Calling all Artists: Be Your Own Cheerleader and Find that Room of Your Own (free)


I once got to watch something so masterful it took my breath away. One of my best friend’s (who is a brilliant singer songwriter whose had little or no success at it) has this sister that, well doesn’t have a shy bone in her body. She’d just moved to our town. She wrote one-woman shows that were good but not great. We’d taken her to see a play and on the way out as everyone was filing out for the evening, she was searching the crowd for the people to ‘know’. Who owned and ran the building she wondered out loud? And when could she get her show in here? She’d been in our town less than two months when I got word of her show being up and running. Wow. That was fast.

There were times when I didn’t even get along with her. Her brother and I both did not have the ability to self promote--but that was one thing she was always amazing at---self-promotion and demanding that all around her pay attention and acknowledge her as an artist. When I was younger, I was a wee bit intimidated by her abilities. Now I realize that most artists would be a little better off it we had this gene or DNA that she has to move herself forward. If you are out there somewhere, Nancy? I get it now!

It’s tough being an artist, writer, musician, etc. in America. You try to work in your medium and art form and perhaps you can manage that okay. But you also have to be your own manager, your own secretary, and your own cheerleader. The most successful artists in our culture are not necessarily the best out there—they are the ones however that mastered the art of being four people at once. You have to care when no one else does. That’s not easy especially if you are insecure about your abilities.

Art is subjective. Just because no one gets what you are doing yet doesn’t mean it ain’t art. There are tons of grants, contests, and little opportunities here and there for artists and writers and the like. But there’s also everyone and her grandpa trying to apply for finite resources. It’s much easier to get a grant or a residency if you already are a recipient of one of these things. Recession years aren’t a great time to go begging for money for arts anyhow. So take it into your own hands.

So----? What can you do to help yourself master one of the four parts of American artist harmony?

First, be your own cheerleader. No matter how silly or weird it seems to put yourself out there, do so. Dude, Britney Spears? Sucks. Janet Evanovitch? Sucks. Thomas Kinkade? Sucks so hard you can throw his paintings in your trashcan and they’ll keep you up at night because you’ll be able to hear them sucking two stories below you. But these hacks have a vital thing that you don’t have: confidence that they are awesome little super stars. Of course it’s pretentious to call yourself an artist, writer, poet, whatever. But at the same time if you really are an artist, writer, poet, dance, musician, etc. you need to start owning it. Odds are that your family and friends kind of get the feeling you are one of those artist types anyway. Own up to it. Use the words: “I am an artist.” Yeah, I know. It kind of sounds like you just said ‘I’m an idiot.’ But you have to take yourself and your work at least a little seriously. How do you do that?

Set aside creation time and don’t budge around it. I know a woman who paints every Sunday all day. She doesn’t change that schedule for anyone or anything. Beautiful. I try and often fail at this but each week, I try again to make sure I get in at least a half-day.

Remember that no one cares unless you care. Put yourself out there. I came out as an artist to the arts association in my area and now they asked me to do things and other random organizations do too. Do the open mikes. Do the stupid little writing gigs that you might not like. If nothing else, someone might buy your next beer. Do the volunteer work. Do the blog that pays nothing. A girlfriend of mine and I four years ago decided we’d make more of an effort to get our stuff out there. I chose the blog and barely paid route while after writing one article for an online magazine for free she decided that she’d hold out for big money. She’s still waiting. But the little tiny gigs here and there that paid nothing are starting to pay off a bit for me.

Being a writer and artist in some ways has never been cheaper than right now. Gone are the days of sending giant manuscripts with tons of postage. Slides! Oh my goodness. Now I only submit to people who take online submissions. My friend Lysa, a painter, does the same. Your overhead doesn’t have to be big. I know it ain’t always pleasant to be your own secretary, but you can maybe make one half day a week secretary day and do all that research and send yourself out there during that time.

Ignore rejection and become a star. My all time favorite children’s book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Legend has it that it was rejected some 54 times? Geez. I gave up on my first novel after 15 rejections. What a wimp I was! 54 is my new high bar. Go Me! Go You! We Rock!

