Few artists have produced work that feels as urgently American to me in the way that Santiago Uceda’s does. He’s got a brash, expressionist style with bold inky lines and that blends of cultures and landscapes tracing his life journey from Peru to California and up to the Pacific Northwest. To me his work embodies the ambitious restlessness of all of us with immigrant roots. Go west and reinvent yourself. Shatter traditions, break rules and color outside the lines to create something new out of the open canvas made from the cultural jambalaya that is the soul of this country.
Uceda’s work shows the clear influence of pre-Colombian and Incan art. He spent his childhood in his native Peru before moving to the States with his family in middle school. Once he arrived in Southern California as a teenager, he absorbed stylistic elements from the surf and skate culture there, as well as a sense of folk art from the Mexican community, especially Día de Muertos imagery. Once he moved north to Oregon, he dove into the iconography of the Pacific Northwest, where a sort of fecund, mossy, drippiness steeped his work with towering pines and folkloric mythology from Sasquatches to salmon worked its way into his repertoire. He recently completed a cycle of images, one for each of the 50 states, that drew on state symbols, animals and regional characteristics. Flipping through Uceda’s work is like taking a great American road trip.
But what struck me the most in my recent interview with Uceda is the fact that, despite while I might see an urgent Americanness, he’s often felt like an outsider here. When he first arrived from Peru, he settled in conservative Orange County where some of the wealthy white kids made him feel like a second class citizen. “I remember thinking, ‘who the fuck to you think you are? Yeah, you’re a white kid, but how does that make you better than me?’,” Uceda said. And then, as now, Uceda used his art to channel his distinct voice in response.
Those high school feelings were rekindled with the election of Donald Trump and the way the current president talks about immigrants and people of color. Uceda had never been a political artist, but some of his latest work is fueled by a bold fury at the way the American Dream has been shattered. “My way of adding to the conversation is through visuals,” Uceda said.
If Trump’s election and the ensuing white nationalism embodied by the corrupt real estate mogul and his xenophobic followers pushed Uceda’s art in new directions, it’s his steady gig as art director at a Eugene, Oregon tech company that provided the stability and discipline that allowed him to strike out in new directions with his personal work. Uceda held a range of creative jobs through the years, often taking on commercial illustration projects where he was required to please clients rather than his own aesthetic sensibilities. But now having a steady job that requires enough creativity to keep him interested, but that also draws a clear line between his personal creative work, seems to have provided him with an ideal balance. The regular schedule and paycheck also provides the stability he needs as a single dad with two boys in school, so that he needs to be disciplined with free time that only comes after dinner, homework and time with the kids at night. Despite this disciplined routine, Uceda describes his style as “messy, rough and unpolished.” He used to worry that illustration clients wouldn’t appreciate these natural qualities of his work. “But I’m finally at the point where, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my style, my voice, take it or leave it,'” he said.
A retrospective of his sketchbook work was recently held at Sparrow Studios and Revolution Design Group in Eugene. For Uceda, the exhibit felt a little like baring his soul. His topics in his sketch work often include personal challenges and documentation of his struggles with mental health. In the past he was hesitant to showcase vulnerabilities in this way, but as he’s grown as an artist he’s become more willing to be transparent. “Lately I’ve been trying to care less about this and give less fucks about stuff as I’m getting older,” Uceda said. And his work has seemed to soar as a result. And the packed opening of this screening this past September gave evidence as crowds responded to his work and lined up to buy sketches from old journals that he once thought would never see the light of day.
Uceda’s passion is illustration, making a mess with chalk and ink, cutting stencils into his sketchbook pages to make random compositions with the illustrations underneath. But he’s also a versatile dilettante, unafraid to dabble in digital, motion graphics, animation, stop motion, video editing and sound design. Some of his online work is a lucidly chaotic mix of all of these abilities. But once you’ve spent time with his art, you can always find the distinctive thumbprint of his style, whether it’s a sketch or an online animation or a two-story mural, and in those bold lines and colors you can also see the telltale signature of the journey he’s made during his own quest to find the American Dream that may elude all of us during these chaotic times.
A great thing about graduate writing programs is that they can sometimes approximate a salon. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a cohort of incipient creatives and you can cobble together, for a time, your very own Algonquin Round Table, your Paris of the 20’s or maybe Denver in the 50s. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t round up some writer friends and try to build a similar environment without the tuition. We’re a social species and we thrive on community, even while we’re pursuing intensely personal and solitary activities like writing fiction.
