Advice for artists, inspired during the whirlwind of SXSW 2005
One of the local arts/creative communities recently held some general meetings, inviting the entire community to come together to share resources, air grievances, get to know one another, what have you. Later, someone who was at the meeting told me that a lot of the younger community shared a feeling that the older, more established community could be doing more to help bring in funding for projects so they could work.
Sometimes, when I've stopped to talk to someone usually someone I don't know that well in the course of the conversation, they'll bring up the project on which they're working: the movie they want to make, the script they're going to write, the play they're still polishing, the novel they just need to find the time to begin, or how they're thinking of starting a band. (I tend not to attract dancers, visual artists, jazz artists, and the like.) Now, I'm talking the would-be, could-be, once-were creatives here: people who talk more about what they are going to accomplish than have finished work talk much, much more. Almost always, I try to stop them as quickly as possible. I'm as interested in hearing about most people's unrealized projects as I am in hearing their dreams. Time has taught that both are equally substantive as dreams fade, so do projects.
I'm of the superstitious type that believes that you shouldn't talk about a work in progress, because when you talk about it, most of the time you deflate rather than add to it (of course, I do this; I'm not bound by my own superstitions). But even the work that's done the film finished, the novel completed, the band playing though sometimes fascinating, more often than not is mediocre at best.
If it is difficult to get enthusiastic over so much of the work done, why would anyone have any interest in the work not yet realized, if even started?
Now, read over the previous paragraph. Everywhere in the city, there are those thinking, "Finally he admits the truth; there it is in black and white: He thinks most of everything is crap. There's much more stuff he's not even interested in than stuff he is. The Chronicle is just as biased and narrowly focused as we thought."
Most important, I edit the Chronicle, but I'm not the Chronicle. It is far more than any of us. Editors have significant autonomy, as do some writers. So the range of what we cover, the things that we review positively, our passions in print represent many voices. There is not one filter that vets every word and opinion.
But actually, that is a digression from the main point here. The two truisms: "Go out and do it" and "If what you're doing is unique, brilliant, unusually powerful, or significant, in almost any way, the whole purpose of the art-business world and media is to find you." In others words, we are not consciously neglecting your work; we are not cliquishly disdaining, blindly ignoring, or ignorantly avoiding it. Instead, a critical part of our job and a significant part of our pleasure is to be out looking for it.
There are so many reasons not to do the creative work you feel is your destiny: I'd make a film, but I don't have the budget. I'd paint, but I'm too tired. I'd start a theatre company, but I don't have the resources. This is usually coupled with "if only": If only I found a patron, if only I received a large inheritance I'd known nothing about.
This is the simple truth: Most of the creative types you admire once lived in ratty apartments; they had bookshelves of cement blocks and unvarnished boards where there were rows of paperbacks; some of the furniture was lifted plastic milk crates. They talked about art, passionately, all the time. Often they didn't think of it as art, but as film, music, novels, TV, cartoons, commercials, and so on. Then they went out and did it.
Richard Linklater came home one day and found 20,000 feet of film negative in the refrigerator, somehow procured by his roommate, cinematographer Lee Daniel. Linklater had already founded the Austin Film Society and watched thousands of films. He had made shorts and a feature that was basically a self-study of a filmmaking project. Linklater and Daniel didn't sit around endlessly and talk about how that really wasn't enough film or they just didn't have other resources. They went out and made Slacker.
When Robert Rodriguez was about 10, his dad brought home a video outfit (one of those very early, very bulky set-ups). Robert taught himself to shoot. When he was maybe 14, his father bought another unit, still bulky and relatively Stone Age, as was the emerging video technology. Using the two decks, he taught himself how to edit. When he finally got into the UT RTF department and was making a film, he spent some time holding the camera, feeling it, thinking about it. He was figuring out what he could and couldn't do with it. As it was light and maneuverable, he could move it around easily. His short film "Bedhead" is a wonder filled with an endlessly moving camera. Later, he decided to make a feature. He started with a list of what he had available three bars, a bulldog, etc., and wrote his script around that. El Mariachi sold to Columbia for $1 million. To get to the edit that sold cost $7,000.
