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.
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.
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?
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.
All photos by Paul Faatz