But in the end we all wind up alone and at the keyboard. In Part II of this series, I described how the Steeple Chase Exercise works in a classroom, but that’s not very helpful for us after graduation. Nor is it useful for those who don’t buy into the idea of workshops or MFA programs.
There are advantages to group workshops. For one thing, an experienced instructor can often spot a point of view that’s working particularly well in your work and call your attention to it. In some workshops, you have the chance to hear your own work read aloud, which is always enlightening. Instructor Shawn Shiflett says, “usually the light bulb doesn’t go on [for the student]…you have to point it out. They’re surprised when they hear it out loud.”
But there’s no reason you can’t run your own steeple chase exercise on your own. Every time I feel the story going flat, I try out some of my favorite shifts. If you’re stuck on a project and you need a nudge, I’ve included this handy set of cards to help you out. Print, cut, shuffle and drop them into a hat. When you get stuck, draw a card, make a shift, write a few pages, then draw another card and shift again. This is especially helpful for me when I’m facing a blank screen with a pulsing of the cursor mocking my torpor.
These cards are just for starters, but there’s no reason you can’t make up your own shift. The novelist Ward Just, whom I consider the best living (and little known) political novelist, talks about how shifting the gender of a character can launch a narrative forward: “It’s amazing what you can do. It gives you a whole new outlook on what he’s up to when all of the sudden he’s a she,” he said in an interview.
“It’s amazing what you can do to a character when you change the gender.”
All too often we forget the freedom inherent in the act of writing fiction. We find ourselves adhering to an idea on page 100 merely because that’s how we first happened to write it on page 7, forgetting that we have the power to easily change anything we want. The Steeple Chase Exercise forces us to face that almost daunting amount of liberty we actually do have with with fiction, but do it with the training wheels provided by a structured activity.
Shifting points of view and leaping into other prose forms has always been a natural part of writing. Shawn Shiflett, who has taught countless Steeple Chase classes, uses the technique often. He told me how shifting from the point of view of his main character to that of a high-level overall storyteller helped him navigate a stuck scene while writing his novel Hey, Liberal! He said, “I wound up deleting most of it in the end, but it got me where I needed to be.”
I’ve already mentioned Dostoyevski’s unsuccessful first draft of Crime and Punishment told from Raskolnikov’s first-person point of view. He switched to the third-person for the next draft and wrote a classic. A point-of-view shift in the other direction is what turned Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha into a massive bestseller. His first draft was roundly rejected by agents and editors. “My mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator,” Golden said. When he shifted to the first-person point of view of the main character, Sayuri, the story took off.
More examples abound. Consider Fitzgerald’s choice to tell the story of Jay Gatsby from the point of view of the less-exciting Midwestern outsider, Nick Carraway. Many of us might be tempted to explore the first-person point of view of Gatsby himself, the dynamic protagonist. But Fitzgerald’s choice allows us to channel some of Carraway’s awe while also seeing through his naiveté into Gatsby’s seductive huckster veneer. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye seamlessly blends shifts to a third-person overall narrator’s point of view with first-person perspective of Claudia McTeer, who observes the main character of Pecola Breedlove much in the same way Carraway watches Gatsby.
I could go on. There are at least a million and a half fantastic examples. But I’ll wrap up with an anecdote I know well.
My novel Vintage is the story of washed-up restaurant critic and newspaper columnist Bruno Tannenbaum who discovers the secret to a lost vintage of wine stolen by the Nazis. He sets of on a global quest to find that wine in hopes of writing a bestseller and resurrecting his career and failed marriage.
What first drew me to the character of Bruno was his bombastic voice. I originally began the novel by writing a few newspaper columns in his voice. He was a sort of Dear Abby who would fix his readers’ relationship problems with prescriptions of recipes and wine parings, using food to patch things up when love has gone awry. The conceit was that his own personal life was something of a disaster. He was separated from his wife, estranged from his children, struggling with writer’s block and was a borderline alcoholic. But boy could he write some fancy prose.
I soon found that Bruno’s boorish first-person voice was too dense, meandering and flamboyant to move the story along. I kept getting sidetracked. Or rather Bruno did. So after a filling up a few yellow legal pads with a plot that was quickly heading nowhere, I took a step back, switched to the keyboard and rewrote the entire story.
