There are a many small things that keep me from doing things i want—or in some cases, need—to do. One is looking foolish to others, and I’ve overcome that in large part. Another is worrying I’m not adequate to the task. And that one’s a bit harder to deal with.
Feeling “not good enough,” or imposter syndrome, or any other inferiority fear is common, and for artists it seems to afflict even masters. There’s something to be said for humility. There’s also failing to start or finish projects because of this fear, and that won’t do.
What’s seemed to help me is to not fight the fear when it comes. But also not to immediately distract myself with something else it avoid it. Just exist with it for a bit and tell myself it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to try. What matters is that a thing is brought into the world, not that it’s great. Usually I can start, at that point.
The words of John Bender (he bends the rules! Get it?) in The Breakfast Club come up when I think of either the word “social” or the word “demented.” I’m not in the general habit of enshrining John Hughes lines, but sometimes they stick like duct tape to butt cheeks.
One thing about the city, you don’t lack for activity. Not all of it is good to participate in, to be sure. But there are things to do. That is, things to do outside one’s home.
Something about artists and never ending projects: either we’re working on them, or we’re talking about working on them. Procrastinating is it’s own art form, and Things To Do™ are sometimes the barrier, rather than the path.
With none of this in mind, I attended two social events this past week, rather than my preferred zero. It’s not that I don’t have a good time while I’m in them, it’s that I know I’ll want to leave to go back home to read or study or create sooner than most of the people in attendance.
The other drawback is I can’t leave things like this blog to the last minute, because I’ll likely be home very late and need to work the day job the next day. So being social takes over the art stuff. It’s a strange paradox, wanting to do the former even though it means pushing aside the latter. More of the fear coming through. The best course is to work the rule of 5 ASAP, and get even a little done. That’s the goal for the next social event, and if I remember, I’ll report how successful (or demented) it was.
One of the advantages of moving is gaining new perspective in a new place. Whatever routines and stagnation you might have gotten used to or stuck in, say bye-bye, pal, they’re gone and you have to establish new ruts and habits.
One of the disadvantages is that it’s not completely safe. Case in point, I fell down a few stairs and am very, very sore. Luckily, it’s mostly bruises, both flesh and pride. Care has to be taken.
But the small risks of breakage—both flesh and dish—are worth it, since breaking the old routines and changing spaces are good food for creating things.
Because I ran out of day getting into this little drawing. The pull of Flow, the siren song of getting lost in creation is the best drug, truly. It’s just tough to get started on the trail after so much self doubt and hesitation.
We all have it, or nearly all. You just need to keep reminding yourself to start, to give the blank page a little chance. Most of the time, you get something you can flow into, for a time.
The idea that we have to overcome our fears and amxieties isn’t new, but the reality that simply living in the 21st Century generates some level of it is—by definition, even—very new.
Humanity moves from threat to threat, along its geologically short timeline. The big things we’ve done are still a scratch on the full line of eons. There isn’t just monkey mind to deal with, there’s lizard- and insect-level leftovers in there somewhere. It’s easy to dredge up trepidation and feel like we should just hide.
So along with that ongoing series of anxieties, I try to think about opposing feelings, and when I’ve felt them. We almost always have both in our lives. Some moments when we felt larger than life, loved, connected, part of a thing greater than our individual selves. It makes it easier to notice the small, ongoing fears and know they, too, shall pass, if we let them.
Indulging your distractions can be a comfort, especially if anxiety or fear is creeping up on you. But since it can easily turn into an additive substitute for doing difficult things, I’m trying to balance my fears and my determination this year.
I’ll allow myself a bit of distraction, but only if I’ve started something: drawing, writing, class work. Usually, if I’ve started, my fear melts and I tend to keep working for a while.
This goes back to the notion that we need to be making amazing things. No. We just need to make things, and some will have the opportunity to become amazing. We need to give ourselves permission to do some bad work, and let time do the rest. Make some terrible drawings, call on that kid energy, when it didn’t matter a damn you didn’t know what you were doing. Make the work, balance the fear, keep moving.
It’s sort of secret because it’s not talked about much. Artists who are just beginning to learn how to do what they want to do usually have periods of elation and frustration as they practice and discover. The funny—or scary?—thing is that experienced artists still have those phases when they try new directions.
Novelists, painters, musicians: if they’re beginning a new book, series, album, go through that push and pull of feelings, too, even though they might have done it many times.
The fear of the unknown isn’t just fear of failure. It’s primal. Creating truly new things than you’ve made before puts us into a weird and vulnerable state. That’s okay to feel, it’s normal. Just something to be aware of, that we all have those stages of growth. If we’re lucky—and willing to expose ourselves all over again.
Saying “it could be worse” can invalidate emotions and circumstances. It not that you want to try to always be positive. But “things can only get better” isn’t superior. That’s unrealistic and possibly harmful, too.
But if you say one, remember the other is just as valid. It’s a tempering move, something to brace against while you tackle to tough, real world with your soft feelings and ideas. Feel your feelings and keep moving along, move forward, move even though you’re afraid. Make stuff and make the next stuff better than this stuff. Sometimes that’s enough.
You can’t always tell if the path you’re walking—metaphorically, as usual—is productive or even really going somewhere. But sometimes it’s clearer. Ironically, the paths that get darker are often dead ends, you should be seeing some light approaching.
I’m not against the white light on the road to Damascus, or lightning strikes of epiphany, but they just don’t happen very often and not to very many of us. Most of the time, your creative journey is downright confusing and hard to see. It’s usually hardest to see at the beginning, though. If things are getting murkier, harder to interpret (for you, forget about explaining your work to others for this), or circular, it’s probably time to abandon it.
It seems counter-intuitive, because we’re often told we should stick it out in life. Successful people talk about the hard work that got them where they are, and how only losers quit. But you’ll know most of the time whether the road you’re on is getting you somewhere. You’ll be able to see, feel, and/or hear it. It’s not necessarily that things should be becoming easier. Just about everything worthwhile takes a lot of effort. But there are very few artistic gems that sparkle suddenly from a confusing and muddy place.
Don’t be afraid to start again. That’s your secret weapon as an artist: you can jump off the current path to a new one any time you want. You try things with as little fear as you can muster, but similarly you should feel free to walk a new road when you hit a dead end.
I’ve been working my way through Jerry Saltz’s “How to Be an Artist.” It’s full of good things to carry away, in typically acerbic Saltz-style. There’s plenty to think about—and things to do!—within his 33 rules.
One of his early rules is just to work. You have to work to be an artist. You don’t have to be great, or even very good. But if you aren’t creating. . . something, you’re not what you say you want to be. The habit is one way to keep creating, to make it just part of your routines, the stuff you just have to do every day.
And here’s to overcoming fear to become what you want to be. It’s intimidating, starting out. Its also worth the cost in time and energy.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.