The Agony of Youth

Young people face many types of obstacles on their journey to becoming an artist. Sure, there are external factors, like money, school or parents. Many young artists, though, suffer more from internal issues than external restrictions. I call this state "the agony of youth." Inside a young artist, one can find wild levels of all emotions, such as doubt, fear, hubris, pretense and agonizing self-awareness. These passions are sometimes more powerful barriers to an art career than lack of dollars.

When I was in my late teens, my primary worry, morning, noon and night, was "Am I any good as an artist?" I confess that the prideful part of my mind felt the answer was clearly yes. "I am great," I told myself, quite a bit. Every time, I thought this, though, another emotion appeared, that seemed suspiciously like fear. What if I wasn't great? What if I failed? Thus, before I even made any art, I boarded the roller coaster emotion ride of youth. Monday: agony. Tuesday: boasting. Wednesday: fretting. Thursday: practicing imaginary acceptance speeches. Friday: date night.

Being a young woman from a small town, I lacked worldly information, so I observed my peers hungrily, looking for clues about my status. When I graduated from high school, I figured my life path would become clear soon, probably in a matter of months. In college, I reasoned, I would learn exactly what to do as an adult. That's why people went right? I planned to be a writer, so I figured I'd have two or three novels completed by the end of college. If I didn't win a Pulitzer by 30, I figured, then I'd know for sure I was a loser.

With a lot of help from my teachers and my mother, I got into Yale. When I got the acceptance letter, I decided this must mean I had some talent at something. It was empirical evidence, right? Sometimes when I looked at the acceptance letter, though, I was terrified. If this piece of paper said I had talent, I wondered, then why did I still have fear?

Yale University Campus

When I arrived at Yale, the first person I met was another incoming freshman on the airport shuttle. He was deeply tanned, so I figured he must have been a lifeguard or a lawn mower before college.

"What did you do this summer?" I asked, trying to be friendly.

"I studied spiders in Chile," he said, not looking up. "What did you do?"

"Oh, well…I was a bank teller in my hometown." For some reason, my voice trailed away as I said this.

"Ah," he said, and went back to reading the last chapter of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. I looked at the book and remember that I'd received a letter saying I was supposed to have read that too. Oops.

At orientation, we played a game called "Which State Are You From?" We stood in rows of students facing each other and one student was passed down the row in the arms of the others. They said which state they were from and everyone shouted it out until the student had been passed all the way down the line. These were the states I heard called out before my turn:

  1. New York
  2. New York
  3. New York
  4. California
  5. New Jersey
  6. California
  7. California
  8. New York
  9. New York
  10. California

When they got to me, I said "Tennessee." There was surprise for a minute and then people started shouting out "Tennessee!" happily, as if that was just the same as New York. That was my first inkling that the students were not evenly drawn from all over the country. One girl I talked to mentioned that 30 of her high-school classmates were freshmen at Yale.

"Where did you go to school?" I asked.

"Exeter," she said.

"Where's that?"

"New Hampshire." The duh was implied.

At night we were allowed to roam free of our orientation guides. This is where the hierarchy began. It was like the sorting hat in Harry Potter, except with only Slytherins. Here's how the conversations went.

"Hi, I'm Sherrod."

"Hi, I'm Tim."

"Oh, where are you from, Tim?"

"New York."

"Oh, yeah, I noticed a lot of people are from New York."

"Yeah. So, what did you get on the SAT, Sherrod?"

"Uh, 1360. What did you get?"

"1600. That's a perfect score on math and verbal."

"Oh, wow, I didn't know anyone even did that."

"Yeah, there's four of us here. I'm trying to find the other three. See you around, Sherrod."

After a while I went back to my room and met my roommate from North Carolina, who was also trying to finish History of the Peloponnesian War.

"My dad wants me to take Greek because he studied classics," she said, pointing doubtfully at a small book filled with strange characters.

"Classics? You mean like classic books? Or like classic rock?" I asked.

"Classics in academia means you're studying Latin and Greek," she said, wistfully, fingering the tiny volume. "I want to please my father, but Greek looks incredibly hard."

