Anna Deavere Smith

Letters to a Young Artist

“I am interested in the artist who is awake, or who wants desperately to wake up.”

Actress, Thespian, and writer Anna Deavere Smith (born September 18, 1950) wrote Letters to a Young Artist to an imagined mentee. Upon reading it, we all become her mentees. It presses energy and hope into the heart of the worried creative soul.

I’m an actress and a playwright. I make one-woman shows in which I play up to fifty characters in an evening. I interview people with a tape recorder and use their verbatim words to make these plays.

Through her long career performing true-life impersonations, as well as her tremendous theater and television work, Deavere Smith knows how to see people, how to notice, and, much more importantly, how to care.

Echoing the gentle advice of Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and musicians Amanda Palmer and Billie Holiday who all propose growth through fear, Deavere Smith states confidently:

You ask about fear. I take fear seriously. […] First of all, don’t deny fear. It’s a feeling like all feelings. Sometimes it is there as a warning. Sometimes you don’t need the warning and sometimes you do. Work through the fear until your body—or your psyche—gets a better idea of what you can do, until it gets a better idea that you don’t need the warning.

Paintings by Mel Barrett. Photograph by Mel Barrett.
“I painted my first still-life at the age of 43,” writes artist and chef Mel Barrett, “I thought to myself, “why didn’t I give myself permission to do this years ago”?

In Letters, Deavere Smith directs her striking gaze at us, imagining we want “to be awake.” She tackles pestering items of self-esteem, self-doubt, and how to be strong, self-reliant, and open to influence.

Deavere Smith defines presence perfectly:

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.” […] 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.

Deavere Smith explores the precious small but meaningful difference between our need for personal brand and a more human need for a name. We all want to be seen and known but as ourselves, not merely a brand. Except, it is the brand that allows our name to be known, a tension every artist endures (clearly illustrated in John Steinbeck’s journals.)

Rollo May - The Courage to Create
Max Jacquard’s “Brick Man”, 2002. According to the artist, the glass figure relates to the fragile, isolated, and constructed semblance of the artist ego. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My most underlined part is a section about “being in it and out of it,” what writer Alan Lightman called “convergent” and “divergent” thinking, a concept of being both a participant and an observer.

Fundamental to becoming an artist is understanding the position of an artist rehearsing that position. […] We need to know how to talk and listen and revitalize the art of conversation. A work of art engenders a conversation.

Deavere Smith’s counsel belongs among the pantheon of advice to tender young creatives alongside Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter, poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s timeless messages to bolster a vulnerable spirit in Letters to a Young Poet, and Dorothea Brande’s less known but equally soul-enriching Becoming a Writer. A consistent theme among these works is the fragility and richness of the creative mind and the need to nurture not punish it.

Anna Deavere Smith