Letter to myself as a young man, aged 20

Dear Mark,

Dude. It’s me/you! Told you I would write you again. I have to say though, I’m a little disappointed. It looks like you didn’t take any of my advice from before. You got that letter right? Just in case you didn’t, I’m enclosing it here. Some of that stuff will still be useful. I’ll wait for you to read it if you haven’t already.

Okay, either your mind is now blown or you’re just saying yeah, yeah get on with it. So I’ll get on with it.

First of all – dude! Way to be student body president two years ago! Was it three? Hard for me to remember! Anyway, you couldn’t just let Teddy Zimmer run unopposed, now could you? You also got a good taste of easy populism. I remember you said you would stock the vending machines with beer if you got elected. Good stuff! Our current US president just got elected using this tactic. Like you, he was a protest candidate who didn’t seem to have any real game plan, or perhaps even desire to be president, and yet the wacky stuff that pops out of his mouth got him so popular he actually won. If I remember right the only thing you did of note as student body president was leave “under God” out of the morning Pledge of Allegiance, and even then only one person got really upset about it, Mrs. Sauer, the art teacher of all people! Did you know that you had a reputation? People thought you were selling drugs out of locker #1, right by the office. I recently ran into Rob and he told me that. Crazy.

Now you’re in art school in Portland, congratulations on that. But you are still riding high from your year in Holland after graduation, aren’t you? What an experience. I probably have slightly different memories of this than you do, but let’s see.

You finally got to go see your first real punk rock shows. (Well OK, post-punk.) Fugazi, Sonic Youth, HR, The Beatnigs. It was awesome overall, but kind of disappointing that nobody was slam dancing. Just standing there nodding their heads. That’s a Dutch crowd for you though.

Remember that time you and Greg Churl were sitting next to the canal in Amsterdam smoking a joint (because you can), thinking you were “being so Dutch”, and the tour boats were going by, and the tourists were waving at you like, look at the local wildlife! Then you got on your bikes, those granny bikes that absolutely everybody in Holland rides. Except for professional cyclists – who suddenly swooped around the corner of the street you were crossing, about a hundred of them, screaming and yelling at you two stoned bozos to get out of the path of their race. You guys screwed up an entire road race. Tour de Weed, dude!

Anyway, these are nice memories for me but ironically, ancient history for you, huh?

I’m just going to confirm something that you already know about your year in Holland though: not making any time with Sandra Jansen sucks! This is one of those “diving board” things. It’s going to stay with you and haunt you every time you think about it. You had a whole year to make a move and you held back out of respect for Bernadette, a girlfriend who shut you out the whole time, who you hardly ever saw, and who never contacted you. Then at the end of the year Greg Churl was macking on Sandra after five minutes at your going away party. So lame! (I still haven’t gotten over this, can you tell? LOL.) Anyway, nothing to do about it now, but please, please, please don’t pass up opportunities like this again, okay?

You got back to the USA and got into UAF with dreadlocks and all kinds of cred from living a year in Europe. What a cool dude you were. You got together with Volga P right off the bat and you guys had the sweetest, most amazing relationship. The love of your life.

I have to say something about that though, because now that it’s a year later and you are in Portland and Volga P is in Seattle you are kind of in limbo. You didn’t really break up, but you’re not really together either. You are close, so you think maybe you can keep it going. On the other hand, you know you are in an exciting new chapter of life and you are looking forward to branching out and having new experiences.

My advice: go with that. She was the love of your life in Fairbanks. But you both agreed to literally part ways, to focus on your futures as individuals, not as a couple. You sometimes talked about how you were actively mythologizing your relationship, treating it as a piece of art. That was very astute of you, but I think you overlooked the negative connotations of that. You need to break it off definitively and continue as friends.

The alternative is that you will continue in limbo until you strike up a relationship with a girl at school there in Portland. Then you will be overcome with guilt and it will take you a long time to recover from that.

Your friendship with Volga P will suffer too. The relationship with your classmate will be short-lived, and your guilt will impel you to go back to Volga P. You and she will go back and forth playing with the idea for the next few years. Neither of you will have any good relationships while you are in school. At the end of art school you will convince her to move to Portland so you can be together. She will do that, and you will try to get the old flame going again. But that will prove to be impossible as you are both now very different people. This experiment will fizzle and you will get a new round of guilt for having lured her down to Portland for your own selfish ends. You will break up again. Amazingly, she will want to remain friends, but in your guilt and self loathing you will push her away and cut off contact.

For the next few years you will be emotionally lost. Searching desperately for love, you will try to form relationships with women you aren’t even attracted to, and then obsess on them like an insane man for long periods after they inevitably reject you. This is not conjecture. This is what will really happen. Go on, ask me how I know.

I know the Time Lords are totally scowling at me right now for telling you all this, but I would rather risk fucking up the entire space-time continuum than have you go through this like I did.

HEAVY STUFF DUDE!!! So just break up with Volga P, okay? Stop holding onto the past. It’s not the end of the world. Remember? You are just starting out.

