Book Title: Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age
Author: Jeff Goins
Date of Reading: August 2017
Table of Contents
What Is The Book About As A Whole:
Real Artists Don’t Starve teaches us how to go from a striving to a thriving artist by adapting three unique things in our art: the right mindset to start creating art, becoming professionals by tackling the market, and mastering our relationship with money to make more art.
What Is Being Said In Detail:
Real Artists Don’t Starve has a three-part structure: Mindset, Market, and Money. Each of them is divided into four subsections.
The mindset part of the book talks about the following four parts:
- The difference between thinking you are born an artist and becoming one through effort and practice
- The myth that you need to chase originality. You first need to find mentors and influencers and “steal” from them
- The assumption that you have enough talent as it is. The thriving artists find a master under which to apprentice and learn.
- And the last part talks about the need to be stubborn about the right things. The amateur is stubborn about everything regarding their art— the professional is stubborn only about the right things
The market part of the book talks about the following four parts:
- The need to find a patreon instead of wanting to be noticed
- The importance of location— the thriving artist goes where creative work is already happening instead of waiting for it to come to him
- The effectiveness of working with others— finding the right people to collaborate with
- And the last thing is about practicing— thriving artists practice in public instead of private. They use the space to see what works and what doesn’t, where the potential lies, and what the audience responds to. It’s not perfect nor does it have to be. Shipped is better than perfect!
The money part of the book talks about the following four parts:
- The importance of never working for free
- The leverage that comes when you own your work and not sell out “too soon”
- The need to master multiple crafts so you can combine skills into something new
- The relationship with money— a thriving artist wants money because that means he can create more art. You’re not making art to earn money— You’re earning money to make more art!
Most Important Keywords, Sentences, Quotes:
In the end, Professor Hatfield uncovered a fortune worth roughly $47 million today, making Michelangelo the richest artist of the Renaissance. And to this day, this is a story that surprises us.
Be careful, we say ominously. Don’t be too creative. You just might starve. But what we forget is that the story of the Starving Artist is a myth.
The Starving Artist works for free. The Thriving Artist always works for something.
In the majors, Adrian was in the best shape of his life, making more money than he or his immigrant parents ever could have dreamed, building a career based on the rules we know all too well. Get a good job, do it well, and work hard until you retire. This was the path Adrian Cardenas was on, and he knew how to walk it. With a signing bonus of nearly $1 million, he was every bit the success story we imagine. It had taken Adrian years to get to this point, and now he was finally enjoying the fruits of his labor. He had everything he had ever wanted. There was just one problem: he no longer wanted it.
If you aren’t willing to be a little deviant, then it’s harder to be creative. Sometimes it pays to break the rules.
You have to choose your role and own that identity. We don’t fake it till we make it. We believe it till we become it.
As a new father and lawyer, John Grisham woke up early every morning, went to his office, and wrote a page of his novel. That was his goal. One page per day for 365 days in a row, without fail. It took three years, but by the end of that time, he had completed the manuscript for his first book, A Time to Kill.
The book would eventually go on to be a bestseller, one of many to follow, and in the process Grisham would invent a new genre— the legal thriller. Soon, he would become one of the world’s most successful authors, but he did not do this by betting big. He became a writer by stealing away a little time, thirty minutes to an hour each day. That was it.
This work is a process of continuous reinvention. We don’t just do it once. It is a journey of becoming, one in which we never fully arrive. “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master,” Hemingway mused.
The historian Will Durant once wrote, “Nothing is new except arrangement.” Even that quote is not new, however, hearkening back to the biblical line that there is “nothing new under the sun.”
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, creative work is comprised of five steps: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. What we often think of as “creativity” is really the final step, elaboration.
Creativity is not about being original; it’s about learning to rearrange what has already been in a way that brings fresh insight to old material. Innovation is really iteration.
This creative theft is not something you do because you are lazy or undisciplined. Quite the opposite, in fact. The best artists steal, but they do so elegantly, borrowing ideas from many sources and arranging them in new and interesting ways. You have to know your craft so well that you can build on the work of your predecessors, adding to the body of existing work.