But this time I wrote it all as a screenplay.
I’d written screenplays before, personally and professionally, and I love the rigid structure of the form. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, so a typical film gets 90 to 120 pages, and that’s it. Plus the industry is in love with the three-act structure, so you’re forced to riff off of that framework, or at least begin with it. In a screenplay you can’t get lost in descriptions because directors and producers frown on thick blocks of prose. Also, long, winding, interior monologues are impossible in screenplay form. Add to that the fact that you’re forced to make your dialog crackle, and you have a whole new way of looking at a story.
So I wrote and rewrote the screenplay, plugging holes and figuring out where the plot needed to go. In the end I even thought that it might make a good movie. It still might.
But I ultimately knew that Bruno’s story belonged in prose. So I rewrote the entire thing again, but this time I used the screenplay as a sort of outline and I employed the third-person point of view. Much of Vintage is still from Bruno’s perspective, but with enough distance to keep things moving forward.
A fun side note is that I did save some of Bruno’s original first-person columns and I used them as brief chapter introductions. A number of readers told me that they loved these vignettes, some even saying that they were their favorite parts the book. And other some writer types found Bruno’s writing pompous and offensive. One journalist, who gave the book a positive review overall, confided to me: “Gosh, that Bruno is such a bad writer!”
I can definitely say that the permission to shift and leap through forms and points of view granted to me by the Steeple Chase workshops allowed me to turn the whole process of writing Vintage into one big point-of-view exercise. I doubt it would have finished the book otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have written something publishable. And what’s more, the exploratory process made writing that book a whole lot of fun.
The Steeple Chase is a great activity for reminding us that writing should be an exercise in play and discovery. Instructor Randy Albers has this to say about it:
“If you have a very rigid idea of story, and you just try to get from A to Z, you’re not going to trust discovery. You’re going to have to muscle the movement forward. You could miss a stronger story that may be coming from the side. And it will kill the enjoyment of writing.”
As an admitted dilettante, “enjoyment” is the whole reason to write in the first place. This exercise is something that helps me maintain a playful approach that prevents writing from becoming drudgery.
So there you have it. That’s the best thing I learned in graduate school. If you haven’t yet, check out part I and part II of this series. The Steeple Chase is a fantastic exercise for stuck stories and a good way to look at narrative in a new way.
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So now that you’ve been nudged toward action by The Steeple Chase – part I, and you’ve selected your languishing narrative from a stack of moldering stories, you’re ready to pull on your boots and saddle up old Bessie and ride this equestrian metaphor over the gates or into the ground or, better yet, off into the sunset with a finished manuscript tucked in the saddlebags next to a blanket, a celebratory bottle of Meursault, a wheel of drippy-ripe Époisses and a box of assorted party crackers.
Okay, enough of that.
Before we get started, here’s a little history: Randy Albers, one of my writing professors at Columbia* recalls the provenance of the exercise. A pair of decades back, John Schultz, founder of the fiction writing program there, walked into a faculty meeting with the idea of semester-long experiment that forced writers to take an unfinished narrative through a series of twelve steps. He provided a list of the steps and left it up to the instructors to adapt as they saw fit. Randy, who liked the exercise but bristled at the notion of a twelve-step program for writers, trimmed it to eleven and rebranded the “steps” as “leaps” in to more fully embrace the horse jumping metaphor.
The idea is to take a single narrative through an obstacle course of shifts and changes, each one designed to playfully tease the story forward and infuse the writing process with a sense of discovery and surprise. This idea of writing as playing is central to the whole notion of dilettantism, which is probably why I love this exercise.
“John’s goal was to throw the students off balance and see what could shake the story. So many students are stuck in the way they think it has to be told.”
Shawn Shiflett, writing professor and author of Hey Liberal!
John was an innovator when it comes to writing instruction. The fiction program was born out of the tumult of the 60’s (John authored two books on the notorious ’68 Democratic Convention). The program’s upstart social spirit and nontraditional approach reached well into the late ’90s when I attended. Columbia still had an open admissions policy at the time, which meant that the classes were a mix of graduate students and undergrads from a broad range backgrounds. I imagine it was decidedly less stuffy than the more “selective” MFA programs of the time. It had a diverse, working class and blue-collar feel. I sat beside telephone linemen and bus drivers and kids who were, like me, the first generation in their families…often the first in their entire neighborhoods…to attend college. But I digress, as I’m wont to do. So let me just sum up by saying that this is an exercise born in an eclectic literary laboratory infused with the experimental cultural spirt of the 1960s.
