art · artists · authors · writers

A lesson for artists and writers: focus on the destination

helena fairfax, grayson perry, arno minkkinenA few weeks ago I was listening to Grayson Perry, one of my favourite artists, deliver his Reith lectures on BBC radio.*

Grayson Perry is a leading figure in the arts world.  He’s known mainly for his ceramics, but I particularly love his textiles, especially the tapestries he produced for the BBC programme It’s All in the Best Possible Taste, which was about how taste varies from class to class in Britain.  If you didn’t get to see it, you can find out a little bit about it here.

There’s an anecdote Grayson Perry told in his final Reith lecture that sticks in my mind.  He was talking about how it is to leave art college, and the process of finding yourself in the art world. and he recounted a great analogy which was given to him by Finnish photographer Arno Minkkinen .

Minkkinen said that after you leave art college it’s like being at the bus terminal in Helsinki.  You get on a bus and travel for two or three stops and then you get off.  You go into a studio and show the owner your artwork, and he probably says something like ‘Meh’.  So you get on the bus back to the terminal.  Then you try a different bus, heading in a different direction.  After a two or three stops, you get off again and show your artwork in a different studio.  The same thing happens again, so off you go back to the bus terminal.

There are a lot of buses pulling out of Helsinki. You could be carrying on like this for a long time.  But Minkkkinen has the solution.  What you need to do, he says, is get on the bus and STAY ON the bloody bus.  You need to keep on that metaphorical bus until you reach the end destination.

I liked that analogy very much.  If you’re trying to find yourself as an artist or writer, you’re in the journey for the long haul.  If we could all get off at the first stop, how easy that would be.  And what would we have learned?  What would we have seen?

Anyone who follows my blog will know that every week I do an author interview. One of the questions I always ask is ‘What is the main lesson life has taught you?’  An astonishing number of writers – honestly nearly all of them – said that the main lesson life has taught them is never to give up.  In other words, stay on that bus.

helena fairfax, grayson perry, arno minkkinenI’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.  Like many writers, I’m sure, my thoughts about my writing go up and down.  It’s a solitary experience, and to be honest, sometimes quite a lot like sitting on a bus.  The journey can be a slog, and the view isn’t that brilliant.  Unlike being on a bus, though, you don’t even have that lone crazy person sitting next to you to talk to.  (In fact, you probably ARE that lone crazy person :) )

But from now on whenever I’m sweating over my next paragraph, or imagining that no one is ever going to publish this drivel, or I’ll never sell any more of my published books, or any of a million other doubts and niggles that pass through a writer’s mind, I’m going to remember Minkkinen’s words.  I’m on that bloody bus now, and I’m staying on it, no matter how tempting it is at times to get off!

If you want to listen to any more of Grayson Perry’s charming and witty lectures, you can download a podcast here.

*Expalanation:  Lord Reith was a Scotsman and one of the key figures behind the BBC in the 1920s.  The Reith lectures are a ‘series of annual radio lectures on significant contemporary issues, delivered by leading figures from the relevant fields‘, according to the BBC website.  (They’re actually much more interesting than that sounds.)

Do you like Minkkinen’s analogy?  Do you sometimes feel like jacking it all in and getting of the bus?  If so, how do you keep going?  Any comments, I’d love to hear from you!

10 thoughts on “A lesson for artists and writers: focus on the destination

  1. Wow, heavy duty for this early in my morning.When I first read the title I disagreed because I think we get in a big hurry and don’t stop to smell the roses or notice how gorgeous the leaves are decked in their fall colors, or how each little snowflake hangs together to line a branch 2 inches thick. However, then I read your post and Reith’s comments and I do for the most part agree.
    I’m also a realist and every person who wants to isn’t going to be a prima ballerina with the NYC Ballet, not is everyone who wants to going to end up on the big screen. It’s tough to “make it” in the arts. Really for all our issues in the writing world, we at least have the ability now to put our work out there. That’s not the same thing as being recognized as a New York Times Best Seller, but it’s better than never seeing our work out there. And we have a chance to become that NYTBS. (what is that in Britain?) I don’t think its the same for the other arts–though we do have indie movies winning awards and there are more film festivals in the US. Do you have those in Britain?
    Bottom line, everyone has to decide what success is for them. And never giving up is a good way to head in that direction.
    LOL I so didn’t have time to wax on this way. Have a great day and stay warm.


    1. Morning Marsha! It’s afternoon here, and already getting dark :( I absolutely agree with you that everyone has to decide what success is for them. We have bestseller lists and awards festivals here in the UK, but they’re not what motivates me (and to be fair, I don’t think they are what motivates Grayson Perry, either).
      “All” I want to do is write novels that people enjoy, and earn enough money from it to live on. That’s my destination!
      I also agree with you that should enjoy the journey, as well, but it does take some determination sometimes because the journey isn’t always easy. Everyone gets bad reviews, rejections, writers’ block, or some stumbling block on the way. Thanks so much for coming by and reminding me to smell the roses, too, though! We Europeans can be pessimistic, especially at this time of year (I’m not kidding!) Hope you too are keeping warm and well in your part of the world. Thanks for your super comment!


  2. Helena, This topic hit home for me. I’m just now getting back in to the writing groove after months and months and months of riding that bus along the ‘non-inspiration- self-doubt-I’ll never write anything worth reading again’ highway. The positive thing I realize now is that I stayed on that bus and didn’t get off along the way. ;-) And I agree with Marsha, I did some ‘heavy duty’ contemplation on this, and I thank you for that.


    1. Hi Kaye, thanks so much for your comment. I’ve talked to other writers about this, and so many of us have felt the same thing at some time. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we do have self doubt. We work alone for a lot of the time. It takes a strong character to keep going. And I’m glad you’re still on the bus! :) Thanks for your great comment. It’s good to hear sometimes that I’m not alone.


  3. Thank you for your post Helena. I think that bus must be quite full! I know all about self-doubt, disappointment and even a little despair at times…It’s not just the difficulty of the writing process, but the frustration of having so little time to devote to writing and all the marketing or promotion we have to do, and which I have decided to give up on at the moment because I just don’t have the time for it and I’d rather be getting on with my wip. However long takes me to write, I can’t imagine giving up, as long as I have ideas for plots and stories and I can hear my heroes and heroines speak in my head (now that does sound a little crazy!).


    1. Hi Marie, thanks for your comment. You are one person I know is determined to write, and passionate about writing. It shows through in the novels you have had published. I think you will still be on that bus,Marie, long after everyone else has got off :) Your wip will be finished and in print, no matter how long it takes. Thanks for taking time out of writing to come by and comment!


  4. Procrastinating on working on my wip, I clicked over to your site. You sure hit the nail on the head for me. I’m procrastinating because I am in a quandry if it’s worth writing this story. I am 10 chapters into it and wonder how I can get from the beginning to the end..LOL..too complicated so I’ll have to stay on the bus and sort this out. We all have doubts about our abilities not only as writers, grandmothers, mothers, workers, wives…and on and on. That’s when you get off the bus and grab a candy bar to eat on your long trip on the bus! A little break always helps, just like this break with your blog topic. Thanks.


    1. Hi JQ, you’re so right. Taking a step back from time to time really helps give you some perspective. I’ve heard other writers (even best-selling authors) say they get filled with doubt about their WIPs half way through. But you can always edit your writing, JQ, if you feel it needs improving. You can’t do anything with a blank page. Congrats on getting 10 chapters done – and save me some of that candy bar :) Thanks for taking a break on my blog, and good luck with your writing!


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