A lot of artists say to me: “I want to have a career like XXXX. What did XXXXX do get where they got?”
One thing I can tell you: XXXX didn’t get there by trying to imitate the path of another artist. The artists I see thrive do it their own way, specifically not imitating the journeys and careers of others.
The bad news about building a life as an artist: THERE IS NO MODEL.
The good news: YOU MAKE YOUR OWN MODEL.
You get to build a life and a living that embody your values, your art practice, and your mission. And other artists can inspire us along the way. But we need to steal their thinking, not the results of that thinking.
Stealing from Miguel. Some years ago, we began sending out “email newsletters,” through Constant Contact, a horribly well-named organization. They looked a lot like Emails From An Arts Organization. They were visually noisy and full of click-throughs. And they were busy telling you All The Great Stuff We’re Doing Right Now, always using the “we” pronoun. And, in 2008, that felt like the right thing. But as my inbox became inundated with the non-specific PR of many other artist newsletters, it started to feel wrong. Like it wasn’t really ours.
Then I got the “Spewsletter” from dear Miguel Gutierrez. It looked like this (you can read full Spewsletters on Miguel’s site here.):
I read the entire thing, which I never do. And it was loooooong. At the very end, where you usually find the required and polite “UNSUBSCRIBE” option, Miguel wrote:
If you don’t wanna get this anymore, obviously you’re conflicted cuz you read this far.
Thank you, Miguel.
He reminded me just how strange an email newsletter is. And he insisted that it reflect him as an artist and person. Now, I could have imitated Miguel’s Spewsletter, but it would have been hollow. I wouldn’t get to his level of brilliance, and it wouldn’t fit me as an artist and person.
Instead, I stole his thinking, which, for my purposes, went like this:
There are no rules.
Newsletters are useless if they are pre-digested PR coming from An Organization. They need to come from someone.
Make the thing that could only come from you. If you speak in your own voice (with text and with images), your email can be as fun/beguiling/insightful as spending time with you.
So we at Headlong changed the way we email people. It had to come from a person. And it had to be radically honest. No PR, no selling.
When we made MORE, a dark and challenging piece and a difficult piece to “promote,” I wrote this:
From: Andrew Simonet <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Here’s what I’m thinking about
Date: September 2, 2009 4:35:37 PM EDT
I have five things I want to tell you.
1. Making more is the first time I’ve ever had to walk out of rehearsal to cry. For what the piece was showing me. For the bold and doomed bodies of dancers. And not-dancers.
2. more feels like the start of a new phase of work for us.
3. Many of you have followed our work on its winding journey from the brash and geeky (Take 3, Permit) through the messy epics (Star Wars, Ulysses, Shosha) and the site work (Pusher, Hotel Pool, Cell). In a world where money always seems to be the top story, we are grateful to continue this journey with you into the strange life of the body in our bright breakneck culture.
4. So often, we have brought something sweet and funny to our audience. This piece isn’t like that. It has some ridiculous joy, but more is also challenging. For the performers. For the choreographers. And, I’m gonna guess, for you as audience members. But I’m also gonna guess that you’re up for that challenge.
5. If you have or are a body, you already have everything you need to watch and understand more.
Co-Director in Charge of Finishing more
Unsurprisingly, way more people read these honest emails. And people wrote back. A lot of people. Each one of these emails brought more responses from Headlong followers than I would normally receive in a year. And I felt like myself when I wrote them.
Don’t steal the thing. Steal the thinking that led to the thing.