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A little bit out of your depth

Jason Gurley
Jason Gurley
1 min read

Felicia shared this video with me recently, and I've probably rewatched now a half dozen times. I really can't get enough of listening to artists talk frankly about their work, their process, their self-doubt.

Bowie's first note here is about not "playing to the gallery":

But never work for other people at what you do. Always remember that the reason that you initially started working was that there was something inside yourself that you felt that, if you could manifest it in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it's terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people's expectations. I think...they'll generally produce their worst work when they do that.

But I like his immediate followup thought just as much:

The other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area that you're working in, you're not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting.

Bowie's thoughts here remind me a bit of James Salter, who used to leave notes to himself inside the covers of his notebooks. Among those many notes (you can see them in detail here, in Austin Kleon's closer examination of them), Salter wrote things like this:

DO NOT BE EAGER TO PLEASE.

Or:

Write for readers like yourself.

Or this, which Salter copied from André Gide:

Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don't be afraid of being left with nothing.

Every artist, no matter how successful or admired, has worked through these feelings on their journey to where they are, and is likely still working through them as they journey to where they're going next.

I wrote a bit more about this in a few Letters from Hill House: Why aren't you faster than you are? and At least I tried.

processletters from hill house