One day Mike Judge, a musician and graduate science student, sat down and made a cartoon. At home. On rudimentary equipment. Beavis and Butt-head were born.
John Kunz and Louis Karp decided to start a record store. They didn't have enormously deep pockets, but they loved music and knew the business. Waterloo is now one of the pre-eminent independent music stores in the country.
Tim and Karrie League had an idea of combining a restaurant and bar with a movie theatre. They scraped up the money, did it on the West Coast, sold it, and came here to start Alamo Drafthouse theatres.
Nick Barbaro and I, with a number of friends, started the Chronicle. We had little idea of what we were doing. We went through somewhat less than $100,000 in investment money in less than nine months. We lived in cash-flow hell for most of a decade. OK, I lived in cash-flow hell; I don't think it bothered Nick. When we started the paper, I had never taken a journalism or business course in my life. I was 31. I had never made more than $10,000 in any year of my life (OK, even close to $10,000). I wouldn't break that barrier for over another half-decade. Mostly, we were too stupid to stop. But we were also tenacious, overly prideful, and surprisingly quick studies.
But when we started this, I was sleeping in a bed my friend Neil Ruttenberg gave me; my bookshelves were cinderblocks and boards, with sheets stapled to the window frames as curtains.
There are a million reasons you're not doing what you think you should. None of them is any good. You don't have the money to make the film you want to? Figure out what you have and make that film. This isn't to promise you're going to be good at what you believe you'll be good at, or that you will love it. Many people find they have no skill or talent for their passion, and many are more interested in thinking themselves the artist (musician, writer, filmmaker) than in actually producing the work.
Everyone comes into his or her talent at different times. Some are prodigies; some grow into skill at an age-appropriate rate; some come into it very far along (to suggest I matured far more slowly than my years would be to argue the progress was far speedier than it was). But the only way to find out what you can and can't do, the only way to get better at it, is to do it.
There is a terrific moment in Margaret Brown's documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (which I executive produced). Kevin Eggers, the legendary founder of Tomato Records (where Townes Van Zandt first recorded and remained for years) among other labels, is talking. He recalls how a friend commented to him that Kevin has the oddest job. "How?" he asked. His friend responded, "You get up in the morning, you make your bed, you eat your breakfast, wash up, and then put on your hat and go out to look for a genius."
He found Van Zandt, among others, but the real point is that there is an army out there looking for talent. Bands write in and bitch how they're being neglected. Filmmakers wonder why they're not discovered. Novelists bitch about the empty-souled publishing houses. Some of this is accurate, but just as accurate is the opposite how record companies, club owners, film producers, filmmakers, small publishers are all out there looking for new talent.
Maybe you are so far ahead of your time and so completely original that nobody can understand, much less appreciate, your work. This is not very likely. The problem today is much more often talent discovered and appreciated before it has fully matured than it is about geniuses being neglected.
I want a new band to blow me away, a movie to knock me out, and a writer to excite me. There is no greater pleasure than championing the new and introducing your friends to it. People are constantly passing along the work of newcomers. Not everyone gets everything, but the range of people who are looking, as well as the diversity of their tastes, is so broad as to cover most everything.
I hate to be the one to suggest this, but often if you get turned down, or ignored, or reviewed badly, it is because you're just not good enough yet. It is not a conspiracy against art, an attempt to suppress taste, that the established are scared of the new, critics only review what they know, or that you lack important friends in high places. It has to do with the quality of your work.
Here's my advice during the whirlwind of SXSW 2005. Go do it write, film, paint, dance, make music. Don't wait for the stars to line up or Hollywood to call go to work and work every day. Even if much of what you turn out isn't very good, you're learning, and that's the only way to improve. If you are producing and gaining neither the attention nor the respect you know you deserve, abandon conspiracy theorizing and bitching about critics. Work harder; get better; do more.
At the end of the day, accomplishment is the best revenge and more than just that, an ongoing life pleasure.