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Ann Patchett on Craft

I'm currently reading Ann Patchett's wonderful new book, a collection of essays entitled, "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage". There's a wonderful NPR Fresh Air interview with her available [link] and you can buy signed copies of this book on Paranassus' website [link].

Besides being an immensely enjoyable read, I've found numerous passages in the book to be so clear and enlightening that I wanted to highlight a few and then add my own commentary.

"It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of the diamonds, or, for that matter, the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I wound up with a different sort of teacher, one who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don't think I would have gotten very far." --p28, from her essay "The Getaway Car"

Over the years, I've grown borderline obsessed with how people learn skills / new skills. Mainly this is a result of me learning many new things myself. After I "left" tech -- or at least no longer participated in it on a full time basis -- I proceeded to do quite a number of things for the first time. Mentor startups. Direct a documentary. Produce numerous web series. Perform magic (at least well enough to become a magician member of the Magic Castle). Act (at least well enough to get hired by numerous places that do that sort of thing.) 

I'm also *surrounded* by people trying to make their living / career in an almost inherently artistic endeavor. That's a significant overstatement -- perhaps it should be an endeavor almost always inherently perceived as artistic. Almost universally -- the refrain I hear from this crowd -- and I want to emphasize that I hear this from people at all stages -- those trying to break in, those established, those with strong careers, those actually in the trenches (e.g. actors), as well as those who made it in a complimentary profession (e.g. executives, producers, etc.) That refrain is, "Produce your own work." or, less elegantly, "Make your own shit."

I heard this. I saw it work for people. I did it myself. Not amazingly successfully, but not terribly either. Some positive attention and many positive events and outcomes. But, on some level, I never understood it. Partially, because I never really knew what I wanted to make. In fact, I had to spend a lot of time figuring out what I wanted to make -- and most importantly, time spent doing this was a chore. You would think that germination time is the most exciting time. I suppose it was, on a relative basis, but that's only because the producing portion was so painful. What I really wanted to do was act -- only no one was willing to actually hire me to do that.

It's been a very interesting and enlightening journey for me. Frankly, all that producing work -- while probably really valuable for me down the line (and to some extent, now) -- I think ultimately derailed me on some level. Because, and I think this is why I found Ann's thoughts here relative to her own writing so compelling. If you want to act -- it's less "living life" or "making shit" or "waiting for it to happen for me" -- it's getting good enough that people want to hire you. It is a market, after all -- and market feedback is very powerful. It's also ignoring all the noise that's associated with getting a job. Comparing yourself to someone else and thinking you're better or worse than them and then wondering why they are or aren't getting jobs. There are a lot of reasons why someone gets a job. A lot. My own acting is but one component -- a very significant component, but just one component. But really, that's what I can control the absolute most. So that's the regular practice. That's finding the tools to help shape, mold and improve it. That's the discipline of putting the time and effort to keep taking incremental steps that will eventually turn into large steps with respect to my craft.

I find if baffling that there are people are out who aren't trying to get better on a regular basis that yet somehow expect that more time waiting somehow increases their chances of breaking through.

A few months ago, my brother was trying to help his old secretary find a new job. It's been years since I lived in New York, but I figured I could send out a note to some of my New York-based friends and acquaintances (who might be in a position to hire a secretary) just in case. You never know. Lo and behold, an acquaintance of mine who works in a large financial firm had a potential opening. I put my brother in touch with him and they started emailing which progressed to a phone call. This happened immediately. What's interesting about this story is that I did this around 9pm PST on a Sunday night -- which meant it was 11pm Central (where my brother is) and Midnight on the east coast (where my acquaintance is.) They tried to figure stuff out for the next hour -- running this into midnight / 1am for them, respectively. I note this -- because my brother is a tenured law professor (which means he has a job for life) and my acquaintance is a partner is a very successful financial firm. Yet, here they were -- literally working into the night to sort out a very specific thing. And if they weren't working on that, they would be working on something else. But when you think about it, is it really any surprise that two people who work as hard as they turned out to be as successful as they are? Sure, there was opportunity and luck and all sorts of other things outside of their control that contributed to their success. But the one thing that was in their control -- working really hard on a regular basis -- they sure took care of that.