Here’s how the Steeple Chase worked in the classroom.
You start off by rewriting the opening few pages of your chosen story (or a complete narrative movement excerpted from a longer work), working in the point of view and voice you’d originally imagined for the piece. Once you’re a few pages in, the instructor calls for a shift.
The first shift is a simple point-of-view shift. Switch from first person to third person or vice versa.
Instructor Shawn Shiflett, who has taught this workshop for years, says that, “finding the right point of view is 90 percent of the problem. Then the story starts to write itself.”
You may think you’ve already discovered the best point of view for your story, but what if you’re wrong? Dostoyevski wrote the first draft of Crime and Punishment in first person and he found the result disastrous, so he rewrote the entire novel in the third person. This exercise, when it works, can get you on the right track sooner.
When you make your shift, just leap into the new point of view and the voice it brings. No need for fancy transitions or tidy labels or chapter headings. Just continue the story, asking yourself “what happens next?” Write another two to three pages in the shifted point of view, and then it’s time to shift again.
Now is when the shifting gets interesting. Most instructors used a prescribed list of steps, occasionally throwing a curveball. It might look something like:
Start rewriting with the originally imagined point of view
Switch point of view (first to third or third to first)
Continue as a model-telling or how-it-happens instance **
Switch to the point of view of the least-likely character
Switch prose forms (a diary, a letter, a story within a story, a folktale)
Continue in the overall storyteller’s voice and point of view ***
Tell the story through a dialogue form (drama, screenplay, script, etc.)
Parody another author’s style
Switch to a point of view that you are now drawn to after the switches so far
Switch to a heightened, exaggerated reality: a dream, surreal, magical realism
Choose a point of view/voice for a character (or literary voice or style) that is the opposite of your own
Take whatever shift from the above list that is producing the most vivid, strongest writing, and rewrite the entire movement in that form and point of view; it’s okay to even carry multiple shifts into the rewrite
In class, we’d do a couple shifts per week. I don’t want to make things complicated, but if you do a little math, and if you’re writing 2-3 pages per shift, then you’ll wind up with 22 to 33 pages by the end of step 11. That’s a length suited to a short story. But it’s not just about a single, complete story. It’s a great way to play around with narrative in a longer work, taking an excerpt that has some kind of arc and running it through these obstacles to see what happens.
The main point of the exercise is to tease out the best way of telling the story. John Shultz wrote in Writing from Start to Finish that “There’s a right, unique variation of point-of-view for every piece of writing.” While the Steeple Chase exercise isn’t described in that book, he does provide an outline for a point-of-view exercise:
“Start a point-of-view shifts exercise by emphasizing the storyteller-essayist’s overall point-of-view, then switch to a character’s vantage point or internal point-of-view (the character who most immediately attracts your attention), then switch from first person to third person or third to first, then switch to a person whose point-of-view you would be unlikely to take (someone you would not feel sympathetic with), then to a form and point-of-view shift such as a monolog, a script, or other form that attracts your attention. Keep the narrative moving through all of these shifts.“
Shawn saw this exercise work for students in his workshops who were searching for the right point of view. “When it hits, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like you’re dealing with a whole different writer.” He found the “opposites” and “dream” shifts to be especially productive.
But while the exercise is grounded in point of view, that’s not all there is to it. Randy Albers insists its also about exploration. “That sense of discovery is so important in getting across to fresher language. That’s what makes writing fun. Otherwise it’s drudgery,” he says.
“We’re drawn to story by its sense of play and discovery.”
Play and fun are words that get us back to the whole point of this blog, which is that this is what creative work should be about. Being a professional is all well and good, but if there’s no sense playful discovery, then I’d argue that you’re better off approaching your work with the spirit of an amateur or a dilettante. Do the work because you love the process.
The prescribed “steps” or “leaps” of the Steeple Chase process may seem daunting, but in reality this formula just formalize what a lot of writers do already. Using a letter form is part of a long tradition of epistolary stories and novels. Point-of-view shifts were the bread and butter of Faulkner’s inventive narratives.
I just picked up Amor Towles’ bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow. It starts with a poem by the main character and shifts to the transcript of a tribunal before slipping into the third-person point of view, mostly from the main character’s perspective, that dominates the rest of the narrative (with healthy doses of the overall storyteller’s voice mixed in as well).
