache that I’m not currently good enough to write a worthy novel. When I get caught up on what I wish I were accomplishing, I don’t work on any art or writing, I can’t sleep well, and my actual heart muscle hurts.

One of my art professors this year told me and only me in my class that I should work on creating a personal log of things that inspire me rather than trying to rip art out of myself. His suggestion touched on an insecurity that I actually have nothing to say. I spent years sitting silently in class, afraid to speak, practically pregnant with the words I could have been saying, though much of the time words never actually even came to mind. And yet outside of class, people have told me I’m a wonderful conversationalist.

Also my dad has always loved to reinforce the story that I’m smarter than everyone else my age, no one is smarter than me, my major is for smart kids and other majors are not as smart, etc., etc. As I get older and I become more aware of how he’s spun this narrative, it just makes me feel sad for him and makes me feel misunderstood. I know I’m smart, but so the fuck what? I want to be a person and I want to be a person who creates things. I feel stopped up with all the things I could be doing — learning a language, writing a screenplay, writing a novel. Like the hypothetical words I could have said in class, these ghost projects don’t actually have any substance to them — they just torment me and make me feel like I’m running out of time. Polly, how can I uncork myself and play and just be?

Thanks,

Corked

Dear Corked,

The irony of being encouraged relentlessly and told that you’re special and force-fed entitlement by the pound is that it’s hard to locate your internal compass outside of the world’s expectations for you. Creating art relies on accessing some slow, patient, deeply rooted understanding of what makes you who you are. You dig for this core belief, and along the way, you discover your fears and anxieties and self-hatred. You dig until your fingers bleed, and everything you find along the way is useful.

But if your art is a means to an end — if I make X (something beautiful or special that other people love), I will become Y (someone beautiful and special that other people love) — this process is necessarily confusing and difficult and polluted. While you’re digging, you find something scary or bewildering, and you think, “This is what will prevent me from making anything worthwhile.” And you toss away that fear or that worry or that haunting memory that leads straight to the heart of everything good and real and strong and formidable about you. You treat your finest treasures like trash. You toss away the strange, unique, half-formed, twisted, broken things that lie at the heart of your TRUE brilliance, the kind that can’t be measured with tests, and you keep digging for something you feel might be better but is actually just a constipated imitation of someone else’s good idea.

That’s why it’s crucial to recognize that the work IS the end, not a means to an end. Because when you work, you always have exactly what you need to create. Everything is at your fingertips. But to access that, you can’t be ruled by the anxiety of where you’re pointed, how you will get there, what you will become, who will approve, who will be disappointed. You can use that anxiety, of course, but you can’t run from it or avoid it. You have to either acknowledge it and set it aside, or you have to lean way the fuck into it.

When your professor told you to keep a log of the things that inspire you, he wasn’t telling you that you have zero good ideas, so you’ll have to COLLECT SOMEONE ELSE’S. He was merely saying THIS IS HOW GOOD ARTISTS DO IT. We collect. We tune into the outside world. We don’t ONLY dig deeper into ourselves. We also open our eyes to the world around us. That includes opening our eyes to other people’s work, with its scary qualities and its scary brilliance. We tune into other people’s art even when it frightens us by reminding us that we might not be special enough. We don’t keep ourselves safe in a vacuum. We face the world, and use our fears as fodder for our art.

You really underestimate how clearly other people can see you and what you’re made of, including your father and your teachers and your friends who see your potential. Yes, you grew up in this very competitive “Are you special or not?” type of habitat. A lot of people grow up that way. It’s a very, very common petri dish to find yourself in at this particular moment in history. I’m not saying it doesn’t fuck with your head. But it’s not specific to you. Most middle- and upper-middle-class kids get fed a lot of self-esteem-boosting, “You’re the chosen one” horseshit. I guess I want you to disregard it while also seeing through to the good intentions therein. It’s less about these people, who observe you, wanting to curse you with their high expectations, than it is about their love for you. They see that you doubt yourself, but they also recognize your brilliance. They know how fragile the work of becoming who you really are can be. They know how easily you can lose years or even decades to your self-doubt. They love something truly real and lovely about you, and they merely want to find some way to get you to see it and believe it. Yes, it sounds like a pat on the head. It sounds like an entreaty to BECOME YOURSELF QUICKLY. It even sounds like a soft-pedaled insult (“Collect ideas because you have none.”) It feels like pressure.

That’s your skepticism and your sensitivity talking. It’s time for you to grow up enough to recognize that the world doesn’t have precise language for ANYTHING. No one knows how to communicate what they need to communicate. Even the people who love you the most, who see you the most clearly, end up sounding like shitty high-school principals when they talk. Our culture doesn’t have a lot of nuanced language to describe art and artists, specifically. We don’t have good ways of saying, “You have something weird and colorful and RIGHT ON about you that I fear I am too inadequate to describe or put my finger on!” We don’t have good ways of saying, “Just trust your vision. You’ve always had a vision, whether you realize that or not right now, and I want you to trust it.”

