Doing the Work

Thinking about challenging times, here on the blog. Last week I wrote about the struggle many artists face as they try to keep doing their work after, maybe, learning when they were young that they were wrong to be “that kind of person.” A lot of us did absorb that message: if we were writers, musicians, painters, actors, sculptors, we ought to abandon those burgeoning dreams in favor of more “practical,” more “valuable” pursuits.

Those messages cost many of us a lot of heartache, and maybe a lot of time that feels wasted after we tried to conform to what other people wanted from us. In college, I majored in engineering along with music, and tried to make a go of that first field because it was practical, because “more women should be engineers,” because “you’re so good at math and science; it would be a waste not to use that.” I spent a long time forgetting who I was and what I hoped for, as I tried to re-shape myself according to someone else’s desires and plans. Finally, I couldn’t keep doing it anymore.

Admitting who I was, and changing my direction, in many ways felt like a failure. I was being stubborn. I was being bad. I was wasting my God-given abilities in those male-dominated fields and letting go of my chance to change the world as a groundbreaking female scientist. I was dooming myself to poverty and a life of driveling my time away doing unnecessary things no one would care about. The world doesn’t need artists. The world needs people who do real work.

One of the things professional artists of every stripe have in common is that we don’t do this work just because we happen to feel like it. It’s a tough road, for sure. It demands absolute commitment. Those of us who end up on it get there because it’s not just what we do: it’s who we are. We don’t have the choice to walk away from it, because that means abandoning ourselves.

mississippi river

Those of us who grew up with those “change yourself” messages have to re-learn a lot. We have to remind ourselves, over and over, that art does matter. That we are not “bad” for doing it, and that we don’t have to be ashamed of finding our souls again and letting ourselves build a life that matters to us.

Last week, I also talked about how rejection affects all artists, and especially those of us with internal “programming” like the kind I have. Rejection is way more common in this life than acceptance and success, simply because you have to try and try and try again until you find the right recipient for your work. (Those right people are out there, but there are a lot of people to sift through.) Rejection can sometimes feel like punishment. “See? You shouldn’t be doing this ridiculous thing. You’re being bad.” The pain of rejection can feel like punishment for trying.

 

Right now, I’m doing all I can to push back against that reflexive thinking. It’s not easy. I’ve learned to brush off rejections when I submit a short story to journals: sure, it’s disappointing, but I’ve gotten so many of those that it really doesn’t sting much anymore. A book is a bigger deal. It’s much more of my life and effort and soul on the page, and considerably higher stakes in terms of eventual publication. It’s hard not to really, really want a certain outcome. When that outcome doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to crash into despair and the self-talk where I believe the universe is crapping on my head for trying to be this crazy thing called a professional writer.

Waiting to hear back about submitted work can feel like being on perpetual high alert. You can’t help imagining that outcome you really, really want, and thinking how happy you’d be if you got it. Unfortunately, that means that if you get bad news, you’re likely to crash. And if you get no news, you’re still likely to crash, because you keep psyching yourself up to deal with whatever outcome presents itself.

It’s exhausting. For that reason, and because I can’t do anything to change the nature of the process, I’m trying to teach myself to let go of control. If I’m willing to believe – often a very big if – that I am right to go after this particular writing life, then I have to believe that rejection doesn’t mean anyone is crapping on me or deliberately trying to hurt and punish me for trying for the things I care about. And then, in turn, I have to trust that the outcomes will be what they need to be. Maybe, right now, I don’t get the exact thing that I want: the thing I can imagine so clearly I can practically touch it. Maybe I get something else instead. Maybe that second thing is better. In my experience, so far, that second thing has always been better.

waterfall

The point is that I can’t control every outcome, and it’s not healthy to spend all my time on high alert. Yes, I want proof that I’m right to do what I’m doing. But if I look at everything that’s happened, so far, over the past decade or so as I’ve built a writing life, I have to see that a lot of things did work out. Maybe they didn’t look the way I expected, but they were the right things. I have to believe that the right things will keep happening, whether or not they’re what I think I want.

I also have to remember why I’m doing this work. A friend recently sent me an excerpt of Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, in which Lamott takes a chapter to talk about her experiences as a writer. She’s pretty candid, reminding readers that if we get into writing because we want admiration or validation, we’d be better off doing something else. I needed to hear that message. I needed to remember that I don’t do this because publication – or any other kind of public recognition – is going to fix my life, suddenly give me the self-esteem I’m missing, make everything right.

I do the work because the work matters, and there’s so much more to it than this submission or that submission. There’s the chance to tell the stories that fascinate me, with the characters I fall in love with and who demand my attention until I bring them to life on the page. There’s also the chance to work with other writers, help other people shape their stories, and work day after day with this challenging and fascinating craft. There’s nothing else like it in the world. For me, writing is an act of joy, and also an act of connection. I want to use the gifts I have to help other people use their own gifts. That’s why I do this. The rest of it matters so much less than I sometimes think.

The universe doesn’t punish us for being who we are. As artists, we need to trust that we have our gifts for a reason. Trust that our work is good. Trust that things will work out the way they need to: because, at core, we are meant to do this work. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have the drive and hunger and joy in it. People’s lives are better because we are out there doing the work that needs us. We can’t let anything hold us back.
rose of sharon

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Being Loved “Because”

The blog reawakens after a long sleep… Hoping this is a return to some regular posts. Today’s post falls under the header of Random Thoughts and Reflections for 2019. If you’re like me, an artist who needs some encouragement in going about your work, I hope this helps.

