Embracing failure: A life in the arts

Embracing failure: A life in the arts

Sometimes self-examination can descend into self-flagellation.

THE BATTLEFORDS — As part of my art practice I periodically assess — sometimes ruthlessly — how effectively I’m communicating my vision of the world to readers, the level of my craftmanship, and determine ways I can improve as an author, raising the creative bar with each novel, story or poem I commit to paper.

It can be a harrowing process and sometimes that self-examination can descend into self-flagellation, my life and work, which go hand-in-hand, subjected to a level of scrutiny I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

I’ve met many folks over the years who envy my “good fortune,” the fact that for more than three decades I’ve been able to devote myself to my greatest passion, writing, but I always quickly disabuse them of that notion.

A life in the arts is never easy, there are constant frustrations and disappointments and, I have to tell you, damn few benefits or rewards. If you yearn to dump your soul-sucking day job and become the full-time artist you’ve always dreamed of being, I suggest you read up on your favourite painter or author and discover just how hard they struggled throughout their career to gain attention for their work, the terrible price they paid for their calling.

And they’re just the ones who eventually succeeded, a small proportion of those who take the plunge.

Among artists, 99.97 per cent don’t make the cut — their work is ignored during their lifetime, never achieving posterity, disappearing into the gaping maw of eternity, leaving behind not a single trace.

That’s something any prospective artist must face and do so without wilting: there is simply no getting around it, no escaping the realization that you have better luck winning the lottery than you do becoming a best-selling author or celebrated sculptor. If you’re looking to get rich and famous from making art you’re, frankly, deluded, living in a fantasy world that sooner or later is going to collide with reality, with devastating consequences for you and your spiritual and mental health.

Recently, I completed work on a 10-part podcast on books and the writing life called “Standing At an Angle to the Universe” (available on Spotify, Amazon Music, etc.). It was a tremendously demanding project, a labour of love… but after I finished the final episode, I had a strong sense that something important remained unsaid and it was incumbent on me to add a postscript, a few words of cautionary advice to aspiring artists in all disciplines.

Oct. 20 at 7 p.m., I’ll be giving a presentation at the North Battleford Library where I will address the theme of failure, the idea that we can strive and toil all our lives yet never succeed at leaving a tangible mark on society, not even the equivalent of an anonymous handprint on the walls of a palaeolithic cave.

If you can’t accept that, if you can’t continue to write or paint or draw in defiance of that near certainty, save your money on notebooks and canvas and find something else to do with your spare time.

Because, don’t you see, it’s all about the work, not the perks and rewards you earn; expressing yourself, your aesthetic, and not giving a hoot in hell if you’ll be able to sell your story or song or painting, doing it out of sheer love and devotion to your craft.

That’s it.

If you go into the arts seeking fame, or public adoration, I guarantee you won’t find it. If you commit to your art, sticking with it even though you know you’ll never make it and are okay with that, you’ll end up a lot happier and more fulfilled, believe me

That’s the point of both this brief article and my little talk on the 20th.

Embracing failure and doing so willingly, eyes wide open, no illusions countenanced.

You’ll be much a better person — and artist — for it.

— Cliff Burns has been a professional author for more than 35 years with 16 books and over a hundred published short stories to his credit. For more information on his work, go to cliffburns.com.

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