one of my less inspiring professors in graduate school trotted out this piece of useless advice during my tenure at UMass: what you did the first two years after getting your MFA was everything. it would set you on your path, determine your success for decades to come.
well, i spent the first two years after grad school languishing in jobs that i hated that had nothing to do with art because i happened to graduate into the worst job market in thirty years. her words echoed in my mind as i applied for All The Things and did not get them. a year after i graduated, i was a finalist for a tenure track job in West Virginia and came in second. given the academic job market, it was a missed chance of a lifetime, one i felt i would not have again. i went back to being a nanny outside of Boston, working in my drafty studio on the weekends. i decided at some point in my early 20s that i would get tenure by the time i was forty. time, i felt, was slipping away from me. i always felt as though the sword of Damocles was hanging over me, that if i did not make it soon, i never would.
i’ve spent the last six months or so questioning a lot of my assumptions about age, experience and being an artist because a) they seem flimsy upon close examination, and b) holding onto them was making me really unhappy. letting go has been a long process, one that i am still in the midst of, but it’s help me see more clearly what’s in front of me. i’ve gained some perspective and am finally understanding what it means to be a maker over the entire arc of a life, not just before one turns 30.
a lot of my early life as an artist and maker involved technical difficulties, as i’m sure it does for many young artists. you can’t predict how the material will react because you simply haven’t been using it long enough. it’s tedious and frustrating, even more so when you are around people who have mastered the material. to them, it’s like breathing effortlessly underwater. to you, it’s like holding your nose and letting the chlorine sting your eyes until you can’t stand it any more.
Ira Glass has a great quote:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
of course, he was talking about writing, but it applies to really any art form. and he’s completely right: the urge to quit out of frustration is always there. you know what you want your work to look like but it never matches up with the vision in your head. to go through years of this is so, so hard.
and now: i’ve reached an equilibrium with my making that is just lovely. i am savoring the freedom of time, of age, of experience. i sit down with my materials and i know exactly what to do, i know how this form will react, i know how this glaze will look in the kiln, i know whether or not that crack will grow during firing or if it can be repaired. i take chances that i didn’t used to because everything feels lighter, less fraught, more joyful. and now i’m watching my students from the other side, trying to teach them to hold their breath and plunge in. i couldn’t have gotten to where i am today without all the time, all the work, all the tears, all the experiences i was sure at the time were useless and a waste. i see myself and my work clearer now than i did at 19, at 22, at 27, at 30. finally accepting that my best work is ahead of me, rather than behind me, is a revelation.