The way you establish your authority in a certain field is by mastering the techniques of those who are already authorities. And what eventually emerges over time is your own style.
When I began my career as a writer, I wanted to find my voice. Whenever I tried to write in what felt like my style, though, it wasn’t good. Inevitably, the writing would drift into the voice of whatever book I was reading. For a long time, I thought real writers did something different. They must have been born with innate talent, some style that was just waiting to get onto the page. Turns out, that’s not true. We find our voice by mimicking the voices of others.
They keep copying until the techniques become internalized. Then and only then can you create something the world calls “original.”
When you steal, don’t just copy and paste the work of your predecessors. Once you have mastered the form, bring those influences together in a new way. Curate before you create. If you do this well, you won’t be merely cribbing other people’s work and passing it off as your own. You will be building on it and making it better.
You are patient, because you realize that though your big moment may not come today, if you put the work in, you will eventually see the results.
You persevere, because you know this will not be easy and the odds are stacked against you. But if you keep going, you will outlast the majority who quit at the first few signs of trouble.
You are humble, because you know how far you still have to go, and this attitude will earn the attention of masters who will want to invest in you and see you succeed.
Michelangelo assisted Ghirlandaio in whatever his master needed. Perhaps just as important as the technical skills he developed in the studio, he also learned what it meant to be an artist of such stature: the responsibilities of running a studio, the challenges of managing apprentices, the social dynamics of dealing with patrons. This is most of what an apprenticeship is: watching, listening, and being present in the process. You experience by doing, and you internalize those lessons.
Latin motto Gradatim Ferociter, which describes not only how we might end up leaving the planet one day but also how we can all succeed as artists in the meantime: step by step, ferociously.
We are told artists are stubborn, and they certainly can be. But this isn’t always a bad thing. Stubbornness can be an essential ingredient in making a living off your art. When you harness your strategic stubbornness, you give the world a reason to believe in your work.
In creative work, quality is subjective. How do you determine if a painting is good or bad? What makes a song beautiful? Objectively speaking, these things are hard to measure. What we need, then, are authorities on art. We need someone to tell us Bob Dylan is a genius and Vincent van Gogh was ahead of his time. Otherwise, we are left to make such determinations on our own, and we are often mistaken about who ends up being a genius.
In his spare time, Hemingway would exchange boxing lessons for writing tips with Ezra Pound. At the Closerie de Lilas or Les Deux Magots he sometimes spotted James Joyce or bumped into F. Scott Fitzgerald, who introduced him to editor Maxwell Perkins. In the evenings, he would stroll down to 27 Rue du Fleurus where Gertrude Stein lived, and listen to her lecture on the importance of buying paintings rather than clothes.
It all happened in Paris.
This is the Rule of the Scene, which says that places and people shape the success of our work far more than we realize. Location is not irrelevant. Place matters. As social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “Creativity is more likely in places where new ideas require less effort to be perceived.”
When you’re playing a game you can’t seem to win, sometimes the best thing to do is not try harder. None of us want to spend our lives playing by someone else’s rules. When the game is unfair, change the game you’re playing. Move to another city, create a new art form, get a different network. If the group you want to be a part of doesn’t want you, then create your own.
Four years ago, three people I barely knew got together and decided they wanted to start a peer group of local business leaders. Each person asked three other people to join the group, and that’s how twelve of us started meeting together every week to discuss our businesses and lives. We’ve been doing it ever since.
Diana Glyer’s personal theory is that 92 percent of The Lord of the Rings was written on Wednesday nights, because J. R. R. Tolkien knew on Thursdays he’d have to face his friend C. S. Lewis and account for his work. Lewis and the rest of the Inklings would ask where Tolkien was in the story he’d been telling them. “What did you write?” they would ask. “And it’s that expectation,” Professor Glyer said, “there’s a ferocious aspect to it. But there’s also compassionate expectation that says, ‘You have this great idea. You told me about this project. You
said you were going to drive this. How’s that going for you?’ And knowing that other people are out there, I think, makes all the difference.”
