Postscript on creative discouragement

It’s been a slightly frenetic week.

I got hooked into a writing community that’s so active and interesting, I’ve felt slightly manic for days, as if I needed to double my output just to keep up with whatever might be happening out there.

I went to the faculty reading of the 15th annual VONA workshop, where I hugged and reunited with so many writing friends and inspirations, and let the brilliance and community vibrate into me like a roomful of drumbeats (and if you’ve ever been to a taiko festival, you know the kind of sensory experience I’m talking about).

I went across the bay and made some sketches that please me:

first attempt (at least in a long time) at a two-page spread

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Give Bells Atlas a listen.

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My last post, the one on creative discouragement, got cross-posted on the Hedgebrook blog. The one time I applied to their residency in 2010, I didn’t get in, so this is validating on multiple levels! That post has also been shared across multiple other networks, which surprises me, because so much of it is so personal.

Because of that post’s newness, and because of the attention it got, everything I’ve done in the past week has unfolded as if in dialogue with that post — with those feelings of creative discouragement and my resolve not to let them bring me down. And so, since the dialogue has continued, I have new thoughts to add.

(1) There is no “made it.”

What do you consider the signposts of “making it” in your particular field? Have you “made it” if you’ve had a book published, had it reviewed in the New York Times, seen it sold in airports? Do you need an award or a high-flying circle of friends or your profile (complete with flattering, stylish photo) in a glossy magazine? Although I know “making it” is an illusion, I still accord too much veneration to these milestones, as if they counted for more than the work itself. But this week I was surrounded by other writers in many different career stages, and you know what? There is no “made it.” The ones with no publications look with amazement at my very few. The ones with awards and residencies and published short pieces are in awe of the ones with books. The ones with books are hustling to promote those, make sure they don’t disappear from public view. The ones with multiple books and awards… well, they’ve still got the same self-doubt and love and family and home and health issues as anyone else. Just as in any other aspect of life, there is no golden ticket to a magical existence free of insecurity and anxiety.

(2) It is okay to not know what I’m doing, as long as I do something, because that’s how I find out what I’m doing.

This is a really big one. I’ve had quite a lot of people tell me, “You are one of the most creative and prolific people I know,” and though this made me happy, it would also worry me, because although it’s true that I’m constantly creating, I’m not very consistent across genre, form, or discipline. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t building, say, a portfolio of short stories, or a tumblr of flash fiction, or a life-size portrait a day for 365 days. But you know what? There are definitely throughlines to my work — ideas or characteristics that are distinct to the way I see the world — and those give a coherence to my output in spite of the wide range of formats. Whatever I’m doing, chances are, it’s related to work I’ve done in the past and work I will do in the future, even if I can’t see it at the moment. In other words, I may do lots of things, but I am not scattered, and I should stop worrying that I am.

(3) It is time to stop letting myself be consumed with questions of whether I’m good enough.

I’ve said this so many times already, but really, really, it is time. It’s not that I can’t improve, but come on, let’s just take this “good enough” question off the table. I am good enough. I can see it, others can see it, it’s understood. Let’s move on from there.

(4) Stop trying to be more than what you are. Instead, focus on being exactly who are you, but better, bigger, and without apology.

I’ve figured this out in various forms before, but it’s as I always say: we have to learn the important lessons over and over. I’m always negatively self-comparing to others, but the things that people like most in my work are the things I think of as being 100% intrinsic to me — and therefore they’re the things I’m most self-conscious about, because other people aren’t doing them! I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before:

Originality = What I do that no one else does. Self-consciousness = Noticing no one else does what I do. Therefore: What I'm most self-conscious about = my strengths.

In reading over this post, it strikes me that it basically amounts to a resolution to get out of my own way. I’m telling myself:

  • you’re already good enough
  • everything you do helps build your body of work (even if you can’t see it right away)
  • stop fearing your strengths
  • stop comparing yourself to others.

Well, gosh, if all those worries are off the table, what am I going to do with myself? Make art, I guess! Geez. How frightening and exhilarating. Let’s go.

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15 responses to “Postscript on creative discouragement

  1. Oh, I so needed to read this today, Lisa. My Compare and Doubt demons are digging their claws into my shoulders and I need to shake them off. Thank you for the reminder that the work is the thing. The rest is just ego.

    • Glad it spoke to you, Julie Christine. I just started reading a lovely little book called Art and Fear and it had this great bit on comparison: “The important point is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period.”

  2. lovely Lisa, I felt your heart come through this.I’m so jealous you got to be there for VONA’s 15th. I miss that community! I’m glad you wrote this piece. It’s helpful to hear you articulate it since you are one of the artists I constantly compare myself to. I will just go create some art and stop stressing :D. Miss u!

    • Funny story — I didn’t go to the VONA birthday party; instead I went dancing with a friend, and after awhile was thinking that maybe I should have gone to the VONA party instead. Then as I was leaving who should show up but David Mura and a bunch of VONA folks. I ran up and said, “Hey VONA!!” and hung out with them for just a few minutes before going home because I’m old. 😉

      Sigh. No way to not compare, is there? I’m always in awe of what you do. 🙂

  3. Yes! This line in particular struck me as true to the creative process, “It is okay to not know what I’m doing, as long as I do something.”

    It’s like that saying, “The fish can’t see the water.” When you’re fully in it, it’s impossible to see it, but you’re still in it…

    • Ahh, that’s very true! I also recently found this quote from Art and Fear (which has already come up twice in the comments on this post): “The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.” This week I find I have to tell myself this over and over.

  4. I think many of us who are creative types fall foul of self doubt and may be accused of spreading ourselves too thinly. What did I want to be ? In junior school I wanted to be an artist – then as a teen, a musician and writer – then in my twenties an art teacher – and so on, shifting a little focus all the time. Now I look back and have written short stories and poems, there are paintings, there is music, there are decorative woodwork projects and guitars, and not a little failed experimentation. The thread that links them all is creativity. If that’s your head, that’s what you got. It takes discipline to be the best of anything but sometimes creative minds don’t allow us that. It may be a little self aggrandizement but every 6 or 7 years or so I look back and scoop up what I think is the best of what I have done in recent times. It’s for me only, or Fi too, of course, but it does allow me to reflect that actually, this is me and what I do.

    • Thanks, Alan. It’s so hard not to look at what other people are achieving and lament that I apparently don’t have what they do. But you’re right, I’ve got what I’ve got (for better or worse), and the same for everyone, and that’s what I can work with.

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