Wednesday, May 8, 2019

You Must Not Be Any Good

I phoned my painting teacher after receiving three rejections in one day. I wanted him to say they were stupid imbeciles. Instead, he said, “you must not be any good.”

I had read the Rilke letters a couple of years earlier, but I certainly didn’t get it then how risky it was to have my ego rely on the opinion of others. More than dangerous, it is a no-win proposition. If people like what you do, you could quickly abandon your internal compass and just rely on them. And if they rejected what you do, you could either give up or change your work to try to please them. Why didn’t I follow the sage advice from my writing professor, “listen to everyone and believe no one."

I once asked Peter Saul who was visiting our college if he’d change his direction if none of his paintings were selling. Instantly, he answered. I was dismayed. I felt gratitude a few years later when I had teaching jobs, and my livelihood didn’t depend on someone else’s tastebuds.

I was struck in the last year when someone asked what you were about from the vantage point of a distant observer. The person who says they want to do this or that, but isn’t working toward that end is a fraud of sorts. If they really want something, why aren’t they working toward that? Is it because they don’t have the time.

My teacher who so rudely answered me used to teach at several schools across a state. After 12 hours of driving and teaching, he’d find time to paint. Sartre was most productive writing each day after 12 hours of being a journalist. Anyone watching him from the sky wouldn’t doubt his commitment.

My wife is either teaching pottery, teaching tea ceremony, or learning about one or the other. Someone watching her might get pretty bored, but they wouldn’t doubt her commitment. That seems to be what Rilke was talking about.

As to my commitment, which is what I should have written about from the start, I have no idea. That’s for another time after I talk to the person watching me. What does she see? What will she say?

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