To be a young artist is to be in doubt, constantly, of meriting that title. It is to be hopeful and hungry yet scared of being called pretentious for claiming to be a writer. It means tucking away first drafts in hidden folders and prefacing each unveiling with the words, "It's still rough, but
" To me, saying, "I'm a writer," means promising that my drafts are worth reading—and I'm not always sure that they are. I only recently became aware of this instinct I have to qualify my work. Like lightning-speed legal jargon at the end of a medical ad: "Maxime Kawawa-Beaudan Incorporated not responsible for disappointing content." This is a habit I need to crush, among others. In the name of becoming a better artist, I've drawn up a list of reminders for myself and other young writers:
- There's nothing wrong with wanting to be young and serious. All through high school, I had the sense that I was cheating myself out of the teenage experience. Teenagers are supposed to be wild. You're supposed to look back on seventeen and say, "I did some crazy things in those days." But I didn't. I stayed in the library. I didn't go out much. I didn't drink until junior year. I had no aversion to parties, but I didn't seek them out, and I was content in the classroom. I still am. I'm young, dumb, and broke, but not "dumb" in the way people look back on fondly, with wry smiles. I'm just dumb in that some days I forget my room key and some weeks I run out of meal points. There's nothing wrong with being young and serious. Young and single-minded, even. There's nothing wrong with frivolity either—nights are long; these things aren't mutually exclusive. But know what you care about and draw hard lines. If something matters to you, don't treat it lightly—it's not arrogant to care about your own progress. If you want to be taken seriously for your work, take your work seriously.
- There's nothing wrong with taking your time. Everyone around me in college is rushing on to the next big thing. That's part of being young—always nipping at tomorrow's heels. But there is no rush. A fellow YoungArts writer pointed out in class that people are too interested in prodigy. What makes the great work completed by a 12-year-old any better than the same work completed by an 80-year-old? Nothing. It's the work that stays. The converse is also true.
- There's nothing wrong with inconvenient passions. I'm sick of talking about college, and so is everyone my age. But I'll do it anyway: The modern loss of innocence is to be constantly aware of one's own ranking in everything. It's to be obsessed with competition, because, as we learn in the womb, application pools are growing and acceptance rates are falling. For many young people, childhood is the process of being thrown into activity after activity by increasingly desperate parents in the hope that something, anything, will stick. You must be exceptional at something, they seem to be saying. The average student is average, but somehow, they must all be extraordinary. The word "passion" is thrown around so much in the college-entry context that it's become meaningless. Know what your passions are and what your passions are not. It would have been convenient to be passionate about rowing. I was not. Writing is generally not a convenient passion. Art, in general, is not a convenient passion. But if it is a sincere one, that won't stop you.
- Be pragmatic. If you want to be a professional, be professional. Don't ask people to take chances on your youth for its own sake.
- Everyone's short on time. But some people make the time. Artists are romanticized as wishy-washy plankton swaying in the current of the Muse. Don't buy this. Be disciplined.
- Limit what you share on social media. It's not a platform that rewards merit alone. If you use it as a feedback mechanism, you'll get false positives and false negatives. Not every 15-year-old with a 2500-dollar DSLR is a photographer, and not every 18-year-old with a blog is a writer. 25.6 thousand followers don't make someone an artist. The value of art is not a matter of public opinion. Young people are taught to sell themselves. Don't, and don't buy everything other people sell. Keep your eyes on your own plate. Work until the work speaks for itself.
These conditions may seem harsh in an artistic context—isn't art supposed to be soft and beautiful? Yes. It can be soft and beautiful, but to do that it needs a rigid backbone. Police yourself. Recognize when you're making excuses. Avoid the urge to compare. There's no scoreboard on the writing process. There is only the pen, the excuse you make not to pick it up, and the reason you find to pick it up anyway.