Author Interview: Jerry Saltz

How to Be an Artist is a tutorial that will help artists of all kinds—painters, photographers, writers, performers—realize their dreams. We spoke with author Jerry Saltz about his inspiration, the difficulties of making art, classic audiobooks, and more.

Inspiration leaps off the pages from Jerry Saltz’s new book on creativity. . . . This book is for the artist or non-artist, for the person who gets plain English, for the person who understands that practical talk can coax out the mystical messages that lie underneath.

Steve Martin

Art has the power to change our lives. For many, becoming an artist is a lifelong dream. But how to make it happen? In How to Be an Artist, Jerry Saltz, one of the art world’s most celebrated and passionate voices, offers an indispensable handbook for creative people of all kinds.

From the first sparks of inspiration—and how to pursue them without giving in to self-doubt—Saltz offers invaluable insight into what really matters to emerging artists: originality, persistence, a balance between knowledge and intuition, and that most precious of qualities, self-belief. Brimming with rules, prompts, and practical tips, How to Be an Artist gives artists new ways to break through creative blocks, get the most from materials, navigate career challenges, and above all, find joy in the work.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

How to Be an Artist is a letter to my younger, former-artist self. As with all artists, when I was starting out, demons of internal criticism sounded in my head: “You’re no good; you don’t know what you’re doing; you don’t know how to schmooze; your neck looks awful.” The usual jam. After battling these voices for ten years, I gave in. I stopped being an artist. To this day, it hurts me to write those words. I don’t wish this on anyone. Yet it happens to people every day.

I wanted to write a gentle guide for all the freaked-out, fragmented selves out there who are just trying to create something—anything. It’s not about becoming a rich and famous artist, although that could happen. It’s for anyone who wants to have a life lived in art, to live more creatively, who wants to figure out how to speak back to the demons and get to work.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

If you can get out of your own way, make an enemy of envy, and K.I.S.S—Keep it simple, stupid!—you might start to glean that your art is using you to replicate itself. It’s as if a ghost inside you is composing this song, doing that dance, writing these words.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

I heard one full chapter. It turns out I’m bit of a slow-talker—which can be helpful in discussing something as beautiful, mysterious, and complicated as art. I also realized that hearing something—a phrase, an idea—can turn it into an earworm for your brain.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I was a terrible student; terrible. No school; I barely ever read. It’s crazy that I choose to write at all. About fifteen years ago, I decided to go back and read the classics—one year per book—and I discovered that, after reading a book, I love listening to it on audio. Faves include The Iliad, The Aeneid, Paradise Lost, Samson Agonistes, and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I’m not as pretentious as this sounds. Just a very late bloomer.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

I can’t live if living is without independent bookstores. I’m old enough to remember when there was such a thing as “the underground,” when every bookstore was different, all sharing this one language of books but in tens of millions of dialects. Independent bookstores encapsulate this brilliant necessary DNA of culture.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

I know I could never write a book called How to Be a Writer. I don’t even identify as a writer. I think of myself as a sort of folk critic. Each of us is flawed in this way—and that’s the secret weapon behind what we will create, behind the voice we’ll use to create it.

Header photo by Celeste Sloman

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