Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind

Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind Paperback

by Anna Deavere Smith  (Author)

From the most exciting individual in American theater” (Newsweek), here is Anna Deavere Smith’s brass tacks advice to aspiring artists of all stripes. In vividly anecdotal letters to the young BZ, she addresses the full spectrum of issues that people starting out will face: from questions of confidence, discipline, and self-esteem, to fame, failure, and fear, to staying healthy, presenting yourself effectively, building a diverse social and professional network, and using your art to promote social change. At once inspiring and no-nonsense, Letters to a Young Artist will challenge you, motivate you, and set you on a course to pursue your art without compromise.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Actor and playwright Smith casts her reflections on the creative process, the artist’s life and the acting profession as a series of brief letters addressed to a fictitious teenager. Defining artist broadly, Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) shares advice not only from painters, dancers, writers and actors but from a bull rider, a boxer and a dentist. Her advice is often directly practical: how to deal with stage fright, face an audition, even keep well (“Stay hydrated”). Smith treats concerns of the spirit as well: how to cope with disappointment, depression and feeling alienated. The letters have the immediacy of a genuine correspondence, replying to an imagined request for information (“How did you find your mentors?”), remembering a special moment (“It was summer the first time I moved to New York”) and reporting on the present (“I just got a call from my agent saying there’s a job for me on a television show”). What emerges most persuasively is Smith’s sense of the complex interrelationship between one’s art and one’s everyday life. With a pithiness that wards away the preachy, Smith succeeds in conveying the pain, the joy and the effort that characterize a life on the stage and in the world. (Feb. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-From a role on the popular TV show The West Wing to a MacArthur Foundation Award, Smith has attained success as an actress, a playwright, and a director. Her letters are filled with anecdotes and stories about her own successes and failures, giving the book an accessible, conversational feel. While the author primarily focuses on the joys of an artistic life, she also points out how much hard work, persistence, and even luck are necessary to succeed. She gives especially tender advice for those times when progress seems slow or when the review is bad. The book reads breezily front to back but is also divided into categories so it can be easily used as a reference when needing inspiration in specific areas. The one glaring omission is the almost complete lack of attention to promoting one’s work. But this is a small complaint for what is otherwise a witty and inspiring guidebook for anyone interested in pursuing an artistic life.-Matthew L. Moffett, Northern Virginia Community College, Annandale
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Nearly a century after Rainer Maria Rilke wrote Letters to a Young Poet, actress and author Smith offers her own collection of wisdom, advice, and personal anecdotes, directed in letters sent to a young, fictitious painter. Loosely combined into categories, the selections speak with passion and candor about creating art and the realities of an artist’s life, beginning with “the basics” of focusing and learning to live both “inside and outside” the world, overcoming procrastination, and caring for oneself: “In most circles of successful artists, there is a lot more health and wholesomeness than one is led to believe.” Whether she is speaking about childhood memories, tough Hollywood situations, or finding inspiration in the work of others, Smith is generous, vulnerable, and perceptive. Readers of all disciplines will come away from these pages feeling opened, nurtured, and eager to follow Smith’s call to action: “Everything starts with an all-night conversation. Find a spiritual twin to walk the city streets with, to waken the dawn with, to construct a world with.” Gillian Engberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“Will serve as inspiration to artists of every age.” –Laurence Fishburne

“A practical manual for any artist as well as a powerful reminder of how we can and should live through our art.” –Martin Sheen

“Imagine being pen pals with one of the world’s greatest artistic geniuses. That is the miracle of this book.” –Kerry Washington

“Brilliant. . . . A treasure for anyone contemplating a career in the arts–and, frankly, for anyone already in the midst of one.” –Dawn Raffel

“A motivating example for all of us.” –Mary Ellen Mark

“Her advice is as relevant to a youngster just beginning to explore artistic options as it is to adults already accomplished in their art.” –Esmeralda Santiago

About the Author

Anna Deavere Smith is an actor, a teacher, a playwright, and the creator of an acclaimed series of one-woman plays based on her interviews with diverse voices from communities in crisis. She has won two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Fires in the Mirror. She has had roles in the films Philadelphia, An American President, The Human Stain, and Rent, and she has worked in television on The Practice, Presidio Med, and The West Wing. The founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, she teaches at New York University and lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1


Dear BZ:

Presence. You want to know what it is. Well, you hit on my favorite subject.

First of all, even before I became an actress I was told I had “presence.” “Stage presence.” I didn’t know what that meant. I forgot about it. Long after I had trained to become an actress, I came upon the word in a way that was intriguing to me.

Joseph Chaikin was a theater director who came to prominence in the sixties in the experimental theater scene in New York. He wrote a book called The Presence of the Actor. In it he defines presence in this way: “a kind of deep libidinal surrender which the performer reserves for his anonymous audience.” He then went on to write that sometimes a person has “presence” onstage, but not in life. And then he wrote: “Gloria Foster has presence.”

At the time I did not know who Gloria Foster was. She is in two Matrix movies; she played the Oracle. As soon as I had a chance to see her perform, I did. She was extraordinary. And the interesting thing about Gloria Foster was that in person, she was not at all a “close to you” kind of a woman. By the time I met her I met a woman who definitely kept her own space. Onstage it seemed that the light shone right through her, and that, in fact, the light found her wherever she was onstage. Her film work was filled with both dignity and humanity. Her death left a hole in the theater.

I agree that presence is that feeling that the person onstage or in a film is standing right next to you. In film the presence blasts across the screen. Presence defies the limits of a person’s body, defies the limits of the actual space it takes up.

Some people call presence charisma. Perhaps it’s the same thing. There are many charismatic people who are not artists. And presence is not the same as fame, by the way.

