How lucky I am that no one ever talked me out of pursuing a career in the arts.

This morning I was sitting in my favorite Roman coffee bar watching the usual suspects pop in with hearty “buongiornos” to the barista Alessandro, who knows everyone’s name as well as their usual drink. I was on the way to my office at The American University of Rome where I would later animate a few more frames of my almost-finished new film before forcing myself to attend to some slightly less fun administrative work for the Film and Digital Media Program that I direct.

I was reading a new book by my former AUR colleague, Amanda Holmes on my Kindle in between sips of my carrot, celery, apple juice concoction that most other people would find revolting. In her first published novel, (which took many years to get off the ground and inspired one of my recent blog posts about being persistent in the arts) her main character is a college student in Boston who is interested in fine art, music, poetry, and literature.

Her novel, I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, transported me away momentarily from my current life that is a result of countless choices I’ve made over the years, to a time when I was far more insecure and yet perhaps far more optimistic about what kind of life an aspiring painter might hope to achieve. ignorance

As the first person in my family to graduate from college, it’s probably an absolute miracle that this first degree would be, of all things, a BFA in Painting. Painting! Even my present 37 year-old self has to recoil slightly in horror. What did I expect I was going to do after graduation with that? Would I want MY children to get a degree in Painting? I’m afraid to admit my first impulse answer.

And yet no one talked me out of it. I was even blessedly encouraged. By my sweet parents. By my high-school art teacher who made me feel like I was the best thing to hit the arts since Picasso. (Yes, it is possible to be both an insecure freshman college student and have a puffed-up ego.)

When I first set foot in my new school, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, I was ready to show the world what I had, and yet I was also terrified of saying anything out loud in my classes or even making proper eye contact with my professors. Even though MassArt was and still is considered a “working class” school (and luckily for me, the only state art school in the entire country,) I felt that my peers were all better prepared than I was. They somehow had fancier educations and better upbringings. (Here my 37 year-old self has to chuckle. Just wait, little ole’ nervous me. Wait until you study at the big expensive private schools like Pratt Institute and Otis College of Art and Design in a few years. Wait until you move to Rome and are surrounded by the elite boarding school/Ivy League set at every turn.)

As a college freshman, I used to hope that I didn’t have to say anything in class and yet I would still somehow be noticed for my classwork. I also had a terrible habit left over from high school of using up all my allocated absences and lates as if they were a budget to be spent before the end of the fiscal year. That first year of college I got all “passes” on my report card instead of the “honors” I so coveted that were supposed to be higher than A’s. This was unacceptable to me and so I changed. I forced myself to participate in class, speak to my professors, and to become a relentless attendance geek. The enormity of all that I didn’t know and had yet to learn terrified me and I thought I would never measure up to those I felt were better prepared or had a better education. The following years of college, I used to fear having to admit I didn’t know something and would read with an almost neurotic fury in order to try to retain as much information as possible just so I could keep my head afloat and avoid seeming stupid to everyone around me.

At the end of four years, I managed to get what I wanted: Graduation With Distinction. (That’s the art school equivalent of summa cum laudi.) But seriously, who cares about grades? It wasn’t the grades that helped me continue in the arts. It was the work habits I learned while trying to improve those grades that I was so sure would certify to the world how excellent I thought I was. It was really overcompensation.

These days I don’t mind admitting when I don’t know something. I know what I know but I am not afraid to keep learning. I read and don’t worry about what will stick and what won’t because I’m confident that somehow I will be better off afterwards just for having read the book.

Ignorance was bliss back then in late 90’s Boston when I didn’t realize that a career in the arts was “impossible.” Ignorance was also bliss when I first moved to Rome in 2006. My husband and I didn’t know that it was also “impossible” for both of us to find stable jobs and thrive in the Eternal City where so many have struggled just to get by from day to day. To be fair, the website DID try to warn me, but luckily I didn’t listen. It said NOT to move to Rome to start a new life if I was 30 or over. Good thing I was still 29 for one more month when I moved.

While I don’t encourage the active pursuit of remaining ignorant, I do advocate the theory that sometimes our perceived weaknesses turn out to be our biggest strengths. Sometimes it’s better to approach situations in our lives with the wide-eyed and dreamy idealism of the curious beginner than with the jaded “can’t do” attitude of someone who has been there and done that.

So now of course the challenge is not so much ignoring what others might say is “impossible.” It’s remembering to tell myself that anything is still possible.*


(*when hard work, good preparation, opportunity, and good luck all line up at the same time, that is. -Hey, I’m also a realist.)