Go Ask Lev #7 Art For Art’s Sake

If you’d like to Go Ask Lev, email him here.

Dear Lev,

Hey! Hi! I’ve found it really difficult to be concise but here’s my best try, cutting out a lot of context:

Do you think in artistic fields you need to start young to be truly successful?

I know the easy answer is there can be success at any age, but I feel like that only applies to hyper-talented people and even then there has to be luck at play.

If someone starts taking writing or acting or painting etc seriously as a job option at 17-18 and working towards it, as opposed to 24 (my age), don’t they then have the time to develop, make connections/collaborate with others, and therefore forever have a huge advantage?

With so many people trying desperately in every area to ‘make it’ and work consistently, and a lot of industries already being more geared towards youth, I feel kind of like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

I’m interested in your answer because family and friends tend to say “you’re great! reach for the stars! but my dear what if you fly!” and that advice doesn’t really mean anything.

Thanks forever,



Hi Clare,

It sounds like you’re annoyed by bland, upbeat encouragement so I’m going to skip it entirely. I’m going to be hard on you, because fire begets steel, and also so you know that when I tell you something positive you can believe it. Don’t begrudge yourself good news.

So: there’s a lot going on here, so I’m going to answer in parts. As always, take what works and toss the rest.

First: you might not be great, but you’re not uniquely bad. You have a right – a serious and sacred one – to do what you want not because of talent but because you want to. You owe your doubt no loyalty.

Second: we’re going to circle back to professional worries, but worrying about missing the boat on a full-paying job is something everyone does, even people far more prepared than you. Luck is more important than anything, even talent or work ethic. And, while that sucks, it also means you can toss that worry to the Gods.

Don’t worry above your pay-grade. Worry about being honest, thorough, and good in whatever you do.

Second: I do, in fact, believe that you find your calling (or a parallel calling) early in life.  I wrote my first book when I was 5, in gibberish crayon about ghosts. I was voted funniest Kindergardener, which was somehow an elected position. In fairness, the other kid told a riddle, so it was kind of a default thing.

I’m not sharing this to show how embarrassingly early I peaked but to let you know that even small, little nonsense like that serves as a decent barometer if it feels right.

That’s the big picture, and I believe firmly that you should feel that early. But, within that? I had no clue what I wanted to do. I still don’t. I sometimes worry that all my writing — every fucking word — has been a waste of time. It’s cocky to say, but I’m so much better in person that it feels like maybe writing is some lazy, cowardly half-measure to my ultimate potential. I still worry that I missed my calling; that laziness and impatience kept me from performing and behind a cold, impartial keyboard instead.

I share that part to show you the complexity of what I mean by the above. You should feel the vague pull strongly but it’s fine not to know what to do with it. If your exact passion within your passion hasn’t yet clicked, that’s find. Follow your passion and stumble behind it.

Third: success isn’t on a time-table. I get that you’re worried about delving in at 24. But the good(?) news is that everyone is so equally screwed in art that you really aren’t far behind, professionally. (I’m assuming, of course, that you’re unduly modest and have been working or thinking in your field for free, as we all have. Practiced passion is the currency here, though try paying your rent in it.)

You’re wondering if you’re behind your peers. I’m here to tell you that, yeah, you are. So am I. It sucks. But you’re behind them the way you were behind the cool kids in high-school; time flattens out and the law of averages will smooth out the impossible peaks and lows around you. Resenting a 20 year-old with paid comedy jobs a five-figure Twitter following and a clear path through all the publications that rejected you is natural and nearly inevitable. But life has a way of rewarding persistence.

For the record, most of what I’ve done as a dedicated writer over the last ten years is being repeatedly rejected by publishers and websites. That’s the professional part.

But the other side? I’ve been writing. My skills have been sharpened. I’ve learned through error. I spent fourteen months — actual months, not a number, picture the changing of seasons here — writing a novel which turned out to suck. A whole book! I had to scratch it, like I didn’t believe every word I typed.

And it was fine.

Up there you have the two choices of attitude. You can, of course, worry hopelessly about commercial success. You can gnash and whine and kick and sulk, and I won’t begrudge you. Really, I don’t want to sound snarky about it. But, as an expert in the gnashing/whining game, I can tell you know: it doesn’t make you better. And it doesn’t make you happier.

(A quick aside: you deserve to be happy, balanced, and calm. Pursuing an artistic career can feel so self-defining that it devours you. But remember: your art comes from you, you don’t come from it. You’re in charge here.)

So, to answer your question: assuming you’ve been pursuing your art (even a little, even alone, even not-that-well) you’re not behind. You’re probably a little behind. But it’s not that bad, and if that of all things is the barrier that keeps you from following your passion, well, I challenge the depth of that passion.

One last thing. Your doubts may be well-founded. You may not be successful in your field, as many of us aren’t. But that may also have a lot to do with how you choose to define success. I encourage you (and others) to recalibrate what they’re aiming towards. In a celebrity/internet culture, we can view success as a sheer numbers game. Go for depth, personally and otherwise.

It takes longer to write in stone, but it lasts longer too. TC mark


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