Where have I been going for advice? One of the best writing books I’ve ever read is Ariel Gore’s How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. It’s hilarious and you can find it for under $10 bucks. Read it. It’s full of cheap, easy ways to go about becoming your own literary star. Lynda Barry's awesome new book WHAT IT IS is a bit pricey at $26 but it's got more advice and brilliant illustrations than any creative life book I've ever seen. Put down 'An Artist's Way and those freaking Chicken Soup books and pick up Lynda Barry. You'll be glad you did.

Make friends with rich people who like art and literature. This sounds horribly calculated but it probably isn’t. I had an amazing patron for many years that accidentally found out that I wrote poetry. . When I finished a new story or poem, I would send them to him and his wife. Often he sent hundred dollar bills to me with notes to tell me to keep working. He got me through a major time of low confidence and often took the edge off of poverty. Thanks Howard. I now try and do the same. A good friend of mine who was an artist used to buy paint for artists he knew had less money than he had. There’s a great karmic quality to all this.

I put art in my budget to try and be part of the solution. It’s not a very big part. Not even a full tank of gas. But it’s there. How can I expect people to buy art and literature and music if I don’t?

I can’t write in my house. I can blog here, correct papers here, teach here, cook here, but I can’t write fiction or poetry here and I certainly can’t paint either. I needed a room of my own. But like most of us, I don’t have money to rent a studio or office. But I do have friends. An ex-boyfriend of mine had a good friend that wanted to start an art gallery with absolutely no money. They passed the same empty buildings day in and day out on their way to their day jobs. One day the budding curator called the number on the lease sign and said, “Look. I’ve walked by your building for six months and it’s been vacant. Can I hang some paintings in here to maybe liven the place up a bit? We can be month to month and if you find someone to lease the space, I’ll be out in a day. “ Steve spent the next six months with free gallery space with openings once a month. The building finally did lease—what caught the person’s eye? The paintings.

I used this same basic strategy when I was looking for a studio. Good friends of ours moved across country and lived very near a campground about twenty minutes from my house. They were a little anxious that both their cottage and their cabin would be left there unused –and inviting to possible vagrants and campers, but they didn’t really want to rent it out because they wanted to be able to vacation there themselves. Enter me. I asked if I could use the small day cottage as my studio in exchange for keeping an eye on the place, a little watering, and picking up of any litter. They went for it. (Thank you John and Lisa!). I go down to the cottage once or twice a week. I keep the weeds down. Pick up litter. Let them know when I think the boy they have mowing has slacked. I let them know when there’s been bears. But for the most part? I take long walks around a private river bank, and write more than I’ve been able to in years. Oh yeah, they are definitely front and center in the acknowledgement page if the novel ever sells.

I didn’t think this situation was unique, and it isn’t. Since I’ve found my room of my own, I’ve talked to other writers who’ve been able to strike deals like this one. Up where I live there are many second homes sitting vacant---especially with the price of gas. People who normally drive their SUVs and RVs up here to stay in their cabins aren’t doing it nearly as much. People are striking deals. Knowing that good people will be looking out over their properties is sometimes really all they want.

Just ask. See something vacant too long? Ask.

There isn’t an artist I’ve ever heard of who hadn’t mastered somewhat the art of frugal living. We’ve all eaten pasta and beans & rice for weeks at a time, furniture that came to us free, lived in a one-bedroom apartment with ten people, etc. But living on that edge will only get you so far without a crazy notion from within you that says, you know what? I’m an artist and I’m not afraid to say it. When you get to that point that I got to earlier this year. Say it really loud, out loud to yourself. Scream it into the street loud. When you believe it start making your demands and requests. Ask for the freebies. Ask for the space. Ask for class to teach. Apply for the grant. Ask for the free rent. You might just sound a bit like my best friend’s sister---so confident that the person you ask just can’t say no. We creative people are supposed to be creative. So that should go for confidence and fearlessness too. What’s the worst that can happen to you when you declare yourself an artist? Nothing. What’s the best? Recognition, jobs, free space, grants, and just maybe a quiet cottage on a beautiful river.