"Oh," I said, beginning to worry. My father had not studied Latin and Greek. He had not asked me to study anything for him.

"My parents think I'm going to do great here," I replied, sticking my chin up proudly. Inside, I wondered what would happen if I failed. My parents would be so disappointed.

My roommate laughed. "I guess that's what's expected." She looked gently at my nervous face and said, "Why don't we get dinner together?"

♦♦♦

Since I intended to be a writer, I investigated the student magazines.

"Did you read the new piece in The Lit?" asked a girl from my English seminar. She held the Yale Literary Magazine in her hand.

"Yeah, you know I didn't really understand it." I said, studying her black outfit. Her hair, earrings and bracelets were black. Even her lipstick was black.

"What do you mean?" she said, pulling out a clove cigarette.

"It didn't seem to really be a story," I said, feeling stupid. "It was like some imagery patched together."

"Oh, yeah, it's non-narrative," she said, puffing away. "Are you going to sign up for Harold Bloom's seminar?"

"Who's Harold Bloom?"

"You know, Harold Bloom, the deconstructionist," she said, narrowing her eyes at me.

"What's that?"

"Deconstruction, Derrida, Foucault…literature?"

"I've read a lot of literature," I volunteered. "You know, like John Steinbeck."

"No, Lit, like the study of culture and criticism."

"I'm majoring in English. Isn't that literature?"

"Literature is a separate major from English," she said, blowing smoke in my face.

"Why?"

"Where did you say you were from again?" She turned to me and fingered my red wool coat with puffy sleeves that my mother and I had bought at the local department store in my hometown.

"Tennessee."

"Right. Well, I recommend you stick with English." She sauntered away, waiving at some other people smoking cigarettes.

♦♦♦

A funny thing happened to me in college. I didn't get a plan for adulthood. Instead of writing novels, I remained frozen for four years, petrified to put my writing on display. Once, early on, I spent several nervous days writing poems to submit to a famous seminar, but I couldn't bring myself to turn them in because I was convinced they weren't good enough. My amiable Greek-studying roommate got in the poetry seminar, and I was consumed with envy for a long time. Nothing makes you feel more like a loser than being envious of a nice person's achievements.

If I wasn't writing, though, I had to do something artistic. Rumor had it that the photography classes were interesting. How hard could it be, right? You walk up to something and push a button. I figured I could do that.

I didn't realize that you had to audition for photography class. When I got to the classroom, I found 60 people crowded in, vying for 24 spots.

"All right," barked the professor. "Here's the deal. Each of you fools has 1 minute to convince me you belong in my class." He looked to the far left, at a poised young woman. "You, there, lady in the first seat, go."

"My parents were friends with Diane Arbus," said the woman, holding up a camera with a large zoom lens. "They had lunch with her the day of her suicide."

"Have you ever done any photography yourself?"

"Uh, well, I have a good camera, the best."

"Next, please."

The next student put out his credentials. "My parents own Ansel Adams' whole collection and I have a Leica that Adams carried with him to Yosemite."

"Have you ever done any photography?"

"Uh, no."

"Next, please."

A woman in a blue blazer said, "I ran the student photography club at Wellington Day School."

"Did you ever take any pictures of puppies or children?"

"Yes," she beamed, "In fact, we published a coffee-table book called Dogs of Wellington."

"If you ever bring me a photo of a puppy, I'll make you sing "Feelings," to the class," said the professor, rolling his eyes, "Next, please."

A serious looking older student with a red bandana spoke next. He said, "I spent a month in the Falklands photographing wounded Argentinean soldiers. I've published a book, Unjust War, with Random House."

"This is an art class, not a journalism class. Next, please."

I listened in amazement as the professor cut people down with his machete tongue. When it was my turn, I stammered something about how I really loved making art but wasn't very good at public speaking. The professor grunted and said, "Next, please." His eyes flicked to the handsome young man next to me, and I receded into the background, forgotten.