If you think about the people around you, there are many who have presence. There’s a woman who is a cashier at Wilkes Bashford, a clothing store in San Francisco. Her name is “Miss Kish”—that’s a nickname she has been given. For years I went into that store and was intimidated by Miss Kish. She is an African-American woman in a store that’s mostly frequented by whites (with the exception of a few famous blacks like the former mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown). She wore a man’s hat at the cash register, often a bright red one. She looked as though she did not suffer fools. I was shocked to get a phone call from Miss Kish in November 2004, when John Kerry lost to George Bush. She wanted to know my opinion. To me, it was as if Kerry had called!

Presence means you hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it.

I saw a man in New York City in the late seventies kissing trees on a regular basis. Of course, such an action is bound to attract attention, but presence is not merely the attraction of attention. When he kissed a tree, it took my breath away. He was an older man with white hair. It was his level of commitment that gave him presence.

Lauren Hutton, the first supermodel, was discovered in the sixties by Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue magazine. At the very moment that Diana Vreeland discovered Lauren, Lauren did not realize she was attracting attention. She was in Vreeland’s office as a model who simply showed the clothes to Vreeland and others at Vogue who made decisions about fashion. She was too short to be a high-fashion model. She was stunned by the scene in Vreeland’s office—the glamour, the diversity of looks and attitudes. She actually stopped working and sat in a windowsill to watch the action, while all the other models paraded in and out for the staff ofVogue. Vreeland suddenly pointed to Lauren with her long white glove—a glove she wore to turn the many pages of images she had to look at—and said, “And you have quite a presence.” Lauren actually looked out the window, thinking that Vreeland was talking about somebody behind her. “You, you stay after,” said Vreeland. And a multimillion-dollar career was launched, and nineteen covers of Vogue magazine. Her presence was the intensity of her gaze—not the expectation that others would be gazing at her.

Lauren also has presence of wit. Presence of mind. I joked with her: “I think you should have a Kennedy Center Honor for your smile.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” she said in her Southern accent.

“Yeah, we live in a culture infatuated with beauty—I mean, singers get the Kennedy Center Honor, writers get it, comics get it; why don’t beautiful people get it? Our whole culture is based on beauty, and you have quite a smile. It should be honored.”

“Is that right?” she said, clearly getting a kick out of this exchange.

“Yes, I think I’ll write George Bush a letter.”

“Will you sign your name?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“All three of ’em?” she asked.

Presence means paying attention to find any opportunity to engage.

My dog has presence. Her name is Memphis. In Los Angeles people stop their cars and shout out the window, “What kind of dog is that?” In New York, people stop me on the street to talk to her. Once, when she was a puppy, she slipped out of her collar at a busy intersection in New York. I threw myself on top of her. People ran from all corners. “Is your dog having an epileptic fit? Wanna use my cell phone?” I even thought to myself on that occasion that they’d probably let a human being just lie out on the street, but people ran from all corners to help a dog. Haydee, who is from Peru, sometimes walks Memphis for me when I’m working. She told me, “Anna, everybody wanna talk to Memphis; they don’t see me; they only see Memphis.” With me on the elevator in my building was a women—a stockbroker type, in her own thoughts, at the end of a long day, tired. We were riding in silence. (I live in a building that’s not so large. Nonetheless, people keep their personal “space” in the elevator.) Suddenly she lit up and said to me, “Is Memphis your dog?” I was startled by the suddenness of her question and the life that came out of an otherwise day-drained persona.

“Yes,” I said.

“That dog makes my day!” she said.

Same scene in an elevator in Los Angeles. In LA Memphis was not allowed in the main elevator—she had to take the service elevator. My assistant hated the service elevator; she said it “smelled.” Memphis loved the service elevator—the smells of the men, the smells of their lunch, pizza, etc., the smells of their bodies, the smells of work. She’s a work dog after all, part Australian cattle dog—a herder. One day I was on the main elevator—without Memphis, of course. A man who had been pointed out to me as an archconservative turned to me and said, “That dog of yours is fantastic.”

“She’s a mutt,” I said.

“Well, she’s got some border collie in her. Great dog. Very alert,” he pronounced.

“Thanks,” I said. And he strutted out of the elevator, crossed the lobby, and climbed into his SUV.

Alert. Part of presence is about being alert.

I asked a friend of mine, “Why does everybody look at Memphis?”

“Because she’s pretty,” my friend said simply.

But presence is not just about being pretty. Presence is your ability to be present. Because Memphis is part Australian cattle dog—a red heeler—she is very intense, and does not like to miss a beat. She pays attention to the movings and goings-on around her. “Pretty” does help. But “pretty” is not the same as presence.

If two people have an argument, Memphis runs back and forth between the two of them, as if she is afraid they will leave the room. As a herder, she is looking for every opportunity to keep moving things together. Presence is having something that you are wired to do, that you are committed to do, so committed to do it that it’s almost like it’s in your DNA. It’s being ready at all times and looking for every possible opportunity.

Presence is not so easy. There is so much stuff out there. To get presence, you have to move through layers and layers of commotion and noise and other sites that grab the light. It’s hard to grab the light these days. People used to talk about Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Now it’s more like one minute.

It might seem that presence is all about advertising. You might think, just hire a good PR firm. PR is powerful, but it’s not the same as presence. Real presence has to come from the inside.

Real presence is the feeling that the person onstage is right next to you because you long to have them there. Or because you are terrified that they could come after you and get you in your seat. Monsters have presence. Godzilla had presence. Terrorists have presence. Osama bin Laden has presence.

Presence doesn’t have to do with likability. Nor does being a provocateur guarantee presence.

Often people who have presence know that you are there before you know they are there. Israel, one of the doormen in my building, was beside himself. Israel is Puerto Rican. It was winter. What had just happ…


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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