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Guest's picture

When you're not talented, but think you are, and can promote yourself as "great", it's called "psychosis."

Normal people need patrons and agents.

Guest's picture

Loved your message. . .never give up on yourself. I've always believed that if you don't cheerlead for yourself, then who will? You have to believe in yourself in order to succeed.

Guest's picture

First of all, I do like your post. The empty building/gallery thing was genius. Just...about Britney.

In a (very) former life I was an opera singer. I've grown up around music. My father was both a blues guitarist and a classical violist. My grandmother is a pianist. My brother is a composer.

And with my exposure to incredible music and musicianship, I can unequivocably say that I love Britney Spears' music. Love it. LOVE IT. Why?

It's so easy to call her music fluff and insubstantial, but the fact of the matter is that over the past decade she has consistently put out some of the best dance music. Do you remember "Toxic"? The combination of strings and that semi-tango guitar, flirting with the edge of belly dancing. And "Piece of Me" was incredibly melodic techno.

Anyway, I just quail at the thought that some forms of expression are 'better' and more 'art' than others. I remember that my father's 'blues crew' didn't understand why he bothered with classical. And his classical compatriots didn't understand why he was musically 'slumming it'. As a kid, I just thought it was all pretty incredible.

Myscha Theriault's picture

While I think the river cottage studio is a cool score, I have to second the empty gallery space pitch as brilliant. What a win-win for everybody.

And on a groupie note, LOVE the style and edgy attitude of the article. It really puts a serious spin on the work that is art. If we don't make time for it, it can never happen.

Guest's picture

WOW! You hit a nerve, thanks.

Guest's picture

I will get this out of the way first.
"Normal people need patrons and agents."

THIS is the kind of killer stymie people dump on other people to kill ideas and ambition. It is rotten and a self indulgence of the person knocking whatever it is down.

Normal, really? What is normal? Any of the exceptional people I have met in my life would not really be called normal. I would rather be interesting or exceptional than normal.

Don't be normal. You also don't need an agent for anyone to embrace your art. Every last successful artist I know is their own agent. Telling people they can't do something unless they play by one person's imposed roadblocks is just one person's attempt to close participation.

Guest's picture
Alpha Raye

You have hit being an artist on the head.
Kudos for the good article to make us think. Cause if we don't root for ourselves, who will?

Guest's picture

I love it!

Guest's picture

thanks for the post
time to get back to work on my writing

Maggie Wells's picture

My unpublished short story collection just won a major prize. Yay!

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

Oh, well done! :)

Love the article. Self-promotion is incredibly hard for me.

Guest's picture

This is a good article. It is both inspiring, because its true, and frustrating. Being a "successful" artist frequently means having an out-going personality, a big ego, and often a touch of arrogance. Notice that description doesn't even include "making good art". Most of these character traits are taken on in early childhood. For folks like me, I orbit between creative spurts of energy where I create because I love creating, and then frustration as I realize that no one else seems to give half a **** about anything I've created. Its especially tough for musicians since the recording industry has been killed by downloading. Hmm, I'm not a very good cheerleader... :)

Guest's picture

i really love this post!! makes you think deper asto how to make what you( I) do better and well make itw ork for me!..
and honestly i tried the whole "artist way " thing and all it did was let me know i am not the typical follow the crowd artist it actually discouraged me more than iwas already feeling... stinkin' rules... i dont like then one bit.. anyway .. this was a really good post thanks for sharing this!

Guest's picture

Thank you for this article. I almost skipped it due to it's length, but am so glad I decided to read it. You caught the essence of what it is to be an artist. Also, creativity is not limited to visual or written talent as demonstrated by the inventive means of acquiring space for growth in the arts (as well as life for that matter). It does indeed require 'acting as if' one believes in one's self - and sincere networking.

Congratulations (on your recent prize).

Guest's picture

bless this post with love,peace,respect and success.

just let love be