I thought I would post my response to the following two questions that I was recently asked. A better response would probably have been to say nothing and just keep working.
What do you believe it takes to be a better artist? What steps have you taken to become a better artist?
Curiosity. Discipline. A willingness to fail repeatedly. Persistence. A willingness, even an eagerness, to learn. Empathy. A long view combined with a steady work ethic.
Although as I write these, I realize that they don’t address the “better” part of the question, so I guess I should emphasize an ability and willingness to cultivate these. Curiosity, for example, takes time. You have to be willing to take the time to pursue interests and ideas even if you’re not sure how they relate or their relevance. Curiosity involves the unknown. You don’t know where a particular path or interest will lead. It’s a process of discovery and the pleasure of discovery, and its “usefulness” will probably not be readily apparent. I think often of Benjamin Franklin who was in France during one of the first flights of a hot air balloon. Some said, “What good is it?” and he replied, “What good is a new born baby?”
The most interesting pieces and productions for me are those that develop in unexpected ways. You might start with a certain idea, but it will evolve. The poet Ted Kooser says, “you must serve the poem.” In other words, you find out where the poem is going, not the point you want to make or the persona you want to push.
Curiosity takes time, but time is a zero-sum game. We only have so much of it. So, you have to be willing to not do certain things, so that you can spend the time on other things. TV watching. Facebooking. Dish washing. Figuring out how to do this makes a better artist. And, the other problem is, curiosity often looks like goofing off.
The assumption with “better artist” is that you already have the skills and tools to be an artist (whether it’s drawing, dancing, editing, etc.), and you need know how to use them more effectively or how to learn other ones.
As for what steps I’ve taken? A great question. A scary question because it requires me to admit whether or not I’ve taken action, or I'm just a talker. Most of the steps I’ve taken involve the management and conservation of time. More and more, I say “no” to certain commitments and projects. I leave my family sometimes so that I can write when I would rather be with them. For example, most Saturday and Sunday mornings, when I want to be making breakfast with my kids and hanging out, I’m in a coffee shop somewhere writing.
I try not to repeat work I’ve done both as a writer and a teacher. You develop certain ticks and techniques as an artist and these can be “go-tos” in a way. I think you have to be careful because then they become mannerisms and the style starts to confine. I admire those artists who continue to experiment and change their styles radically.
To become a better artist, you need to know what you need emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and then you have to figure out how to get what you need. It's a difficult multi-step process. I need, for example, a certain amount of solitude. With a family and job, it’s not always easy to get this, so it has to be pushed for and staked out.
So, there’s my initial response, and I’m sure that as soon as I click send, I’ll think “oh, I should have said. . .” Or, I probably should have just stopped with the first paragraph and left it at that.