You also have to look for help without privileging everyone else with some secret key to the universe. This is a big problem with being 22 years old. You don’t listen to your own instincts. You ask people, “How do I do this?” and you await instruction on things that you can only discover for yourself, alone, in the dark. It’s very frustrating how little older people know about what you should do next. It’s obnoxious how inadequate their language is, and it’s upsetting how few clear paths forward there are for people who don’t want to get ordinary jobs at ordinary places, but who still have to make a fucking living somehow. But you can’t take that noise and treat it like a puzzle that needs to be solved. You have to see yourself as the ultimate decider, and seek information without being ruled by your fear and resentment. That fear and resentment kicks up around the myth of specialness and superiority; once you let go of being SPECIAL and BETTER, you’ll be able to take in information without feeling threatened by it.

I want to add that it can also be very difficult not to have to make a living. I’ve known a lot of depressed trust-fund kids over the years, though luckily I’ve never landed in that particular predicament myself. When you’re 22 and you need to make a living, you find yourself fixated on the kids who have the money and support to do whatever they want. But never wish for that. It’s just not good to try to make art 24 hours a day. Read this, by Jerry Saltz, about the strange pressures of trying to be an amazing artist at a young age without understanding who you are.

I don’t know if you have a trust fund or support and that’s one of the pressures that’s lurking in the background of what you describe, but if it is, I want to encourage you to find a job. At age 22, there’s no better way to become depressed than by not working while trying to make things that prove that you’re a genius. I did this on and off at that age, but because I always had to pay my rent, I never fell down any rabbit hole completely. That was a blessing. I would’ve become a serious drunk or a junkie otherwise.

If you think you might want to write fiction — novels or screenplays — then consider planting yourself in a place where people are doing these things. Become an assistant to a book editor, or writer’s assistant for a TV writer. Work for a literary agent. Trying to be a genius in a vacuum, without knowing how the world of writers and books and TV shows and films actually work, is a recipe for self-destruction and confusion. You have enough noise in your head already. You need concrete materials to observe and analyze: Other people’s work, how professional artists interact, how they fall apart or lose their focus, how they stand in their own way. You also need the sensation that you can get up in the morning, go to work, take notes on the interesting things you see and hear without deciding that you’re a loser, go home at night, and feel okay. It’s okay not to be a PROVEN TRUE ARTIST immediately. It’s okay to be a regular person who can pay the rent right now.

People used to tell me they thought I would be famous for making something funny and creative. Like you, I got nervous when I heard that. All of my fears about not fitting into the Real World of Real Professionals kicked up. I didn’t grow up around screenwriters or artists or TV writers. My dad was a professor, but in a small college town where professors are sort of islands unto themselves, weirdos with ideas who don’t necessarily have to schmooze or understand the wider world. That said, my dad understood those things more than I gave him credit for. Right after I graduated from college, my dad told me he thought that I should be a writer, it was my calling. He told me I should apply to Iowa’s M.F.A. program, the best one in the country, which he’d heard from the English professor he’d asked about it. If he’d known TV writers, his advice might’ve been less academically focused, but that was pretty good advice for a college graduate who was unsure what to do next.

My response to my dad’s advice was, “Are you going to pay for that?” He didn’t want to promise that he would do that. I even asked him to pay my rent for a year while I wrote a novel. He told me I needed to figure it out on my own. Considering how things went for my friends who WERE supported by their parents, I think he made a good choice. I got a different kind of education in becoming a writer by being forced to get paid jobs doing scrub work, then slowly proving my worth among the other smart professional journalists and creative weirdos around me.

Nothing in my past as a writer is that magical or promising. I never got ALL of the guidance I needed. I never knew what the right place for me was, exactly. I wasted a ton of time doing nothing but drinking too much and overanalyzing how my boyfriend of the moment felt about me. I had a lot of different ambitions, but honestly, I was afraid of LEARNING. I was afraid of finding out I wasn’t special, and that blocked me from a lot of interesting paths. When I turned 28 and moved to L.A., I should’ve studied screenwriting instead of just sitting alone trying to write screenplays, telling myself that I was brilliant enough to create something unique, then discovering that I didn’t magically know how to do it.