As artists and creative people, some of us were lucky to grow up in supportive, understanding families who embraced our abilities and encouraged us to dive into the kind of work we loved. An environment like that would teach us to value our gifts, and know that, if we wanted to be professional artists, we would have things to figure out (money!), but we would probably believe we could work through problems and find solutions. We’d believe in our own worth.

Others of us grew up in very different environments. We had families who didn’t understand what we did, didn’t support it, and/or bought fully into the “starving artist” model that says that art simply isn’t useful, and professional artists are doomed to empty bank accounts and lapsed rent payments. We were taught that art wasn’t viable. Maybe it was fun as a pastime, but we should never consider doing it professionally. If we did, we were doomed to fail: and in doing so, we would disappoint, shame, and disgust the people we most wanted to have love and accept us.

ocean view 2

Those of us who grew up in that second kind of environment, and who became artists anyway, go into our work under heavy handicaps. All artists know the pain – sometimes excruciating – of putting our work “out there” and facing rejection. The story that the journal sends back, the book that the agent doesn’t want, the piece of creative work that gets nowhere in the competition: for every artist, everywhere, all of those incidents are small but potent doses of heartbreak. We deal with them the way we have to. We pick ourselves up and try again, knowing that rejection is part of this work and we have to face it.

We do this work because we can’t do any other and still be true to ourselves. But for those of us who grew up in homes where we got the message that being an artist is wrong, those “failures” confirm our view that we are wrong to be who we are. We ought to change. Remake ourselves. Be something practical. Fit in.

That is where the dangerous thinking starts. Over the past couple of years, I’ve come to understand exactly how deep this kind of thinking runs in my own mind. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, every rejection makes me question my right to be myself. It’s not just about the work. However much I tell myself none of these incidents are personal, the people deciding to take my work or pass on it don’t even know me, there’s a part of me that still believes that the universe itself might be passing judgment on me for being what I am. Maybe I’m being told, by the powers-that-be, that the messages I took in years ago were right. I am wrong to be an artist. I am bad. Therefore, I will be punished. Failing at the things I try, being denied the things I hope for, getting those doses of heartbreak we all know too well, is part of that punishment. Those things are meant to force me to change who I am and become something else.

Sometimes I’ve tried to change who I am. It’s never worked and has only deepened depression and lowered productivity. So instead, I’m trying to teach myself to think a different way.

For all of us who knew what it was like to be told we were wrong to be artists, and who work under that handicap every day, here’s something to think about:

If you were anything like me, the best you could hope for was to be left alone to practice your art. You didn’t expect support or affirmation. When push came to shove, you were in it on your own, and you knew those around you didn’t like what you were doing. Sometimes you ached at how lonely that was, how hard it was to keep doing the work with no one to cheer for you, but you could do it.

ocean view 3

And maybe, sometimes, you got the impression that yes, people cared about you, maybe they even loved you, but they did it in spite of who you were. “Okay, you’re this thing we don’t understand, we wish you were something different, a different kind of person, but we can overlook that failing.” (At least most of the time.) “We’ll pretend it’s not true, and we’ll love you anyway.”

[For now, we’ll put aside the question of whether that really counts as love. People do the best they can, another thing I’m coming to realize.]

BUT. What if, here and now, you and I and all other artists dealing with that history could imagine a life in which we are not ignored, not loved “in spite of,” but loved because of what we do? If those very things that make us different – our creativity, our flashes of inspiration, our odd schedules, the fact that we aren’t pegs that fit into the world’s predictable holes – sit at the core of our value?

I’ve come to realize how deeply I believed in that judgment-from-the-universe I mentioned earlier. Now I’m training myself to at least consider the what if. What if, as a writer and musician, as this artist who doesn’t fit any predictable mold and is stubborn enough to insist on doing things her own way, I am exactly who I need to be? What if I am occupying exactly the place I am supposed to hold in the universe, and the powers-that-be both need and want me to be there?

ocean view 1

If you experiment with this kind of thinking, it leads to different conclusions. If I believe that I am exactly who I am supposed to be, and that in fact I am valuable because of all of these things that make me different and unusual and the artist I am, then I can believe that the roadblocks and heartbreaks aren’t punishment. I can believe that I’m not being told to stop trying; in fact, I can believe in a power that sympathizes with the hurt and cheers for me when I pick myself up and keep going. The doses of pain will still show up: it’s in the nature of the work, but they really aren’t personal. They’re the same part of the process we all face.

For some of you, this healthier kind of thinking might seem natural and obvious. I hope someday it will seem that way to me too. It’s not easy for me to accept a different view of things; sometimes it even feels safer to hold onto my old thought patterns, because then hurt and failure are no more than I expect. I can see, though, that doing my work fully, and making the life I want to have, can be immeasurably easier if I can imagine myself valuable and beloved because, not in spite.

If you have the same thought patterns I do, let’s both agree to try imagining something else. Today, you are enough. You are exactly who you need to be. You are valued and loved for being the person, and the artist, you are.

pastoral

All photos by Paul Faatz