If you do this exercise, you’ll start seeing these forms and shifts in good writing everywhere. They’ll become an intuitive part of your writing and rewriting process, and you’ll find yourself taking leaps automatically, whenever you face a stalled narrative. Sometimes these shifts will encourage rewriting in a certain voice or point of view. Sometimes they’ll become part of the story themselves. And other times they’ll open up a window that you’ll decide to climb through in the spirit of discovery, taking the narrative in a direction you never would have imagined otherwise.
In part III of this series, posting in a week or two, I’ll go into some techniques for adapting this classroom exercise to your own process, and I’ll give a few examples for how it’s worked for me over the years.
* When I refer to “Columbia,” I mean Columbia College Chicago. Folks from outside the Windy City always, for some reason, assume that I’m referring to a certain other Columbia back east when I fail to use the full name. That is also a fine institution.
** A description of the model-telling form could occupy an entire series of posts, but here’s an attempt at a short summary. In Writing from Start to Finish, John Schultz writes that, “the model-telling is an image or narrative of the pattern of how something usually happens.” It establishes a, “pattern of repeated experience.” They often use present tense and second person (On Tuesdays you visit the pier with Granny…) but not always. It often uses the conditional, or “would” (Every Tuesday, Victor would slip thorough the gap in the fence…). Model-tellings establish a pattern, and when such patterns are broken, that’s when stories often happen.
*** The concept of the overall storyteller point of view could likewise occupy volumes, but think of this as the high-level narrator’s voice, the omniscient point of view that can slip deftly from one character to the other, can offer outside perspective and that can tie a story into the historical context that’s happening around the narrative. It’s not exactly the author’s voice, but it can have the author’s voice backed into it. It’s more Toni Morrison than Raymond Carver.
**** I had to refresh my basic grammar to keep my first-person point of view from my point-of-view shifts to first person. But the basic Chicago Manual of Style rules for hyphenation say that when point of view or first person are nouns, no hyphens needed, but when they’re working together as adjectives, hyphenate those suckers.
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I’m going to share the best thing I learned in graduate school. It’s an exercise called the Steeple Chase and and it’s tailor-made for dilettantes. It’s a literary tactic to jumpstart a stalled narrative, and all it requires is the capricious attention span that is the hallmark of amateurs everywhere and a penchant for dabbling in different literary forms.
There’s a debate that’s been raging for quite some time on the efficacy of MFA programs. Some people think they’re a powerful force for shaping the future of the literary tradition and others think they’re a massive waste of money. I feel good about my MFA experience. It did cost about as much as a luxury car, but I also wrote a whole lot, figured a few things out and made some friends and mentors who I’m still in touch with twenty years later. Even luxury cars don’t last that long. I don’t think I would have published my novel Vintagewithout the things I learned in grad school, this exercise in particular.
But that being said you certainly don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a successful writer. Most of the best writers I know don’t have advanced writing degrees, and some of the MFA grads I’ve met regret their time in academia, where certain genres were eschewed and some workshops encourage nasty competition by design. So it’s a personal choice. But no matter your preference, you can use this exercise…all for free! (Though you could join my email list if you’re feeling grateful.)
I first experienced the Steeple Chase exercise as a semester-long activity that was the foundation of the advanced fiction workshops I took at Columbia College Chicago. I had the good fortune of going through the process there with the late, legendary Betty Shiflett that sly and brilliant story wizard who seemed to have the ability to trick you into becoming a better writer despite your myriad flaws and inhibitions. But I’ve since learned that there’s no magic involved, just a lot of work and some practical processes that build your fundamental storytelling skills, and the Steeple Chase is precisely such a process.
I’ve since adapted the Steeple Chase to my own process and I tend to do it naturally now, without even thinking about it. I’m going to offer some suggestions for how you can do this as a solo activity to reanimate your own stalled narratives, and I’m even going to throw in a fancy set of official Dilettante playing cards to help out. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
The Steeple Chase is an exercise that solves literary problems. It gets you unstuck from sticky story situations and it breathes fresh air into stale narratives. This will be a three-part series of posts, and next I’ll be giving you an overview of how it works in a classroom setting, along with some context and history from instructors who use this exercise in their workshops. Then finally I’ll give you some idea on how the process has evolved for me once I left those workshops behind. After all, most of us who tack toward the dilettante end of the artistic spectrum are working solo in the margins of our days and lives.
