Courtney Act, a contestant on Ru Pauls Drag Race, is a talented, beautiful performer. Courtney can sing, dance, and has got miles of charisma. Yet in the final round of Drag Race, there’s something missing, despite that incredible talent. This could just be the way the show is edited, reality competitions can be as far from truth as lead from gold, but be it truth or editing, that particular storyline says something interesting about a topic I’ve been thinking about for quite some time – truth, talent, and the artist.
As a beginning artist, you’re got a lot to learn. Lots has been said about this part of the adventure – from Ira Glass’s statements on taste to Neil Gaiman’s amazing speech at the University of the Arts.
I’m not yet school-age, and I have teased my older autistic brother into a rage. I am curled up in a ball on the green carpet of my parents bedroom as he beats my back with his fists. He doesn’t get a diagnosis till he’s sixteen.
Fewer things are said about the journeyman. At this point you have talent, drive, and skill, but there are still missing elements. What comes next is a series of hazy forks in the road. One of the dangers of this journey, one I’ve seen a few people fall into, is hiding behind skill. You’ve all seen this: the technically correct stories with excellent grammar, a structured plot, and zero emotional truth. The photography with perfect exposure of a lovely scene, color correct and following all the rules, with no heart.
I am in third grade, and I do not have the eyeglasses I desperately need to see the board. At home, along with the Bernstein bears, I am also reading The Prince and the Pauper and Phantom of the Opera. But I cannot read the letters on the board, they are all blurred. The teacher, Mrs. Schmit, pulls me to the front of the class, “This is what you don’t want to be,” she tells the children. It doesn’t make my eyes better, and it doesn’t help the bullying.
Obviously it’s best technical skill and emotional truth operate as a team. But hiding is tempting. As an amateur, your flaws are all on display, but when you gain skill, you can hide behind your talents. It’s a shield. You can make a beautiful, technically correct thing, all the periods where they should be, all the colors balanced, and it can be empty. Artists can skate by on skill, without becoming vulnerable. But without emotional truth, it can never be master work.
I’ve been told that I’m ugly my everyone except my mother for my entire life. Then I’m fifteen and in the bedroom of a guy with his girlfriend and my best friend. It’s getting sexually charged, but I’m not worried, I don’t see myself as a person anyone would think of sexually. I’m like a couch or a rhino. Then the guy pulls me down to the bed and holds me down while he feels my breasts. I’m surprised, I tell him repeatedly to let me go. When I get desperate, start struggling, my best friend steps in, tells the guy to let me get up. He listens to my friend, but not to me. I wait outside till my mother comes to pick me up. None of my friends believe me. My best friend won’t say anything about the topic. Later, I learn most sexual assault and harassment goes like this.
To do master-work, you have to do the thing that terrifies you. You have to tell the truth.
I don’t know what that is for you. I know what it is for me. I suspect it’s different for each artist. There are no simple answers at the journeyman level. We are lost and alone together.
This doesn’t mean that your work needs to become highly dramatic. I was reading Owly by Andy Runton and in the back of one of those books he wrote about how starting out as an illustrator, he tried to illustrate typical adventure comics. But what really caught on with people was illustrating a comic about little owl who lives with a worm in a treehouse. Maybe your scary truth is that you aren’t epic, maybe it’s that you are adorable.
But reaching into that truth can be terrifying. Part of the fear comes from the thought that we are alone in our experiences, and part of it comes from the terror that if we tell the truth, people will have weapons to use against us. But you are not alone, and your truth is the source of your power.
“If you feel pain,” says the nurse, “Press the button and you’ll get some relief.”
“Will the baby feel it too?” I ask.
“The baby will get the medicine, same as you,” she tells me.
“Good,” I say, and I press the button.
Still can’t do it? Believe me, I understand. I know all of this, but I can only leak out my truth in tiny droplets – desire here, sadness there, and yes, I believe it’s holding me back as an artist.
I can become a skilled, polished artist, but when I use that as a shield, I am stuck, weighted down by the armor I’m using to protect me.