Back in the early Neolithic, I went to art college.
Maybe you wanted to do that, too.
Maybe it was music, and you got told how few people ever scrape out even a poverty-level existence playing in local venues around Hoboken or wherever.
Maybe it was drama, or dance, or maybe you wanted to be a writer, and you figured an MFA in Creative Writing was the key.
Your parents probably crushed your dreams and told you to get an education that would give you something “to fall back on” and that “art” was definitely not it.
Maybe you listened, and went to law school, or whatever.
And maybe you think they were right, because now you can afford to retire early and follow your dream.
Let me tell you about what you missed, and what these kinds of experiences can really do for you – experiences you either have no access to, or that you have decided you don’t “really” need.
It’s true that you can make art or write books without degrees. I won’t dispute that. More than a significant percentage of artists, musicians, or writers have been successful, or at least noted as having talent, without ever having set foot in the relevant, specialized institution of higher learning.
You can learn a lot about the technical part of any creative endeavor on your own (with the possible exception of classical ballet) and with a lot of hard work and some talent, you can get things done.
And those things will be worthwhile, and probably as good, in the purely technical sense, over time, as anything a graduate of a decent MFA program can do.
It might take a little or a lot longer, and you might waste a few years on things that aren’t really useful, but you can get there.
Lots of people do this. Lots of really awesome, talented, well-known people do this.
That’s not the issue.
What you miss out on is critique. And that’s crucial.
Let me tell you about art college.
Every week, in every studio-based class, we’d be given an assignment.
Every week, in every studio-based class, we’d put up our creations, based on last week’s assignment.
And then the instructor and every other student in that class took potshots at the work.
Crits. The word still makes me faintly queasy.
Every week, 8 months out of 12, for four long years, I poured my soul into whatever artistic medium I was given, on subjects/techniques I was handed, and then I put that essence of my being on display, and twenty or so people told me what was wrong with it.
What was wrong with me. With my vision, with my understanding of the world. With my inner soul. With my value as an artist, and as a human being.
Some of it was reasoned and true.
Some of it was spiteful, and cruel —- but still true.
You walked into the crit a normal person, with a normal heart, situated in the normal place in your body, and two hours later you emerged, crushed and crumpled, carrying your now-shredded, shrivelled ego in your hands.
OMG, you cry. How horrible!
People should give “constructive criticism”!
People should not destroy your ego or discourage you!
It’s wrong! Wrong, and evil!
Except, it is not.
It is the proving ground. It is the ultimate life lesson.
It is the only way artists of any kind can learn the one lesson they really, really need.
How to critique themselves.
Because once you leave that cocooned existence, surrounded by fellow makers making things, and caring about making things; once you are alone in that studio with nothing but your paint and canvas – once you have shut the door and tuned your guitar – once you’ve settled down in front of the computer and opened that WORD doc – the only way you can live up to the fullest of your potential and make the work you believe in, is to know how to see your output through other people’s eyes.
You have to see the worst in your work. You have to grow that creative carapace, so that you can take the outside critique, divorce it from you as a person, and understand where it is you need to go, so that when you are alone, you can do this for yourself.
And that’s why most self-taught writers hate their editors.
And why, maybe, you should have done that MFA.