One of her cartoons features a white ghost with the caption: “Let yourself be seen.” Below it, Stephanie wrote, “I was nervous about putting my work out in the open. Because as much as I wanted people to know what I was doing, I was worried about being exposed. There was a risk of letting myself be seen. Like if they looked too closely, they’d discover I was a fraud. If I showed off my work, I’d be vulnerable to criticism or worse: silence.
The more we do this, the better we get, and the more confident we become. Eventually, people start to notice. This doesn’t mean we let them see every step of the process, but we have to put our work out there. And when we do, we just might be surprised at how people react.
One of the oldest lies we believe is that if you do something you love and charge for it, the money somehow taints the work. When it comes to other trades, payment is expected; but with writers, photographers, designers, and other artists, we seem to think they don’t warrant the same serious treatment that an engineer or carpenter might receive.
When we undervalue our work, we end up playing the martyr, resenting the free gig halfway through the process. “When I notice myself resenting my clients and wanting to quit,” Melissa Dinwiddie said, “I realize I don’t need to quit. I just need to raise my prices. If you’re feeling resentment at all, you’re charging too little.”
When the prolific science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison was asked to contribute an interview for a film project on the making of the TV show Babylon 5, he said, “Absolutely!” There was just one small stipulation: “All you’ve got to do is pay me.”
It’s a common story. The talent that earns us initial success can quickly become obsolete.
This is what ownership does. It gives you options. The Starving Artist tends to trust the system and hope for the best, but that’s a bad idea. “The object,” Lucas said, “is to try and make the system work for you, instead of against you.”
It’s not that selling out is bad. But selling out in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons, is what we need to avoid.
In 1987, when Cirque du Soleil was invited to perform at an arts festival, the nonprofit group was facing financial problems. The leader Guy Laliberte decided to perform at the festival anyway, and the performance ended up being a hit. Afterward, Columbia Pictures took notice of the performance, reaching out to Laliberte about making a movie about Cirque. The offer sounded intriguing enough to pursue but ended up being too good to be true. When Laliberte realized just how much ownership he would have to give up to get Cirque on the big screen, he pulled out. The experience convinced him his company should transition into the for-profit sector and be privately held so he could have all the freedom he needed to operate the company. Today Laliberte is a billionaire. We must own our masters or our masters will own us.
Your art is never beholden to a single form. You can always change and evolve, and the best artists do this regularly. They understand that in order to thrive, you have to master more than one skill. This is the Rule of the Portfolio: the Starving Artist believes she must master a single skill, whereas the Thriving Artist builds a diverse body of work.
In the middle of his life, Michelangelo, now a well-established artist, undertook a new discipline— architecture—and began designing St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. At a time when most people double down on mastering the skills they’ve already acquired, he learned a new one.
We don’t make art for the money. We make money so that we can make more art.
Book Review (Personal Opinion):
Real Artists Don’t Starve walks that thin line between being an artist that has money and a sellout who only makes art to cash in. As an artist, I find the book quite fascinating because Goins explains that you can still retain your freedom, your tone of voice, your own mind, and your work while not being hungry and homeless.
This Book Is For (Recommend):
- A young creative thinking that you can’t live nice if you’re an artist
- A struggling 35-year-old writer who doesn’t want to sell out his soul to corporations
- A successful singer, dancer, or musician who reached the top but thinks she lost something artistic in her soul in the process
If You Want To Learn More
Here’s a talk by Jeff Goins and Chase Jarvis on his podcast:
Podcast with Jeff Goins
How I’ve Implemented The Ideas From The Book
I’ve learned how to stand up for my art (writing) and still find a way to live a good and thriving life. The book helped me find mentors (from writers like Steven Pressfield, Robert McKee, and Ryan Holiday) and “steal” their best ideas for my art.
One Small Actionable Step You Can Do
Take any creative relationship that you have which is making you even a bit uneasy or resentful, and ask for a raise. You don’t resent the art, but the amount attached to making the art. When you’re paid your worth, you will reinvigorate the desire to make your art.