We all know them – the self-proclaimed expert who, upon further examination, does not hold up to scrutiny. This person mocks those who are better trained, or more knowledgeable than he or she is, pronouncing that education and knowledge are not necessary when one is a true “ar-teest.”
Let’s reveal this bravado for what it really is: insecurity raised to an art form.
Real artists in any discipline understand that dedication to their work requires education. A quick study of the biography of a large number of artists, writers, film makers, poets, and others in the humanities demonstrates the truth of this. Picasso attended the prestigious Royal Academy of the Arts in Madrid. He had received training in his childhood from his father who was an art teach and the curator of a art museum in Spain. Picasso’s unique form of Cubist and Abstract art was not based on some ridiculous sense of “inner self expression” but was an evolution of his talent as a painter, gained through years of training, study, and practice.
Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Paul Cezannelikewise received formal training of some form in their lives. Their unique styles were not copies of someone else’s innovation, but were true innovations stemming from training and preparation.
And let’s not forget the writers. Eudora Welty studied at several colleges; Stephen King has a BA in English; Joyce Carol Oates holds a Master’s degree; Norman Mailer studied at Harvard and at the Sorbonne in Paris. And the list goes on and on.
“Oh, but wait,” says the ar-teest. “You don’t gotta have no degree to be a goodly writer or artist-type-person.”
No, you don’t. There is a lot to be said for self-education. Many writers and artists who attended school for their craft also continue to study, often entering into mentorships or apprenticeships to gain a better understanding and mastery of their art. I teach this concept in creative writing classes all the time. I recommend that students find an author that they truly enjoy, and then autopsy everything they read. This may, in part, explain the piles of books overflowing on my bookshelves, because I never check books out from the library. If I like a book – and especially when I don’t like it – I tear it apart to see why I reacted the way I did. How did that author make me laugh here? Why am I ready to give up after reading only a few paragraphs? I tell students to look at the diction, the syntax, the structure underlying the words. I tell them to look for patterns that the same author uses from story to story, and to identify if and when those patterns are broken.
It’s a self-guided mentorship of sorts, and many writers use this system to better understand their craft. I know of artists who do the same thing – studying a work of art and deciphering what makes it tick; looking for the rhythm of the piece – or its lack of rhythm – and determining what the painter or sculptor did to make it happen that way.
The writers groups that I associate with are comprised of well-published, successful writers who still seek each other’s input and guidance in all aspects of writing and the business of writing. We offer each other support; we discuss manuscripts and ideas; we mentor each other and remain friends throughout the process. One of my list serve groups boasts local authors who have been nominated for or who have won the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Prinz, the National Book Award for Juvenile Literature, the Edgar (named for Edgar Allen Poe), and many others. These are not newbies – yet they continue to seek and give advice and support for their work.
When someone steps up and demands to be recognized for his or her “ar-tees-tique” talents, it is typically a cry for affirmation. These are the same people who show up to critique groups wanting to be told how wonderful their pieces are, and then when someone offers a true assessment, they become defensive and protective – and that often includes lashing out at the person offering the critique in some degrading way. “Those fancy letters behind your name don’t mean you know anything.”
Oh really? I know how not to shift verb tenses in the middle of a paragraph, which is obviously something you don’t know how to do yet.
I guess the good news is that the “ar-teests” don’t last long. When they aren’t given the kudos they believe they deserve (whether or not they’ve earned them is irrelevant), they stomp off and try to do things on their own, usually settling for some form of self-promotion that remains outside the mainstream. But it gives them enough legitimization to keep standing on their soap boxes and screaming “But I’m an ar-teest! Attention must be paid!”
In the meantime, serious students of their craft will continue to do what they can to learn more, to get better, and to never assume they know all. Gratefully, those of us in this latter category tend to outnumber those in the former.
Natalie Goldberg, author of the wonderful book Writing Down the Bones, recommends that writers use a Buddhist concept for approaching their craft. She calls it “Returning to Beginner’s Mind” – in other words – going back to the beginning when you didn’t know anything and your mind was like an empty pitcher waiting to be filled. This is why I buy books and create my own mentorships from them. This is why I go to conferences and workshops. This is why I go to critique groups and share manuscripts with other writers. This is why I work with students and remind myself of how I was not so long ago. Everyone needs this reminder every once in a while. it is humbling, and it opens your mind to possibilities that you are closed off to when you believe you know everything there is to know.
While I endeavor to continue to be successful at my writing, I hope I never become an “ar-teest” and lose sight of the reason I started writing professionally in the first place: I love doing it. I hope I continue learning, and continue returning to beginner’s mind while I strengthen my skills and hone my craft. I hope the same for you.
Now – go writing something good!