Here’s what you do:
You just make something
You do it now.
It might be good. It might speak to people, make them think. It might touch them in ways they didn’t know they could be touched. It might take a little piece of you and show it to someone else, who will realize for the first time that they aren’t alone.
It might make people think and feel more than they wanted to feel. You might leave them awake at night, grinding their teeth, haunted, and cursing you. When the sound of their grinding teeth drifts back to you, through your open window on cool autumn nights and fills up your dreams with the beautiful, terrible realizations you released into the world, then you will know that you have made something great.
Then, strangers will interrupt your dinners at restaurants, and give you surprise back-rubs in coffee shops, and people you have never seen before will talk to you like an old friend, and say how amazing it is to talk to you when you tell them things like “hey, can you pass the sugar?”. They will want things from you, and say you’re deep. Even if you don’t want anything from them.
If you make something great.
You probably won’t make something great though.
It probably won’t even be good.
It might even be bad. Terrible, possibly.
You might decide that you’re smarter than the rest of us, and have more genuine experience of life, and decide you’re going to teach us all a little lesson. You might talk about things that only really matter to you, and never even think about why someone else might want to hear them. You might get lost completely in big words and ideas and abstractions, and surround yourself with others who like the same kind of dead, empty things, and you will give each other awards at banquets, and together you will forget how easy it is to sound smart and important, while saying stupid things about nothing.
You will forget that the best you can ever hope to do is to be naked, and honest, and unashamed, then speak. Instead, you will try to be impressive to others, and make them lift you up, and then you will fall.
More likely though, you will never do anything at all.
You will be too scared, or too lazy, or decide that the time isn’t quite right yet. Maybe you will write down some ideas, but we both know, you will never actually make anything. Three years from now, you’ll come across a slip of paper, or hear the same song that was playing when you first had the idea, and you’ll remember how good it was, and maybe you’ll even fool yourself into thinking it was great, because in your imagination, everything is always great. You will enshrine the idea in your mind, like a beautiful porcelain doll, and you will never experience the mess and anger and expense and the many disappointments of giving birth, and raising a living child.
You might choose to run away completely, and deny your talents, deny that you have anything to say that might make you stand out. If you are smart, you will be rewarded for this. You will receive money, acceptance, a beautiful, shining car, and the people that you meet will feel comfortable around you, and welcome you into their homes. This is your decision, and no-one can make it for you. If you choose this path, you are a fool, and wasting your life, but no-one will ever judge you for it.
That still might be the better choice. I honestly don’t know.
But try to make something first.
Learn stuff. Get better. Find the people who are the best at what you want to do nearby, and steal their tricks, then find the better people hiding around you, and steal what they have. When you run out of people to steal from, move to a better neighborhood where people have nicer stuff, and take it. Keep moving. You may find a mentor to guide you, or you may not. Learn anyway. Don’t worry about theories. Learn real things. Real knowledge allows you to make better things. True theoretical understanding only comes through doing. Theories you read in books only let you sound smart to people who are too scared to make anything, and thus don’t matter.
Submit yourself to the judgment of people who are better than you. Do what they say. You may think they are wrong, but if they can do things you can’t, it is because they understand the craft better than you. Don’t worship your heroes from afar. Meet them, listen to them, then rob them.
Your teachers, if you can find real ones, will make you realize how far away you really are. Get walking. It’s a long damn way. It’s shorter if you start walking. There are no shortcuts. People who claim to have shortcuts are lying to you. And themselves. Don’t waste time with them.
Don’t be an artist. Do something.
Be a painter, a sculptor, a writer, a dancer, an entrepreneur. These are titles that have to be honestly earned. Painters paint. Writers write. If you are not currently dancing, right now, you are not a dancer, just someone who theoretically could dance sometime, if they wanted to.
Any asshole can call themselves an artist.
Finish things. If thinking about writing a novel doesn’t count, neither does writing half a novel. Finish it, even if it’s terrible. It’s probably terrible. But a terrible book is better than no book. By failing to finish what you are working on, you are saying that this idea is so precious, so singular, that you have to do it perfectly, because you will never have one this good again. If you only have one idea, you are not qualified to do this anyway. Either quit now, or finish it, and have faith that you will make another one, and that it will be better the next time.
Ask for lots of money. People might say no. They might tell you that your work is not worth it. They may challenge you or ask you to take less. They might seem embarrassed for you, or expect you to work for free. They might even laugh. Whether people like you or not does not matter here. Trying to keep the price low is their job. Trying to raise it is yours. Do not try to do their job for them. You suck at it. Your job is to ask for lots of money. They might say yes.
Be worth lots of money. Your job on this path is very simply, to be awesome. Your job is to give people things; experiences, insights, courage, a setting to live their lives within, meaning. You exist to give other people things to play with together, and places to fall in love in on summer afternoons. You exist to let them understand who their dad was, and the things he couldn’t say to them when he was alive. You are there to tell them they aren’t alone and maybe shouldn’t kill themselves quite yet, at least not tonight. You are there to help them realize that their marriage is over and it’s time to move on.
Each of these things is valuable beyond any possible price. You exist to tell people you have never met before something about themselves. If your art doesn’t affect people, it is not art. Your work, if it’s good, will never be about you, or the ideas you own. It will be about other people. If it’s great, it will be about how there’s not any difference between what matters to you and what matters to them, but I can’t teach you that. You have to figure it out for yourself.
It will be lonely. You will make real magic, but most of it will happen when you aren’t there. The moments of applause will be brief, and too rare. The hours of practice and frustration and solving stupid problems will be common, and too long. You will affect people. You will, without exaggeration, change the course of their lives, but those huge moments will happen away from you, when they are alone, or with some person they love in a little room somewhere, when they suddenly remember your astonishing courage, and use that memory to take some fabulous risk of their own, and you will not see it, and you will not be thanked. And when you sometimes are, it will not satisfy your hunger.
But on some autumn night, not tonight, but soon, lying in bed alone, when all the frustration, and the angst, and the exploding joy you have put into the world suddenly washes over you like music, like a cry through your open window, you will realize that unlike almost everyone, you’ve added something new and magnificent to the world by being here.
And it won’t be enough.
But it will be enough.
But that doesn’t happen until you make something.
You just make something.
You do it now.
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