This Baby Raccoon Can Make You a Fearless Artist
Taming this trickster teaches you to live by your own rules
The baby raccoon arrived in a pet taxi after my brother-in-law found her wandering the highway.
Randy handed me the pet carrier without saying what was inside. Based on the hissing and tiny, gray fingers poking out of the cage, I assumed he’d captured Golem from Lord of the Rings.
When I bent my face close enough to see through the holes of the container, the tiny ball of fur snarled and bit the plastic.
“Cute!” I said, jerking my nose away. “What the hell am I supposed to do with it?”
He shrugged. “You always said you wanted a ferret — this here’s way better than a ferret. You can train ’em to do all kinds of shit.”
Randy went back to his truck, leaving me alone to befriend a feral animal in a cat carrier. I felt pretty hopeless about the whole thing because I didn’t yet know Baby Raccoon was trying to teach me the first lesson in becoming a fearless artist.
Don’t give up on anything you want — even if that thing is threatening to eat your face off.
I wanted the baby raccoon — when Randy showed up that day, I was a fourteen-year-old girl on summer break in West Virginia with nothing better to do; why not spend three months getting rabies?
But Baby Raccoon did not want me. She was busy trying to destroy her cage using only the power of sound. Hoping to quiet her, I whispered to her like I’d seen Cesar Millan do with dogs on TV. We stayed just like that — me whispering, her screaming — until it dawned on me she’d probably like me better if I came with food
I searched my mom’s kitchen for raccoon food and came back with peanut butter and cheesy poofs — turns out raccoons and white trash children have almost identical diets.
Rather than open the cage and lose a hand, I smeared gobs of peanut butter over the front bars and waited.
By nightfall, she’d licked the bars clean and was eating cheesy poofs out of my hand. By morning, she was tame enough for Dad to hoist her above his head, eyeball her undercarriage, and say in his Appalachian accent, “Probly a girl.”
That’s how Baby Raccoon got her pronoun, but it’s also how I learned you don’t give up. Instead, when you find yourself in a situation where your brain concludes the best that can happen is you’re getting attacked in the face by a wild raccoon, don’t stop — pause, and coax your artist home.
Find out what your artist’s peanut butter is and keep it around the house. Light incense and play music she likes. Whatever you do, keep going. There’s good stuff on the other side of hopeless.
To make fearless art, you need to feed your artist.
Much like Baby Raccoon, your inner artist gets cranky if you don’t feed her.
“You’re gonna get rabies,” Mom promised when she saw Baby Raccoon crawling across my face one afternoon. I spent almost every day that summer lying on my back in the grass while Baby Raccoon used me as her jungle gym. As long as she had food, she’d play all day.
Your artist is the same. If you feed her, she’ll never want to stop playing. But feeding your artist isn’t done with food — you feed your artist with experience.
Your art is made out of material from your well. Your well is the place you store all your images and sense memories — the smell of your dad’s jacket or the look of your grandma’s mashed potatoes with the yellow puddle of butter in the middle.
Julia Cameron, who is a creative earth-mother goddess and possibly a raccoon in a past life, recommends artist dates to refill this well. She’s written entire books on the artist date, but the gist is you take yourself out once a week for two hours to do something creative. This is artist food. Simple.
Take a jewelry making class. Go hiking. Go to a heavy metal concert. Go to an art exhibit. See a movie, and go alone — all of these activities must be done alone because you’re taking your inner artist on a date. You should be just as opposed to extra people joining as if you’d made a date with another person.
Your haters are just howling windbags who can’t help themselves.
Dad had a beagle named Radler. Radler had been trained his whole life to chase critters like Baby Raccoon up trees. Understandably, he was confused when we flipped the script by adopting his nemesis into the family.
He liked to stand in front of her and howl to remind us how totally not cool this was. Baby Raccoon wasn’t intimidated — she stayed planted on her backside five inches away gnawing at her cheesy poof.
Artists have a lot of people howling at them. Trolls trained to prey on furry, sensitive creatures will try to scare you off your art. You don’t have to let them — you can just enjoy your snack.
You’re moving forward. If every single thing you produce is shit for the next 365 days, excellent! You’re one year closer to not producing shit. Meanwhile, that troll will still be howling the same old song.
Each creative session is a heist. Get the right tools and tell no one your plan ahead of time.
Artists have to be sneaky. If we aren’t, people will keep following us around listing off reasons why we shouldn’t be artists.
Baby Raccoon was the sneakiest. We barely heard her stealing Dad’s tools from his toolbox in the middle of every night. I’d just wake up to find her snoring in her crate surrounded by tiny wrenches as though she’d been working all night on an elaborate home improvement project.
If you’re reading this, you probably have internet access, which is the most badass toolbox in history. You can steal from it if you want, but mostly you don’t have to. Free advice is everywhere, and online support systems make it easier than ever to connect with other artists on your terms.
You no longer have to ask for help in real life, which is great since when it comes to your art, people in our daily lives can form a human obstacle course. They’re still our family, friends, and coworkers, but they can also be the Disney villain between us and our art. Asking for their help may motivate them to behave in strange ways like trying to protect you by shitting on your dreams before anyone else gets the chance.
That’s why it’s best to keep our art to ourselves until it’s finished.
I never found out what Baby Raccoon was working on because she followed the first rule of art club, which is shut up.
Writing your first novel? Don’t tell me or anybody else until you’ve written “The End.” Planning to become the most popular blogger on Medium? Don’t even tell your wife until you’re most of the way there.
Projects have a way of heating up inside us and gaining energy when we bake them with a little secrecy. Try planning a creative session for late at night under cover of darkness — if you keep it a secret, you might be more likely to show up.
When it feels right, move on. You might have to be pushed.
Once she got old enough to take care of herself, I wanted to release Baby Raccoon back into the wild.
The problem was she’d gotten comfortable living her best life in a crate on our porch with an infinite supply of junk food and shiny toys. She needed a push.
I took off the door to her cage and fed her less, all the while hoping she might stay.
She didn’t. Except for the occasional glimpse of her gathering food scraps in our backyard, we rarely saw Baby Raccoon at all after that summer.
This was painful; I missed having sticky pawprints all over every t-shirt I owned, and maybe she missed her unlimited supply of cheesy poofs. But we both knew she belonged in the woods.
Artists can get into a similar bind when their work gets too comfortable. If you start out writing (or doing any other creative practice) for yourself, there may come a day when that isn’t enough. You may suspect your work has value — information that belongs in someone else’s survival guide.
When that happens, you’ll feel a tug pulling you to do something more. You can ignore that tug, and your work may stagnate and die off, or you can face the risk of putting yourself out there — venture into the woods where the coyotes are and see what happens.
If you’re anything like Baby Raccoon, you’ll do great. The last time I saw her, she’d distanced herself from humans and had five baby raccoons following her. I wasn’t allowed near the kids, but she stopped by to steal some bread.