Okay, let’s talk about your future as an artist.

Right now you are King Shit. I mentioned the dreadlocks and Europe cred, and those are still in full effect. Now you are in Portland, and your tales of growing up in wild Alaska are adding to your mystique. Not only that but you came into PNCA with a reputation as a total badass drawer because of that drawing scholarship. Like I said, you are King Shit.

However, the juice you are getting from these things is running out very quickly. It will be gone by the end of your freshman year. Although you have a little more life experience than a lot of your classmates and a clever way with words, that too will count for less and less as time goes on. What I’m saying is you need to stop relying on your personality to get you by, stop talking and start doing. What you do is way more valuable than anything you can say about it. And by doing, I mean making some fucking art.

I know you know this already. I remember how it was, and to some extent it is still this way. You work when you are motivated, a few days or a week at most. Then you have two weeks or so where you don’t even touch a paint brush. You beat yourself up about it, but actually there is no problem with this! This is normal artist behavior. And your agonizing over it probably only serves to make you less productive. You’d be better off not even thinking about art. Go outside, climb a hill, party your ass off, do something out in the world and then go back to the studio when you are ready.

No, the problem is when you have motivation but you don’t use it in the studio. You piss it away socializing or ruminating about life in your journal. I know that right now you despise the word “career”. That’s fine, I still mostly agree with you: being a cog in the corporate machine sucks. But your definition of that word is too narrow. Look, after art school you don’t have to go work in a corporation, but you do have to do something to make a living, and hopefully that something will be something that you love, that will not feel like work, that you can do for a long time and live comfortably with. Hopefully it will be art, right? So that’s your new definition of career.

I (you) didn’t (don’t) get this fine point, unfortunately. I thought that people would recognize how amazing I was and start showering me with gallery contracts and commissions. By the time I was a senior I started noticing younger artists getting attention, and it seemed like fewer and fewer people knew I existed. I couldn’t understand it. It did not seem right. When did I stop being King Shit?

I will just skip ahead and tell you, I did not succeed as an artist. I struggled for quite a while, and then I realized something that helped me admit that it wasn’t going to happen. I will share it with you because there is still time for you to make a successful career as an artist. Are you ready?

Artists I know who have succeeded possess a good amount of three things:

  • Talent
  • Networking skill
  • Work ethic

You don’t need all three in huge quantities, but if you are deficient in one you need extra in the others, you dig?

As for the first one, this includes natural talent and learned skill. You have a lot of this, as you are well aware.

Networking is a word that has not become slang yet. You can think of it as schmoozing if you want. This means getting out there, identifying the people to talk to who can get you ahead, and making them love you. Or at least want to work with you. Or at least notice you. You think this is a sleazy idea, but it is actually a vital business skill. I am totally creeping you out right now, I know. Bear with me.

Work ethic speaks for itself. Work as hard as you can and then a little harder.

You can have piles of talent, and no networking skill, and as long as you are putting in lawyers’ hours in the studio (i.e. a lot), you are going to make it. No talent, decent work ethic, and king of the schmoozers? I’m not saying it’s right, but you are going to make it. In your case: plenty of talent, not bad at networking but find it distasteful, and mainly work when you feel like it, but not always even then.

So… Guess what you need to focus on? That’s right, you have to get to work. What I said above, that you shouldn’t beat yourself up over having some down time still applies. But when you are on, you need to be really on. Don’t stop working when you reach “a good stopping point”. Don’t stop when you finish a piece, or achieve a breakthrough. Push it forward. Tell yourself, “10 more minutes”. Throw some paint on a fresh canvas (always have some ready). You’ll figure out your own ways to do it. The important thing is that you realize there is nothing else more worth doing right now.

So that’s how to succeed as an artist. If after reading this you say to yourself, “Future Mark is full of shit”, or, “Maybe art is not the path for me after all”, fear not! I have a couple other avenues for you to consider.

Remember the amazing beer you had in Holland, Belgium and Germany? Well check it out, in the future you are going to go absolutely nuts for home brewing. Forget about that funky homebrew you had at Chuck’s cabin in Fairbanks, I’m talking about brewing delicious, high quality beer at home. Like, by the keg.

In a little while you’re going to get your first job at a bakery and pub, and attached to the pub there is a tiny brewery. The guy that works in that brewery is called Salvatore. Introduce yourself to him and tell him you are really interested in beer and learning how to brew. I’m sure he will help you out.

Here’s another one: electronic music production. This is pretty big right now, in your time, and in the future it is going to be huge. You are going to be really into it, both DJing and producing. I know you’re thinking of the Acid House or New Beat that you heard in Europe and going, Seriously future Mark? But trust me, in the future electronic music will get way better. Just think of dub reggae, Linton Kwesi Johnson or somebody, crossed with something like Severed Heads to give you an idea. In the future you will be able to do all of it on a computer, but for right now you should try to get your hands on something called a Roland 808 drum machine. Forget about rock and start getting acquainted with more electronic music. Get yourself down to Second Avenue Records and talk to a guy named Ezra. He will point you in the right direction.