The Steeple Chase principles can be applied to the film world and also to the visual arts, and I’ve also found that the concepts help me in my documentary work as well. And I’ll address those things in posts down the road. But for now I’ll be concentrating mostly on writing.
So let’s get started.
Has this ever happened to you:
You’re writing a story, novel or screenplay. It’s long or short. But it started with an image or idea that hits you like a lightning. You’re smitten as the fragment blossomed into a full-fledged narrative. This is it…the one you’d been waiting for all of your life! You can’t wait to write it. You scribble notes on index cards. You stop in the middle of a crosswalk to email yourself ideas. You steal minutes away from your lover, children, day job or all of the above to scribble in a notebook. You wake up early, stay up late or arise in the middle of the night to pin sticky notes to your monitor. It’s going great. Magnificent. Brilliantly.
But then, all of a sudden…
You wake up one morning and this idea, this incipient narrative that was one so compelling is a deflated, lifeless, unorganized holy mess of cliches and insipid prose. You can’t remember what was once so compelling about it. Eventually, you stick it in a drawer or drag it into a folder way down in the bowls of your computer where it will languish and eventually fade into memory.
Sound familiar? If this has ever happened to a project of yours, it’s time to dust that sucker off and prepare put it through its equestrian paces. That failed work, that imploded narrative, that lost literary soul…that’s the story you need for a proper Steeple Chase exercise.
One of the big secrets of writing that I eventually learned long after graduate school is that every story is like this. Every project eventually feels dead and lifeless. Writing has a truly tidal movement, swinging from breathless inspiration to a churning slog. A Steeple Chase is just a formalized way of braking through this routine problem. But for now, when selecting a work to run through this exercise, don’t automatically go for your current project, stalled though it may be…look for something that is completely stuck, a story or section of a novel on which you’ve already given up hope.
Anything come to mind?
If so, buckle up and scoot your chair up to the old Remington Rand and get ready to ride that sucker over the gates or puddles or stone walls, or whatever it is that those equestrians in this metaphor actually do in their high boots and funny little hats.
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Over the course of this project I will dig into the details of dilettantism and how useful it is for artists. Much like the word amateur, there’s a certain pejorative quality to the word dilettante. Dilettantism is often dismissed as the mere dabbling of someone not economically dependent on their creative work, or someone who is not that serious about it. I would argue that a breezy or playful quality is, in itself, a useful approach for anyone tackling creative arts. Creative types can be far too serious for their own good, and most of this is just due to an overactive ego. It was Jim Harrison who once said that “writers as a type tend to suffer greatly, but then so do miners.”
So enter dilettantism, an antidote to the cliche of the suffering artist. Let’s take a look at the definition and then break it down into three key elements:
The act of behaving like a dilettante, of being an amateur or “dabbler”, sometimes in the arts. Also the act of enjoying the arts, being a connoisseur.
Certain words from this definition jump out at me: dabbler, enjoying, connoisseur. These are all good things. These are all things you would do for reasons other than money. They are playful. They’re fun.
And I would argue that the creative process should be playful. It should be enjoyable. Otherwise, why in the hell do it? You may daydream of being a professional writer or artist who derives a fabulous income…or at least enough money to eke out a living…from your creative work. We all do at times, but the economics of the artistic pursuits are absolutely brutal. I’ll dig into articles and surveys like this one soon enough when I start talking more about the money. But the upshot is that the odds are against your making much money from your creative work, and much of this is due not to your talent or work ethic, but due to factors that are largely out of your control.
So if you take the money out of the equation, why do it? Why pursue something that’s as incredibly difficult as crafting an intricate story out of 100,000 painstakingly typed words that you rearrange in draft after draft or spending hours brushing pigments onto a canvas in an attempt to manufacture a pleasing or challenging image when it’s so much simpler to make a photo with your phone and slap a filter on it?
Any creative person will tell you that you make stuff because you have to. You don’t have a choice. It’s a faucet you can’t turn off. I know any number of writer-types who’ve worked for decades without publishing anything, hacking away at some project while swearing the whole time that they’re going to quit, and soon. I’ve done it myself.
But we don’t quit, do we?
