I'm not a writer, but I play one on the internet
Stories from an art school dropout, Ep. 1
Dear readers, I knew this day might come…I just didn’t think it would come this quickly. As I sat down to write this week’s newsletter on Sunday, I was hit with something I was dreading.
In my drafts are five posts from the weekend that I have started, struggled with, and abandoned. By 11pm on Sunday, I had given up on making any real progress. I vowed to wake up early the next morning, looking forward to a fresh start. “It’s Monday!” I thought cheerfully to myself, “it’ll be like a brand new work week!”
This is when I realized that I had the sunday scaries from…writing. One of the joys of being on a sabbatical (which currently is not much of one anymore because life and bills) is sliding into your Monday mornings without that knot of dread twisting in your stomach. So how the hell did I manage to self-inflict this on myself?
Today hasn’t fared any better. I have opened and closed my computer more than a dozen times, taken a walk, washed the breakfast and lunch dishes, sat under the window competing with the cat for the small patch of sun on the floor, read a chapter of a book, munched on a cookie, and doom scrolled on Twitter about aliens in our airspace. A real masterclass of procrastination. I start to feel that familiar flutter of anxiety stirring. But…it’s been less than three months since I launched this Substack. I’m only on newsletter #11! Whhhhy is this happening already? I channel my inner teenager, head full of defeat and frustration.
This self imposed anxiety of my own making is particularly maddening because writing is not my job. But once you decide to take the plunge to put something out into the world, and I don’t care what it is—a song, a drawing, a TikTok video, a box of cookies!—and you have people who are willing to consume it, a mutual transaction takes place: an exchange of trust between creator and consumer. It is a gift and a responsibility. It’s also ripe with potential for all sorts of self doubt. Why? Because as creators, we care. I don’t think you can be an artist and not care. The day we stop caring is the day our art dies.
But where is my Grover?
When I was young, I was very determined to be an artist, but by the third year of college as a fine art major, I became ambivalent and was burnt out. I floundered as I lost focus and admired classmates who could fuel near obsessive levels of energy around an artistic vision to drive prolific outputs of art with their need to create. I often think back to a classmate who once showed me his sketchbooks filled with page after page of drawings of Grover from Sesame Street. It seems kinda eccentric and obsessive now, but his dedication to this one thing was pretty damn impressive. I never found my “Grover” in all my years of school.
The end of my art school career actually came in an epiphanous moment when I was in the middle of struggling with a paper for my humanities class. I was very disillusioned with the art world by then and was basically having an existential crises at age 20. Art was weaved into my identity for so long; who was I if I walked away? I decided right then and there that I was done, even though the thought of leaving behind my childhood dream was terrifying. I needed to explore what else was out there in the world, and I wasn’t going to find it spending endless hours in the studio inside my own head.
I was three weeks from finishing my junior year of college when I withdrew. I had never quit anything before in my life, but here I was, calling my parents to tell them I was quitting school, a cardinal sin as far as Asian parents are concerned, especially when the college that I was leaving gave full scholarships to all students who were admitted. I was walking away from a free education and a BFA. “You have some balls,” some of my fellow Asian classmates would tell me. After I left, I didn’t pick up a drawing pencil for another 20 years.
Letting go of what you love
Sometimes you need to let go of the things you love in order for it to thrive. Sometimes that break can take 20 years. My kids didn’t even know I could draw until one day, at family morning in the kid’s kindergarten class, the parents were encouraged to draw alongside the children in an activity. I drew Olivia the pig. My then 6 year old’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. She was flabbergasted that I could draw.
I think this is why I’ve never entertained the idea of taking a writing class or even a mentor to work with thus far. Clearly, I don’t have anyone proof reading as I have spotted typos on newsletters that have been sent out (I die a little inside every time I find one). I’ve never read a book on the craft of writing, have never taken a writing class beyond college English that were merely requirements towards credits to graduate. It took years and years to undo all that rigid conservatory training in art school. Sometimes too much of it can stifle creativity in the pursuit of mastery.
