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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 – January 24, 2006


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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.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; bound galley for pb original edition (January 24, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400032385
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400032389
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I read this book in one afternoon; or it was more like I inhaled it.
D. Carter
If you are an artist looking for unique inspiration as well as a little kick in the pants, this book is a must read!
Dallas Travers
Excellent book for any aspiring young actor, director, musician, painter . . . artist!
Daniel Hanchett

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 10, 2006
Format: Audio CD
While all young people embarking on careers could probably use some good sound advice, one cannot help but think that those hoping for a stage career are especially in need of encouragement, warnings, and practical guidance. That is precisely what actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith delivers in her book, which borrows its format from Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet.

Smith has an exciting career, having won two Obies, two Tony nominations, a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Now, Director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic dialogue and a New York University professor, she has seen her share of disappointment and joy. All of this she shares candidly, expressively as she narrates the good, the bad, and the rewards of "life upon the wicked stage."

Much of what she has to say is simply common sense, such as reminding us that good ideas are abundant but turning these ideas into reality takes determination and concentrated effort. Smith warns of procrastination, and the down side of fame. She provides hints for boosting confidence, acquiring a presence.

Rather than being a plain vanilla how-to book, Smith alternates her advice with stories from her own life, sometimes funny, at other times sad. It's a winning mix that makes for entertaining and enlightening listening.

- Gail Cooke
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By PennyLane on May 27, 2006
Format: Paperback
This was a fantastic read! Very accessable to all ages, various art forms, and levels of experience. Most books that talk about acting and making it in the arts don't neccessarily focus on some of the most key areas: integrity, presence, artistic vision and inspiration, staying connected to the world, and confidence. This book did. I am sure I will refer back to these chapters time and time again throughout my career as a performer!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Erik Sherman on April 8, 2007
Format: Paperback
Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote a series of letters, collected as Letter to a Young Artist (2006; Anchor Books) about "the rules of the road in the business of making and selling art." Certainly the book has received high praise from sources including actors, editors, authors, and museum directors. I found my own reactions more ambivalent, partly due to a prejudice I have regarding how people in the arts tend to talk about themselves and their work. Let's get that out first. Mind you, I'm a writer, photographer, and am often involved in various ways in theatre, so I'm not indifferent to the arts. Yet I dislike the term artist, because its context has come to emphasize the individual at the expense of the craft. But to many, the label is important and they tend to focus on the primacy of the "artist," not the art. Sometimes in the book that is the sense I have of Smith. For example, she writes:

"I think of art as work, so I worry about going off into the stratosphere with theoretical questions like, 'What is art? What is truth?' ... If we get caught up in pondering these questions, we sell ourselves short. How we live, and how we treat one another, is what is at issue."

Yet then she goes on to nothing less than questioning the nature of art. Although she is trying to pass something on, I had the sense that she really usually doesn't know the answers and often is as puzzled as the fictional BJ, whom she addresses. That, to me, made the book intriguing. At times I found the contradictions gave me material for thought. In one section, she discusses the fictional difficulty that BJ faces when his or her school is about to turn a painting studio into a state-of-the-art biology lab and move the studio into a basement.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on October 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
Anna Deavere Smith knows what it's like--the struggle of the artist, the cold night of the soul when sometimes you feel punished for being a visionary, and she gets a lot of it down on paaper in this book of letters modelled to a certain degree on Rilke's famous LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET. She's seen it all in her multi-tasking career, and if she doesn't know it, she has a host of excellent friends to ask, everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Paul Van De Carr. James Baldwin, whom she met when she was just a struggling actor, told someone that she reminded him of "Lorraine" (Hansberry, the playwright who wrote A RAISIN IN THE SUN) and this overheard compliment sustained Anna Deavere Smith through many a disheartening audition. She's been on THE WEST WING and she played the mother in the movie of RENT. It's a bedside book you might give to any young friends you might have, or hope to influence. They'll read a few passages and take heart.

It gets docked one star for its relentless name dropping. We know she's at the very top of the tree, but she doesn't miss a beat about talking about famous friends, or people she's met in the publis sphere, and some of her enthusiasms get a little embarrassing. Did she have to tell us that Lauren Hutton should win Kennedy Center honors for her smile? That's the kind of thing Louella Parsons used to say, and it didn't sound any more sincere the first time around. And her inability to say a negative thing about any of her friends grows tiresome, especially when she says that "Naomi Campbell has presence" or brags that Condoleeza Rice came to one of her performances when they were colleagues at Stanford. Please, ADS, draw a line somewhere!

Though to be fair she does spoof her own propensity for the spotlight.
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