Why is that? It’s because it’s fun. We may pretend to be serious. We may treat our writing or art as therapy that deals with massive, important or painful subjects. But in the end it is fun. It is endlessly satisfying to fill a blank page with words arranged in an order as they’ve never been before because they have our own personal stamp on them. The sound of dragging a pencil across vellum is like music. Music is, well, like music. Sitting alone in your room with a guitar and stumbling upon a new combination of notes that grabs you by the collar and shakes you is tremendously satisfying.
Creativity is fun. that’s why kids do it. But somewhere along the way we grow up and begin to believe that only things that have a price tag on them are worth anything. We forget that making art is fun. And that’s something that the dilettante, the dabbler freed from economic necessity, understands well.
In the definition of dilettantism the word arts is plural for a reason. And that is a key to unlocking creative potential. We tend to categorize ourselves into groups. There are filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and each of these categorize can be broken down into smaller groups: documentarians, narrative filmmakers, poets, novelists, painters, printmakers and so on.
But too much specialization can a bad thing. Eric Barker lays this out nicely in a recent blog post about the perils of too much specialization in young children. Here he quotes from the book Range:
“Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation.”
David Epstein, Range
While this applies to scientists, I think it can also impact artists who focus their creative pursuits too narrowly. Having avocations makes you better at everything you do.
Sure you want to focus on your chosen craft. But I believe in arts in the plural. Historically we didn’t have this problem of hyper specialization. Many of the early botanists or explorers were exquisite painters, sketchers, writers or all of the above. Alexander Von Humboldt, that brilliant proto-scientist and famous dilettante who discovered the concept of climate change in the 1700s was also a bestselling author of his day. And his work was meticulously illustrated. His fans read him as breathlessly as Dickens.
One skill can feed another. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic, her treatise on creativity, tells the story of how her dabbling in gardening led to the plot of her sweeping novel The Signature of All Things. Had she considered herself too serious of an artist to waste time on a pursuit for which she had little predisposition or talent…namely gardening…the book would not have happened.
Werner Herzog famously says (ad nauseam) that filmmakers should, and I quote, “read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read you’ll never be filmmaker.” Notice, he doesn’t say anything about cameras.
Specialization is dangerous. It leads to things like repetitive motion stress injuries and just making you a narrow person who’s not so fun to talk to.
Dabbling in other disciplines, especially those for which you’ve developed less talent, can also increase your capacity for awe at the talent of others who are masters of that craft. Which leads me to the next area of interest when it comes to dilettantism:
I’d like to highlight one more word in the definition of dilettantism: connoisseur. I think all too many of us who consider ourselves writers, filmmakers and artists get so wrapped up in our own work and projects that we forget to love the medium itself. A true dilettante spends as much (or more) time enjoying the arts as she does in creating them. I’ve gone years without reading more than a few books and all the while I was working my day gig to pay the bills and hacking away at novels that I hoped would change the world (or at least guild my paltry checking account).
I once stumbled across President Obama’s annual reading list on social media and I thought that if the busiest person in the world could find time for books, then I should be able to as well. That was, of course, back when we lived in an alternate universe where we liked presidents who were busy, who read things and who thought deeply. I’ve always had trouble taking people who don’t read seriously, and then in my hypocrisy I realized that I had all but stopped reading seriously myself.
So I set an annual book target and upped my daily page count, and suddenly I found that I was not only able to keep up with my creative work, but I was also becoming a more productive and better at it. I now try to read the classics I’ve missed, pick up new page-turners and beach reads or dig into voices that are different from my own: anything I can get my hands on, basically. Reading aggressively and enjoying the process is making me better at what I do, both in my creative work and on my day job.
Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art.
And the same goes for dabbling in the other arts. I try to watch films as a fan, not just as a critic or someone eyeing the competition. Whenever I can I stop in art galleries and museums. I sketch landscapes (albeit poorly) and all around work at being a fan of other people’s work. If you’re not a connoisseur of your chosen creative discipline (and the other creative pursuits that circle around it like satellites), you’ll lose your edge.
The unencumbered bliss of merely being a fan is something we can lose if we become too serious about our work. Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art. And embracing dilettantism is a perfect antidote to those narrowing forces.
Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive a note every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is a breezy, spiritual homage to creativity that is filled with advice you already know (but is worth hearing again) plus a few enjoyably eccentric notions on how creativity works.
Max Joseph’s fun short doc about bookstores offers some advice on increasing your page count and generally celebrates falling in love with books again.