I think I’m afraid to consider writing as anything more than a hobby because it might turn it into something other than what I need it for now—a creative release. I find it so interesting that during this transitional time, I chose writing over anything visual. Maybe I’m still not ready to go there again. Or maybe, since I can acknowledge my limitations as an amateur and novice writer, I have no real expectations of myself. I only write what I know from experience; it still feels safe to stumble.
I am a relentless pursuer of perfection. It’s more of a curse than anything commendable. It’s why I didn’t return to art since I left school because I was afraid of mediocrity. I can see that now. I took the easy way out by quitting instead of pushing through the hard work. But I wasn’t mature enough back then to be an artist—to have my work picked apart, to have myself so exposed. The drawings that I have done in the last 5 or so years are baby steps, but they are more of an exercise in technique than any kind of creative expression. It may be why I eventually landed in design, an adjacent-to-art field where the work is your own, yes, but the work is not about you, it’s about the client. There’s a certain degree of detachment that can be afforded. I’ve always had a perfunctory relationship with design even after grad school, though I can get really obsessive about the craft of it. I’ve had a long career, but design has never really had my heart. I’m still trying to figure out what does.
When good timing is a gift
So here I am on a Monday, hours into the afternoon with nothing to show for the day, when an email appears. It is from a subscriber, someone who I started exchanging DMs with on Instagram. We even chatted on a zoom call once late last year. The email nearly brought me to tears. How did the universe know I needed these words of encouragement today? Auspicious timing like this almost makes me want to believe in all that New Agey mysticism—it’s just too uncanny, the timing too perfect.
As I was recently cataloging the recipes that we had published on the old blog, I went through all 6,958 pages of the archived pdf and realized something surprising. I concluded that as an assembled piece of personal history, the blog was fine as a collective whole, but I cringed at so much of the writing. What was gold, however, was the comments that followed each posts and the discussions that went on for pages. Community is real, and I’m still astounded that some of us have been following each other for all these years, from platform to platform, collectively growing old together. This is the real treasure. This is what I had archived it for.
4:37 PM. I am refocused. I remember to light a candle this time, a ritual that I’ve started to do every time I sit down to write but for some reason forgot to on Sunday. It has become a bit of a joke around here.
“I can tell you’re writing because that candle is lit,” Mark says as he walks into the room at the end of his work day.
I breathe in the scent of bergamot and thyme. Golden hour sends dapples of warm light across the wall, making the shadows dance in and out of focus. The fluttering in my stomach settles. The words that you’re reading now start to fly off my fingers, the rhythmic tapping sounds on my keyboard coming from nails too long that I keep forgetting to trim. I may not put out newsletters every week that I’m proud of or happy with, but know that I pour a little of myself onto these posts every single time. I just need to trust in the process.
And I need to make sure that I’m never without a candle when I write again.
Some links around the internet that helped me procrastinate this week:
Sony World Photography winners - I literally gasped at the photograph of the cat (I really like cats).
We Need More Public Spaces for Girls
These artists found out their work was used to train AI. Now they’re furious
Tech Layoffs Affecting Your Kid’s Digital Ecosystem (this also might be the first editorial illustration by Generative AI that I’ve seen used and credited in an article. You know more is coming.)
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"It may be why I eventually landed in design, an adjacent-to-art field where the work is your own, yes, but the work is not about you, it’s about the client. There’s a certain degree of detachment that can be afforded." - this paragraph nails my relationship with being a lawyer. I've never examined it this way before... you are a writer! thank you.
PS it doesn't seem totally fair to say you took the easy way out by quitting art school. there are different phases in life--perhaps you needed the stable career path to find your footing and the eventual freedom to pursue your art. That's what I tell myself at least ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I heard a poet say that she is an artist and her art is the ability to words on a page. “Safe to stumble” ….halls in a museum or a passage on a sub stack after a hard day - you are a gift to your audience.