Look man, you are basically an artist. But there is more to that than just painting and galleries. Brewing will give you plenty of artistic satisfaction, and not only that you will get to feel like a scientist while you are doing it. Remember how bad you wanted to be a chemist until you realized it was all math and you suck at math? Brewing is the answer! Music production is the same, art and science.

You’re going to make it with visual art, don’t worry. I just wanted you to know about these other things, which you will love and be good at, so you have more than one egg in ye old basket.

Now onto that other topic I know you like to talk about – GIRLS. No dude, money. Namely, the next 20 years of your life will be hugely affected by your current plan to pay for art school. Which is that you have no plan to pay for art school. You will take out the maximum loan from the state of Alaska each year, and assume it will take care of itself. Guess what, it won’t!

Here’s what will happen. After graduation you will be super deep in debt. You will be working in restaurants and not selling any art, so you will go into default on your loans. It will be a couple of years before you have a job that pays you well enough to make a loan payment, and by that time you will owe double what you started with. You will consider declaring bankruptcy because you heard you could do that, but by then the law will have changed to close that loophole. Then, check this out, you will actually move all the way to Japan, where you will make good money teaching English to junior high school students. Not only that but you will be living rent-free on a government sponsored program, so you will have more ready money than at any other time in your life, including now (my now).

But because you are you, and lack any kind of common sense where money is concerned, you will not send in loan payments on a regular schedule. The process requires some forms which are a real pain in the ass, and so instead you will spend your money on partying and traveling around East Asia. This will be fucking great, but it will not get your loans paid. You will come back to the states still owing about half of what you started with, which as you remember is all of what you owed at graduation, before you defaulted and doubled it. Bummer!!!

After a year and a half or so you will go back to Japan, this time for a girl though, mainly. She will provide the discipline you need to get your monthly payment sent, and after another three years or so you will nail the final nail in the lid of the coffin that is your student loan debt.

I know that I make it sound pretty sexy, but believe me when I tell you this will be gnarly. Like, totally gnarly dude! I shit you not.

So here’s what I propose. Instead of staying in Portland to party over the summer every year (cuz Portland is so rad and all), get your ass up to Alaska, catch salmon and make some money. You will still have loan debt, but it won’t rule your life for the next decade after graduation.

Regardless of what you decide to do or what happens I want you to promise me (yourself) one thing: that you will immediately give up your relentless pursuit of THE ONE – talking about girls again, of course. You have far too much living to do before you tie yourself to one relationship. In fact, the more you can stay single and unattached the better, for at least the next 10 years. Focus on your work, sow those wild oats entanglement-free, and generally kick as much ass as you want to until the time comes to settle down.

Before I end this I want to say a few things about time. Not the way you spend it, but the way you think about it. The way you think about it has a huge influence on how you live, and consequently how things turn out.

Right now you think about time like this:

You are standing on the sidewalk waiting for a bus. You are reading a book or just looking around. The sidewalk is the present, and the bus is the future. Reading and looking around are just your activities, whatever they may be.

However, this is not the correct view. It’s more like this: You are standing on a ball. The ball is the present. No future is coming.

Okay, what the fuck am I talking about, right? Let me explain. The present is not this static, concrete thing. The present is moving and changing constantly, everything becoming something else at different speeds right now.

The future is not this separate thing that is coming your way. The future does not exist at all in fact, but is an image people create in their minds to try to anticipate what the present is turning into. This image is often colored by varying degrees of hope and fear.

The present is indeed turning into something, and after that something has come and gone we can look back at it and analyze it, and we can say it constituted the future of the previous situation, you dig? So the future exists in a way, but only as part of the past – something that happened after something else. (So much for trying to make this simple!)

What you need to do is stay here, and focus on staying upright on top of this wobbling ball of the present. You’re not very good at it at the moment. It often fills you with dread, and you seek solace in the safety of the past. That’s why you miss Alaska so much now that you don’t live there, and it’s why in the future (my past, remember) you will try to return to previous situations, previous relationships, when the present gets too precarious.

Again, the present is turning into something. That something will also be the present, and so you need to be actively taking care of things right now, as they are unfolding, so that “the future” will be as smooth as possible. Dwelling in the past is a distraction that does not help you deal with the present and will leave you unprepared for what it turns into.

Staying on top of the ball requires skill and courage. You don’t have much of either right now because you are just starting out as an independent adult, but as you get older it will get easier. The only way to get those is by practice and commitment. A good way for you to practice would be to take up surfing. It’s kind of the same activity as balancing on a ball, but way more fun once you get the hang of it, and obviously more impressive to the ladies. That’s what it’s all about, right??

I guess that’s enough heavy life stuff. Basically just enjoy art school, apply yourself to making good art, don’t be so obsessive about girls, and take care of the present.

Best of luck my man! I will hit you back in 10 years to see how you’re doing.


Future Mark

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