If you’re interested reading more on the dilettantism vs specialization debate, Eric Barker read David Epstein’s book Range so that you don’t have to, and sums it up nicely in this post.
I’m a writer and a filmmaker. I can say that now without visibly cringing and with only a minor internal flareup of the old imposter syndrome. Because, like many who devote a major chunk of their existence to the creative pursuits, I’ve always wondered what makes a real artist. Somehow along the way, maybe because of the social pressure of living in a capitalist society or even just a working class sense of pragmatism, I arrived at the notion that realartists are those who earn enough money to at least pay the mortgage, groceries and health insurance through their work.
I’ve earned a bit of money for my creative work over the years, but not nearly enough to pay more than a month or two of the rent, and that doesn’t include the water bill and tucking anything away for the kiddo’s college fund. I once spent an advance check on a family vacation. I used the money left over after selling a screenplay option (and after legal fees) to buy a video camera. But I’ve never paid my bills with my art. Does that make me a fraud?
This bothered me for a long time. Even after a few publications, awards, film festivals and international distribution for some of my films, this sense that I was not as serious about my work as real artists would not go away. After all, I still have a day job as a media producer. It’s creative work that I even enjoy most days. But for some reason, I always suspected that my personal work was just some quaint hobby. I feared that people wouldn’t think I was serious. Or worse yet, I was a “dabbler” or its slightly more elegant French counterpart: the “dilettante.”
“This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s actually the ideal.”
I eventually learned that all those writers whom I so admired as they were paraded across the stage on book tours or in my MFA program mostly had day jobs, too (that that they rarely, if ever, spoke about), primarily teaching. I learned that the author bios on most novels are selectively edited: “Abigail is a copyeditor who lives on a farm in New England with her husband, children and three lamas and she drives forty minutes round trip to the office in New Haven where she spends most of her day editing a medical journal after waking at four a.m. to get some of her creative work finished before getting the kids ready for school.”
The more artists, writers and filmmakers I’ve met, the more examples I have collected of people doing amazing creative work in the margins of their lives, and the more it has challenged the self-imposed notion that amateurism is an inferior form of creativity. I’ve even interviewed several accomplished, full-time artists, musicians and writers who achieved the all the financial and critical success you could hope for, and then promptly plunged into other creative disciplines to start from scratch. There’s the Emmy winning musician who started painting, a romance novelist who went into politics or a poet laureate who starts doing watercolors. Specialization is indeed dull when compared with the freedom to dabble in whatever calls you at that moment.
This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s the ideal. If you look up the word amateur, you’ll find the word passion in the definition. The same is not true of the word professional. Do artists and writers with day jobs, on the main, possess any less talented than the bestsellers interviewed by Terry Gross? Not in any way that I can see. I’ve met a lot of other filmmakers at festivals who shoot weddings to pay rent or do corporate work as their bread and butter. I learned that the Maysels Brothers, who created some of the greatest documentary films of American direct cinema movement, ran a business making “industrials” to pay the bills for the entirety of their filmmaking careers.
“I’ve become less impressed by how muchmoney a very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.”
I’ve tried to stop sweating the definitions of amateur and professional. I’ve tried to eliminate the fear of being labeled a dilettante and instead embrace the idea. I’ve done a lot of research, read books on creativity, interviewed artists and writers, both unknown and world famous, and I’ve come to understand that economics are a poor judge of talent, and that the systems established to monetize the creative arts–galleries, Hollywood, the publishing industry–are uneven, imperfect, random (though hardly malign or evil) and certainly not the best arbiters of creative merit.
With this blog I hope to dive into all of these issues: what makes an artist, how does the money work, where do you find creative energy, how to focus on your own process rather than judging yourself or others, what is the definition of success, how do you balance your creative work with your day job and can you (or should you) make them one in the same? Because the vast majority of artists in this world deal with these issues every day, some better than others. This is my attempt to flip the script as I find that I’ve become less impressed by how much moneya very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.
After putting my stake in the ground at the age of eight with the fearlessness of a child and declaring myself a writer, promptly scribbling a knockoff of the first seven pages of The Hobbit with a fat pencil, and then working diligently on the craft for the next thirty-some odd years with only occasional recognition through publication and infrequent remuneration before finally publishing something with one of the “big five,” I still, like many artists, don’t quite feel like I’ve earned that title. But this blog is my ongoing effort to convince myself (and maybe a few others) that I have.
Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive an email every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.