At that moment, I experienced the full agony of youth. My dreams were so big, but my abilities were so small. Here I was at a big Ivy League University, surrounded by people who far outclassed me in talent and confidence. For one thing, I didn't even know who Ansel Adams was or the other person they kept talking about, Diane Arbus. Not only was I too afraid to try out for a writing class, but I couldn't even audition for photography, for Christ's sake.

While the rest of the people spoke, I sat in despair, wondering what I was going to do in adulthood if I couldn't be an artist of some kind. There was no other job I wanted. Beyond that dream, existed only a black hole.

At the end of the class, the professor bawled, "I'll make my decisions tonight people. Get out of here." He reached for a cigarette and added, "Oh, and anyone who thinks they didn't do well in this audition and would like to say more, please come see me right now."

Apparently, the rest of the students thought they did fine, because the crowd departed, running off to other classes. When the door shut, only three bashful young women, including myself, remained.

"You think you can hack it in my class, huh?" He glowered at us with his dark Italian eyes, observing our skittishness and naive, country faces.

We nodded vigorously, eager to become like him, an actual bona-fide New York artist. He certainly looked the part, sporting a black bomber jacket, wild greying hair and a sleek, German camera styled around his neck.

As we held our breath, the professor frowned, feigning boredom, to see if we would run away. He sighed heavily, as if unsure what to do with us.

"Don't leave," I thought to myself, "If you leave, you'll have to take a business class."

Unexpectedly, the professor broke into a boyish grin. He uncapped his pen and winked at us. "You know, ladies, every year I invite all the students to come talk to me after the audition. I save a spot for anyone who stays. Tell me your names. You're in the class."

Sure enough, when the roster was posted the next afternoon, we three were on the list. I worried that I would suck at photography, but the first time people brought in actual pictures, I saw that I was going to do just fine. When you are driven by a need to express yourself to survive the pain of your environment, you can do so in any medium.

For young artists, especially young women artists, a lot of mental time is wasted wondering if one is any good. The fear of putting oneself forth is overwhelming. Only after I overcame terror and put my work on the wall, did I understand that the only thing holding me back was myself.

♦♦♦

Although I did well in college art classes, I still wondered often if I really qualified as "an artist." This is part of the "agony of youth." Wondering, worrying, waiting, hoping for the roadmap to adulthood. I thought the map would be clear, but instead, signs sprung up randomly.

One day, after a photography class critique, a woman approached me and said, "I want to buy your picture. How much?"

"Oh, uh, really?" I looked at her tall willowy frame and long blond hair. She looked kind of cool. Did cool people like my pictures?

"$15?" she asked. As she walked away with the picture, I looked at the money in my hand. Was I now an artist? Not yet, I cautioned myself, afraid of claiming something I didn't deserve. In my head, I imagined the number of pictures I needed to sell before I could officially say I was a real artist. Ten? Twenty?

While waiting for further road signs, I tried oil painting. The way I could tell I liked painting was that I spent about 100 hours on my first painting, a self-portrait. When I brought the finished work back to my dorm room, my boyfriend sat up, surprised.

"Hey, that's actually pretty good," he said, putting on his glasses to look closer, "I honestly wasn't expecting much when you said you were painting."

"Thanks," I said, pleased but irritated. I'd like to see you paint a self-portrait, I thought.

"Yeah, that's not bad," he said again. He walked up to the painting and looked from the canvas to me, as if trying to find the connection. "Not bad at all."

♦♦♦

I didn't write novels or become a photographer, but I did paint, slowly at first and then devotedly. I began to display and sell my work, and then show in galleries. I developed a thicker skin. I took classes, did residencies, joined artist groups. One day, I realized I was a real artist, not just a person who wanted to be an artist. I was 40.

I'm writing this to say that if you can survive the molten-lava experience of being a young artist, on fire, unsure of yourself, pressed on every side by ideas of success and failure, you may find that as you age, the agony cools but the pleasure of art remains. You may feel at 50, while stretching a canvas, the simple pleasure you felt finger-painting at 5. All you have to do is survive ages 13-30, in which the noise of the world is a thousand flies buzzing around the corpse of your innocence. Good luck. If you fail, remember this: Everyone fails at first, but those who keep going usually find their way across the desert, step by burning step, to the oasis of art.