I had a professor at RISD who asked two questions on the first day of class, the first of which was, “Who here lives by the river?” By that he meant who was going to cry during the work critiques, because boy howdy, the crits were going to be rigorous. Hopefully those of us who survived would be stronger illustrators with (hopefully) thicker skins, and those who dropped out would find a better creative fit somewhere else.
Foundation level classes are necessary to lay the ground work for a long creative life. Sometimes that means knocking down what was put up before. I didn’t appreciate the reasoning at the time, but I’ve thought about my school experience a lot in the past years, and here is what I learned:
It’s difficult to separate what we do from who we are, maybe it’s impossible, but you will get better at it if you try. In art school an awful drawing is enough to make you feel like you’ll never be a good artist. In your first job, it may be a project that never really takes off, a client that you can’t satisfy, the award that you didn’t win. There will always be a reason to hang it up. Humans don’t usually like running towards pain.
The Catholics use the word vocation (from the Latin vocātiō meaning, “a call, summons”) to refer to a specific purpose and lifelong calling that a person can be drawn to. The idea resonated with me from the first time that I heard it - coincidentally (or not) the same time that I began to draw seriously.
It takes time to hone a craft, and paying too much attention to short term gains and losses is exhausting. Taking the long view helps smooth out those early peaks or confidence and valleys of doubt. Think 20, 30, 50 years out…if we’re lucky, even longer than that. What work do you want to define your life? What will be your legacy? It’s going to take time, but you will get there.
I don’t know if thinking this way ultimately guarantees success, but it does provide satisfaction.
The second question our professor asked was, “Who’s from Brown?” Anyone who admitted to it was shown the door, because there is a difference between someone who choose to go to a school to learn the tools they will need for a life of making and those who are for all intents and purposes are tourists.
I use to run long distance. I found little physical joy in it. I ran because it was hard and I wanted to push myself. The most useful thing that I took from the experience was the discovery that if you just don’t stop, you can finish almost any distance.
There comes a time in any creative project where the rush of excitement and joy of making something new is gone and the work stretches out towards the horizon. It’s tempting to step away for a bit, do something different, start something new. Don’t. Put your head down. Grind out the miles.
In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King calls this part of the craft “mowing the grass.” I love that description, it goes through my mind every time I look at a stack of blank pages and don’t want to start. So much of creative work is just doing work. It’s not fun.
The only way to build endurance and deepen your craft is by following through even when it’s painful. The more ground you cover now, the more you can cover in the future.