These are some of the weird impracticalities of seeing yourself as special. Your fears block you from looking at the truth and understanding that the humble path forward is THE ONLY path forward. Like any artist, you don’t want instruction. You seek guidance, and then you rip that guidance to little shreds. “He only thinks I should get a degree because he’s a professor and he’s obsessed with status.” “She’s too invested in me becoming someone important.” “He’s trying to encourage me, but really he thinks I don’t have any good ideas.” You don’t trust anyone else, but you also don’t trust yourself. And the irony is that these jaded perspectives on the guidance you receive are part of what make you an artist in the first place. You’re oversensitive, you doubt yourself, you’re self-defeating, you’re alternately inspired and completely depressed, grandiose and deflated, brave and fearful.

You have the raw materials to do great things. You already know that. But you need to work very hard and very patiently. You need to cultivate a belief in who you are and sustain that belief indefinitely. You need to get a job and make money and pay your rent. You need to investigate many, many different options, and you need to plant yourself among people who understand why creating is haunting and necessary. You need to be practical but keep dreaming.

The narrative of your being SPECIAL, the one that comes from the outside, has seeds of truth to it. You are very smart and talented. That’s great. But it’s also your enemy, in some ways. Because becoming an artist is a long game. It requires faith and patience. And more than anything else — and I know I’ve said this, but I can’t say it enough — becoming an artist requires never, ever, treating art as a means to an end. The end is the work itself. It MUST be the work itself. The work is what you want. There is no end point to reach.

Great artists log the things that inspire them. They keep this record because it’s not just a reflection of what they admire. IT’S A REFLECTION OF WHO THEY ARE AS ARTISTS. Each influence or inspiration is another square piece of stone that eventually forms the mosaic. The mosaic is a true original, the pieces of stone are echoes of some corner of humanity or some brief flash of brightness in the world that touched you or excited you or made you feel afraid or turned your stomach inside out.

As an artist, you use the things that unnerve you — and they are everywhere — to your advantage. You save tiny scraps because the scraps are all you have. You don’t have a working compass. You don’t even have one as a professional adult artist or writer. Instead, you dig for some ancient, broken compass and it barely works. Along the way, you are exhausted. You feel discouraged and alone, and you put that in your log. You meet someone impressive who misunderstands you, then you sit on the hot sidewalk and cry, and you hear a lost parrot overhead. You put that in your log. You read a novel and write down snippets of a dialogue that you loved. This is not you trying to get somewhere. This is not you trying to imitate someone better than you. This is not your way of being better than everyone, eventually, when you can finally prove that YOU ARE THE BEST.

This is you living your life. This is you feeling good about your day. Your job, this morning, tomorrow morning, the next morning, is to feel good. But your job is also to feel exactly what you feel when you feel it. Your job is to see the world through clear eyes, and collect little bits of that world, and hold them close, and treasure them more than anything else.

Right now, you’re obsessed with the gap between what other people have told you about yourself and how you actually feel inside. You’re obsessed with beauty and small things that are worth creating in a vacuum. You’re obsessed with being good enough that you don’t even need to know how you’re reflected in other people’s eyes. And you’re paralyzed by fear.

In other words, you already have a lot to work with.

But it’s slow work. Savor it. Get a job that isn’t soul-crushing, and do your slow work. Believe in your slow path. But also? Take big leaps into environments that scare you. If Hollywood sounds THE MOST SCARY, that’s a sign that you might just value it the most. Will you be disappointed? Maybe. If you are, you’ll use that disappointment; it will become another piece of your mosaic.

Know that you will never arrive anywhere significant. Your job is to relish the path itself, in all of its slow wonder. Your job is to notice when someone who might inspire you comes near. Your job is to put your heart on the line. Your job is to recognize that fear is meaningless, and it’s useful, too, and it never goes away. Your job is to see, with clarity, that the obstacles in your path ARE your path. Your job is to recognize that ALL OF THE TRAITS that threaten to make you NOT SPECIAL in the long run lie at the very heart of your truest talents and your most brilliant insights.

Your weaknesses are at the center of everything good about you.

Your paranoia points straight to the blazing soul of who you are.

You will be somebody, the second you make peace with being nobody. You can create great things, the second you recognize that making misshapen, stupid, pointless things isn’t just part of the process of achieving greatness, it is greatness itself. Trusting yourself is your religion, as an artist. That means trusting your ugly as much as your beauty, and trusting your stolen bits of stuff as much as your beating heart, and trusting your fear as much as your confidence.

Let go of the shiny, successful, famous human inside your head. Be who you are right now. That is how it feels to arrive. That is how it feels to matter. Being a true artist merely lies in recognizing that you already matter. No one needs to use their imprecise words to make you feel things. You feel the truth all by yourself.

Grow up first, is what I’m trying to say. Grow up and be humble, first and foremost. Grow up before it’s too late to grow up. Live where you are. Be who you are. Don’t rush through this. Don’t skip the hard part. Treasure it.

Polly

Order Polly’s new book What If This Were Enoughhere. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘How Can I Make Art When People Expect Greatness From Me?’