Yes, yes, yes. I know what you mean. And you’re talking about it from two distinct (but highly related) angles, both of which I think from myself. Angle number one has to do with how much attention you pay to outside validation (or criticism) of what you do in life and in art. Angle number two has to do with how you go about deciding whether you’re doing what it is that you’re supposed to be doing with your life and your art. I am extremely empathetic to your struggle with these things, because they are some of the most crucial struggles in my thoughts about my own life. It’s comforting to hear you express your thoughts on this, and, in that vein, I will tell you what I think when I think about these things.
I have cultivated a confidence regarding my own actions and activities, but I don’t think it’s innate. I think that the origin of this in me was as a defense mechanism against other people’s skepticism and critism of things I’ve done or been. I think that, as a result of times when my parents, other adults (when I was not an adult), and my friends have expressed doubt that some of my ideas were sensible, doubt that some of my statements were plausible, doubt that some of my plans were possible, that the idealist/dreamer part of me has developed an automatic, knee-jerk shield against almost everything anyone else has to say about how things I’m involved with should be done. Now, since the initial development of that shield as a defense tactic, I have definitely cultivated, consciously, that way of thinking. My thoughts on this subject have been influenced by something David Mamet said, that’s trascribed in this book of three lectures he gave to film students (the book is called On Directing Film, but parts of it are really more accurately On Making Art). He says that when he writes, he always makes the characters do only what they are required to do by their circumstance, given their desires and their problems, and that he never thinks about whether or not the audience is going to like what the character does…in fact, that he divorces himself from all thoughts about what the audience is going to like or dislike, because he thinks that allowing thoughts of how the audience is going to respond…allowing that to affect the decisions an artist makes when making art, always results in bad decisions, and bad art. When I read this idea (in high school, while cutting a math class I was supposed to be going to at Sinclair, during which I actually went to the Sinclair library to read plays) it really affected me. I think that single idea goes pretty far down the path of describing a philosophy of art, and it has everything to do with what you wrote about in your message. Actors feed off the praise of the audience; they need to be liked in order to continue doing what they’re doing. Applause is the air they breathe. They care about what the audience thinks of them. They care if people like them.
ARTISTS DO NOT GIVE A FUCK ABOUT THAT SHIT.
If the audience dislikes an actor, the actor changes. If the audience dislikes an artist, the artist tells the audience to go to hell. Something I believe to be equally true, and necessary to make the whole thing work, and which is harder to do, is: In the case that the audience likes the artist, the artist still tells the audience to go to hell. Of course we’re all some part actor and some part artist in these ways, and I do like praise, and I am affected negatively by criticism, but I’m working to minimize the effects of both on my thoughts and actions. So you ask if I feel the need for validation? Yes, I do. Absolutely. But I try to work out ways that I can feel validated in my life in general by a few people who really love me regardless of what I do, and use that general validation to build myself up in general, so that I have less of a need for anyone, including those people, to like what I do or what I make. And, yes, I do feel that what I am doing is right, but only because I’m me, and that’s what I’m doing. It’s no one else’s business to try to define what it means for me to write a poem, and if I let their ideas about it into my head while I’m writing one, then it won’t be as fully mine as it could be if, for a moment, I completely forget that they exist. And David Mamet is right, in my experience, that if I ignore the audience, their liking of what I make…increases. Sometimes, for me, it helps to have secret projects, because knowing that no one is going to look at a certain thing I’m making helps me to get into the mode of making process decisions based on my internal guides. What if no one was looking? What would you make then? What if no one knew you? How would you live your life then?
Which brings us to angle number two. Other people have ideas about what you should or could be. And to the degree to which you are smart and multitalented, others will have more and more ideas about what you should or could do. They’re right about the could part, of course: you could do all kinds of things, reader. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And you can’t do everything, and it’s your job and your job only to decide what you will do. It pisses me off to no end the way people have designs on other people’s (especially smart people’s) lives. Tracy’s parents think she’s wasting her brainpower because she could have been a doctor and “all” she’s doing is being an actor. But I take issue with every situation like this, which at the core contains this: We, society as a whole, think that you, brilliant person, have a duty to serve us by using your extraordinary talents in ways we think are valuable to us. No, no, and no. Tracy has a genius-level IQ, but that’s *her* mind and *her* IQ and her life and her consciousness to do with whatever the hell she damn pleases. Reader, you do not owe the world (or your parents or people who know you and know something of your skills)…you do not owe them that you use your self in any particular way. None of us do. Was it a waste of time and talent for me, particularly, to quit a perfectly good tech job, get in my Chevy Metro with a friend, and drive to the ocean without a map? No; that was a great thing for me to do. I can write hardcore software for large companies, or I can sit in a field eating rose petals and talking with god on a cell phone. I can use my brain and body any way I want, I can kill them any way I want, too, and it’s okay, because for all their ability to generate ideas about who I am and what I should be, no one else has near the qualifications I have to actually *be* me. That is solely my department. And, as me, it is my luxury to decide, in each moment, exactly what I like best, what activities I think suit me best, and what I’ll do. How inconsistent it is for someone else to say, “I think that someone as smart and talented as yourself, someone even smarter and more talented than me, shouldn’t waste your time on x,y,z.” When someone says that (and I have heard it often), I think: “What makes you think that my smartness and talent, which you recognize is greater than your own, would be less informed than yours and less able than yours to make decisions about what I do?” How strange it is, indeed, to say such things, but people say them all the time. “That Mozart: I really liked his music, but did he really have to write backwards poems about his incest-cousin’s feces?” “That Jean-Michel Basquiat, he’s a freaking genius…I really wish he hadn’t been so into herion.” If those guys are such geniuses, why does anyone think they made the wrong choices by fucking their cousin and injecting heroin?