Legend has it that the great Bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the Devil at The Crossroads. Up to that point, Johnson had been a musician of average skills, making his living going from Juke Joint to Juke Joint in the deep south.
According to Wikipedia “Around this time, the noted blues musician Son House moved to Robinsonville where his musical partner, Willie Brown, already lived. Late in life, House remembered Johnson as a boy who had followed him around and tried unsuccessfully to copy him. But when House moved to Robinsonville in 1930, Johnson was a young adult, already married and widowed. Johnson then left the Robinsonville area, reappearing after a few months with a miraculous guitar technique.”
The legend says that Johnson met the Devil in the guise of a large black man at the Crossroads. The man took Johnson’s guitar, tuned it, played a song and handed it back in return for the promise of Johnson’s soul. From that time on, Johnson had total mastery of the instrument and the blues.
Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? Not the selling your soul part, but instant mastery or one project that permanently changes your career for the better. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work like that.
I have had many clients who believe that winning an award, getting into a prestigious industry organization or having a film that does well will change everything and it will all become easy from here on out. And they’re right, it does change everything and everything does become easy!! For a few weeks or months anyway. Once the hype begins to die down, the big machine of Hollywood starts to ask it’s tiring and inevitable question again: what else you got? If there is any one reason that Hollywood has a cynical reputation this is it.
It’s a treadmill, there’s just no denying it. You put it all out there, your talent, your sweat, your heart and soul, yet achievement can feel fleeting. That’s the problem, achievement IS fleeting. However, mastery is another story altogether.
Mastery is excellence for the sake of excellence. It has nothing to do with achievement or money. It has to be about craft and passion. There is a great idiom in motivational thought: money never leads, it follows. Yes, I know your question is “yeah, and what am I supposed to do until the money follows? There are bills to pay!”
No easy answers for this one. If you don’t love your craft with all your soul, it’s time to buy a sausage and peppers cart and start working Central Park. If you’ve determined that the life of an Artist is worth the pain, struggle and periods of suffering then get as immersed in craft as you can. Really, it’s the only way. Especially if paying work is alluding you right now. Trust in the fact that if you keep honing, studying and practicing your craft it will eventually pay off in ways that can be quantified as achievement.
Or, of course you can always sell your soul to the Devil. Being the helpful person I am, Here’s my four point plan for doing so. 1. Find an intersection where two streets cross. Easy, they are everywhere. In rural areas foot traffic may not be constant so bring a lawn chair. 2. Wait until a large black man comes along. Doesn’t have to be black man, could be white, could be a woman, but very large, I mean large, like 6’4″, 320 pounds large, don’t skimp here, size is important. 3. Hand him (or her) your instrument, screen play, camera, portfolio, whatever, and politely ask: “are you the Devil?” 4. As you recover in intensive care from the beating you got with whatever it was you handed him (or her), contemplate how less painful it would have been to just commit yourself to craft.
Art isn’t easy, even when you can successfully sell your soul to the Devil. Robert Johnson only lived a few more years after his meeting at the Crossroads. He was poisoned by whiskey laced with strychnine. Though never proved, it was believed the murderer was a Juke Joint owner who thought Johnson was flirting with his wife . It took Johnson 3 painful days to die.
What’s it going to be? Hard work or the fantasy of an easy way to mastery? You can go with the fantasy and maybe someday long after you’re gone you too can be the subject of an urban myth. Or, maybe the hard work will be worth it. Perhaps art for art’s sake will pan out and sustain you. You never know.