This is the chief advice I give to my students and all who ask. A while ago a twenty-five year old designer from Birmingham wrote me a letter. He said that he was just beginning to meet people in the field and found their words of advice encouraging. He asked me if I had any “words of wisdom” that I would be willing to share with him. I did, teacher that I am, and I am going to end my presentation by reading the letter I wrote to him. It is, I think, a fair (if opaque) distillation:
The best advice I could possibly give you, and forgive me if this seems glib, is to work. Work. Work. Work. Every day. At the same time every day. For as long as you can take it every day, work, work, work. Understand? Talent is for shit. I’ve taught school for nearly thirty years and never met a student who did not have some talent. It is as common as house dust or kudzu vine in Alabama and is just about as valuable. Nothing is as valuable as the habit of work, and work has to become a habit. This I learned from Flannery O’Connor. Read her. Read her letters especially, and her essays. You will learn more about what it is you want to do from people like her and Ben Shahn and Eudora Welty than you will ever learn from drawing classes. Read. Read. Read. You are in the business of words more than pictures. You must understand words and the craft and art of putting words together to move men’s souls and minds and hearts. Listen to music. Listen to Bach’s Art of the Fugue and the Goldberg Variations over and over and over. Every day, day after day after day until you begin to sense, if not understand, what he is up to. Then try to implement what you intuit from Bach into your own work. I don’t care if you don’t like classical music. Do it. It is invaluable, but you have to listen, and then don’t listen. Let it fill your mind at one moment and then let it flow over you and into you until you are paying it no attention whatever. Bach will teach you form and structure and rhythm and all sorts of things you never imagined.
Second to the value of work is the willingness to fail. Faulkner said that to not fail is to be perfect and that if we ever did anything perfect nothing would remain but to cut the throat. Experiment and fail. Move on. Experiment and fail. Move on. Always keep in motion and finish the job even if it is not exactly what you hoped it would be, is not as good as it could be. It will never be as good as it could be. But each time you must try to make it as good as it could be. Its shortcomings will reveal themselves in time, sometimes to your embarrassment, but that’s ok. It’s part of the growth process. Failure is the foundation of growth. I’ve done over 200 books and not one of them is perfect. But.I would rather have the 200 imperfect books that comprise my history and mark the vectors of my path through my art form than to have one perfect book which would comprise nothing but its own perfect self and denote no vectors of a life lived, and an art form struggled with and occasionally, very occasionally, bested. More I cannot advise you except (as corny and prosaic as it may seem) put love first in your life, love of yourself and your work and of other people, and of whatever things of the spirit move and motivate you, and to have fun and maintain a fierce sense of humor. There is nothing so serious or important that it can’t be laughed at, or even poked a little fun at. Practice safe sex. Don’t do heavy drugs. Don’t get drunk and drive a car. Eat your greens. Get plenty of sleep.
…my very best wishes.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.
Heard this today. And I think this is how it should be.