How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)

How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)

Iris Van Gogh

‘Irises’ Van Gogh, 1889

How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)

By

Nick Horton

Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.

Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.

Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.

You Must Retain Amateur Status

The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.

Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.

You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.

Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist

Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.

That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?

Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.

That’s bullshit.

Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”

If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.

Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.

Work as Hard as a Professional

The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.

Prince wrote a song a day. Steven King writes 2,000 words every day. Anthony Burgess not only wrote 2,000 words a day, but also composed classical music during the evenings.

A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.

Work Ethic is Empowering

The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.

Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons

Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons

Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.

If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.

For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.

The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses

Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.

What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.

Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.

A Professional Artist Goes Public

An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.

Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.

You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.

Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?

You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.

Wheatfield with Crows July 1890 Van Gogh

‘Wheat Field With Crows’, Van Gogh 1890

Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever

We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.

The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.

I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.

The Point

Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.

Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.

To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.

  • Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
  • Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
  • Put your work in front of others.

Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.

Now go lift something heavy,

Nick Horton

describing-vs-teaching-nick-horton-weightlifting-academy

 

Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.

Writing With Hand Tools

Writing With Hand Tools

Writing With Hand Tools

By Nick Horton

In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.

Working with Hand Tools

  • Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
  • Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
  • Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
  • Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
  • Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
  • Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.

Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.

Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.

Writing Without Writing

Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.

For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.

That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.

Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.

In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.

Writing is a Craft

Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.

Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.

Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.

Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.

Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology

The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.

To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….

Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.

Index Cards

Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.

He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.

Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.

White/Chalk Boards

An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.

It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.

Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)

You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.

A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.

A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.

To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.

Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.

The Point

Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.

Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.

Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.

Now go lift something heavy,

Nick Horton

describing-vs-teaching-nick-horton-weightlifting-academyNick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.