Professor Sandiford: Now Eno, why haven’t you been doing the assignments?
Eno: Frankly, I find them constricting and largely irrelevant. My work has nothing to with form or light or color, but with questioning the nature of aesthetic experience.
Professor Sandiford: I’ll buy that.
—Art School Confidential, screenplay by Daniel Clowes based on his comic of the same name
Art school was not the easiest place for a shrinking violet with a tendency to take everything personally. The first few months were filled with enough tears to leave my eyes (and nose) permanently red, and not a week went by that I didn’t look around my cramped rental and contemplate calling my parents. I don’t belong here. I made a mistake. Come and get me.
That’s not to say art school was a bad place—it was a great environment filled with amazing people—but the workload was heavy, critiques were part of daily life, and I was constantly surrounded by artists so talented that I quickly developed an inferiority complex.
You might be thinking this sounds like perfect preparation for a career in writing. And you’d be right. Art school might not have been much help when it came to commas and story arcs, but it taught me three very important lessons about creativity and putting out work for public consumption.
You can’t be afraid to tear things apart and put them back together.
A huge part of art school—and writing—is about finding your voice. Your own personal style. You experiment with different techniques and take chances. You stumble and you fall and you pick yourself up. You spend hours—days, weeks, months—on something only to realize the idea which seemed so brilliant at the beginning really…isn’t. And in that moment you can’t be afraid of starting over. Being an artist is as much about hard work as it is talent—maybe even more so.
No matter how much of your heart and soul you pour into your work, it is not a Horcrux.
Creating anything—a painting, a song, a book—is an emotional investment. It can be hard not to take criticism of your work personally. I still cringe at the memory of trying to defend a piece to two instructors during a critique. I could see why they didn’t like the choices I had made, but instead of thanking them for their time or listening quietly and thoughtfully, I got defensive and tried to change their minds. The result was a whole lot of awkwardness. Their minds had already been made up and the more defensive I got, the weaker my position became.
This isn’t to say you should blindly accept criticism or be afraid to explain your work (though I believe strongly in not replying to negative reviews). It’s simply to say that the work needs to be able to stand on its own without you rushing in to defend it and that you need to separate criticism of your work from criticism of you as an individual.
It’s okay to compare yourself to others—even to be a little jealous—as long as you remember that their success is not your failure.
Someone will always be the better artist or the better writer. Someone will always have a better gallery show or the better book deal. That’s just how life works. A few people are at the top and a few people are at the bottom, but most of us are somewhere in the middle, and all of us will get jealous at some point. That’s just normal. If you weren’t jealous, you wouldn’t be human. Even nuns and saints have their bad days.
But jealousy, if you let it get the better of you, can be toxic. Be happy for and motivated by other people’s accomplishments without feeling like their good fortune takes something away from you. You’ll be happier if you can do this and your work will be coming from a better place.
KATHLEEN PEACOCK is the author of the YA novels Hemlock and Thornhill. She’s less defensive than she used to be and has had illustrations published in Applied Arts, Canada’s premiere visual arts magazine. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.