Raskolnikov seeks mentor

I'm madly creative without a clue how to create

By Cary Tennis
Published April 3, 2013 4:00AM (UTC)
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(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I just read your column advising Lost in the Fog, and I couldn't help relating his/her feeling of imprisonment to my own. I'm a freshman in college and I'm extremely unhappy. I don't know exactly how to express this state of discontentment because I've never felt it before. In high school, I self-medicated a lot with pot, taking the pressure off myself. Now I'm at college and it's way harder so I had to stop smoking, but I'm miserable.


I can't seem to escape my ego. I fear constantly that I won't succeed in life -- and for some reason my definition of success is achieving some sort of artistic greatness that will result in fame. I realize this is a totally superficial and selfish goal, but I literally can't stop thinking about it. I tell myself to just be patient, to get through college so that I can explore different forms of art, but I can't find my niche and it's torturous. I feel like I'm a 35-year-old trapped in an 18-year-old's body.

I have a girlfriend of three years. I love her, but I don't know what that means. She's a junior in college. My life feels like a mess, even though everything appears to be OK on the surface. I have a secret desire to make computer-generated alternative or hip-hop music, but I never found the motivation to figure the software out. My only joy is in writing and listening to music, but I constantly doubt my own ability to create like those I study and admire. I'm trapped in a vicious circle of self-loving and self-loathing.

I need some assistance.




Dear Raskolnikov,

Yes, you do need some kind of assistance. I suggest you take that literally. You need to find some assistance at your university and the realm of creating, of becoming a creative artist. At this point that's the only thing that will work.


You need to be creating. You need to start creating. How can you do that in your college? You need to go to the music department and the painting department and the drama department and just tell them that you think you have to create and don't know how. Don't leave. Don't leave if they look at you with puzzlement. Someone there will know what you are talking about because this is the way it happens. You don't know what this drive is at first. It feels like madness. It's not. If you did not grow up in a family that recognized this creative urge, if it was not nurtured in school, then it may lie dormant as a secret, and when it comes calling you don't know what to do with it. It's as if someone throws you the ball and you don't know how to catch it. It's your muse throwing you the ball. Seriously. So go to the places where the creative people are and ask for help. Don't laugh if they use words you don't understand. Don't worry about it. Just stay there until they tell you something you can use. That's what you're at the university for. You're there to learn what you need. You're on a journey and you're at the university to learn what your next step is and get prepared for it. The only way you can be prepared for your next step is to acquire creative skills and knowledge. So acquire them.

Let me say this too: You have a right to be a creative person. This is a universal law. It is not religious or philosophical, it is just an observation: Creative people appear on this earth and they don't ask to be creative but they are driven to be creative and they are not happy unless they are being creative. They aren't happy unless they are making things or discussing making things or putting things they made in the mail or painting the things they made or selling the things they made. That's why people live in lofts and join caravans because the only time they feel alive is when they are drenched in the colors of their being. In a loft with buckets of paint. In a studio with instruments and knobs. On the road. In an attic room with a view of the river. Barefoot in a stranger's bed. Waiting for a train on a vast prairie. You will only be happy when your mysterious need to create is being serviced, addressed.


It's not about ego and fame. It's about the opposite. It's about humility and sacrifice. It's about appetite. You have grown up in a warped and crazy culture. You have not been taught right. You have gotten the idea somehow that creating is about ego. It is about the opposite. You need to get with people who understand and honor the creative temperament. They will know what to do with you. They will not find you strange at all. They will know that the dream of fame and fortune is a kind of devil that can destroy you and they will help you find a job as a stagehand. They will help you by putting a broom in your hand or having you carry equipment or teaching you to proofread.

This is the beginning of a long quest. It will require many forms of introspection and labor. It begins with your declaration that you are a creative person whether you like it or not. It may not be clear what kind of creative you are. You say you want to create hip-hop. That is fine.

Don't wait to finish college to explore different forms of art. Do it now. You say you constantly doubt your ability to create like those you admire. Fine. Do it anyway.


What is important is your desire to create. That is the only thing that matters. How well or poorly you create does not matter yet. What matters is your desire to create. You must take care of this desire. You must go to others and humble yourself. Say that you feel a great creative urge and do not know how to begin. But put yourself around the materials of your art. Put yourself around a newspaper, around a drama department, around musical instruments. Pick up a musical instrument and get close to it. Smell it. Smell the inside of a trombone case. Smell the inside of a recording studio. Ride in a car with a hop-hop artist. Be among those who are doing the things that attract you. Just hang around. Just be there.

And find things to do. If you are driven to write, then begin writing. When you get to something you don't know how to do, treat it like a problem that has an answer. Get answers.

Learn forms. There are many forms but they are not infinite. Learn some forms and copy them. Learn songs. Memorize poems. Study theory. Learn to pay attention to what moves you and what does not move you. Pay attention to when you feel an artist is lying to you, and pay attention to how upset you get. Why get upset when you feel an artist is lying to you? Because it matters to you. Because you are finding out who you are.


Universities are where the people are. Find your people. Today universities emphasize job preparation but they still are havens for creative people.

Find your people. They will be in the art department, in the drama department, in music and journalism and literature.

Just be honest about it: You want to create. You're not sure how yet but you know you want to create.

That's enough. That's a starting point. Find people who will guide you and teach you. That's what you're at the university for. That's what you're paying them for.


Good luck, Raskolnikov!

Cary Tennis

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