Don’t Believe Your Own Thoughts: What Can An Artist Learn From Mark Twain?

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Mark Twain, American writer and humorist
Mark Twain
Mark Twain, American writer and humorist

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."     -Mark Twain, US humorist, novelist, short story author, & wit (1835 - 1910)

It's been estimated by psychologists that during the course of a normal day the human brain will produce around 60,000 thoughts.

And for some reason that the scientists do not clearly understand, a lot of these thoughts will be negative.

The quote above by Mark Twain is a humorous recognition of this human inclination.

The quote is funny, but at the same time imparts to us an incredible wisdom:  Don't believe your own thoughts.

When I first moved to New York City in 1998, I met a very elderly Buddhist monk.  He told me something that I have never forgotten.  He said that your thoughts and emotions were like a heard of wild animals.  You can't really control them.

And Thomas Wolfe put it very beautifully and poetically this way:

“Child, child, have patience and belief, for life is many days, and each present hour will pass away.

Son, son, you have been mad and drunken, furious and wild, filled with hatred and despair, and all the dark confusions of the soul - but so have we. You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them - but it has been this way with all men.

You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth.

And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us - we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.”Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

So if you can't really control your thoughts (and emotions), and if most of them are negative, then where does that leave us?

Of course, I am not a psychologist or an expert in the field of mental health and its issues.  And so you can take all of my advice with a grain of salt.  But I have learned a few things about this that I wanted to share with you.

One thing that I think is important to mention is that thoughts are, well, just thoughts.  You don't have to treat them as if they are very important at all.  And you certainly don't have to believe them.  Of course, you can simply dismiss your negative thoughts.

If you happen to have a negative thought about something, just say to yourself, "Oh, there's another one of those ridiculous negative thoughts."  And then just let it go.  This helps to keep your thoughts from snowballing into a panic attack, or worse.

Mark Twain's Wisdom for Artists

So if you are an artist, how does Mark Twain and his musings apply to you?  As artists, we are often surrounded by negative thinking that can destroy our creativity and make us lose our way.

Here are some negative thoughts you might have had surrounding your artistic career:

  • My art will never be good enough to show in a New York City gallery
  • My paintings are not worth very much and so I will ask only very low prices for them
  • I live too far away from a major art market like Paris or London, and so my work will never be seen there
  • Being a full-time, professional artist is not a realistic option for me
  • I have too many responsibilities and obligations to find time to make my art
  • Artists just don't make much money

It's important to realize when you are having negative thoughts and to try and catch them early and dismiss them.  Otherwise, they can escalate and began to have an influence on your behavior.  You might actually start believing them.

So, just remember the funny line by Mark Twain.  That's what I do, and I get a good laugh as well.  Just remember:  Don't believe your own thoughts.

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. karenlongden

    Wise words. From mark Twain and from you also Gary. Thank you for inspiring me this Monday!

  2. Russ Flint

    Wow! Thank you’s by the buckets and barrels for that Wolfe quote, so exciting not just because of the sentiment and meaning but the prosody as well! I am sending it to our daughter who is also a poetry fan.

    Surprisingly just reading your list of negative thoughts helps, because knowing that some other soul on planet earth actually has those thoughts, not just me, is a great relief. Thanks!

    At the risk of getting verbose here, may I share the Biblical view on this?

    In Philippians chapter 4 verses 6-8 reads:
    Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication (petition) with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace which passes all understanding shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    Finally brethren, whatsoever is true, whatsoever is honorable, whatsoever is right, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is lovely, whatsoever is of good repute, if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.

    Thank you Gary, I enjoy the wisdom in your blog.

    Russ Flint

    1. Gary Bolyer Fine Art

      Hi Russ- Thanks for your comments. The quote by Thomas Wolfe has always been one of my favorites. Glad you enjoyed it and I hope your daughter enjoys it as well. Thanks again.

  3. Bett


    Well said, at a particularly great time for me. Am forwarding it to a friend who I believe will also find your treatment of both Twain’s and Wolfe’s words inspirational.

  4. tropicaltheartist

    I could not have said this better myself. What a great post! Thanks for posting it.

  5. Alexander Smith

    Dear Gary,
    Thank you for inviting me to this specific blog. it is indeed what you mention and it is indeed something which actually can be very funny when the moment strikes that you realize what thoughts really are and it is are capable of witihin your sense of daily life existence.
    I am glad to have found you through the jungle of Linkedin. You have some wonderful insights that you are able to describe as if they where delightful cookies. A true tribute to everyones life.
    Thank you and hope to hear more from you.

    Kind regards,

  6. Delfin Chavez

    Thank you for this post. Sometimes fool ourselves into failure mode when we let the “little man” inside says things like, “who do you think you are; you can’t do this; man, that bites etc.” One of my teachers says, “you are not your thoughts”. Excellent perspective to help one stay on track. I say, kill your inner critic.

  7. Mindful Drawing

    Yes, I deal with negative thought the same way.
    Here is my blogpost on the subject:

    Just thoughts you know….observe them and go one with your work. There are times you need to listen to your thoughts and there are times you shouldn’t. Luckily we can choose.
    I wouldn’t say kill your inner critic, just dismiss him so now and then. 🙂

  8. elisabetta batzella

    I’ve found a real peace and positive energy in all these wise thoughts: thank you so so much to have switched my day in a sunny day.

  9. Gary

    Thanks for the reminder

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