Art and Fear

In the interest of honesty, or, Can we all just agree to stop beating ourselves up?

It’s always this time of year, as the early cold and un-springlike “spring” gives way to the actual warmth and sunshine of early summer that I think back to my days at the end of college. I often think about this time with a rose-colored view of myself – highly engaged, copiously productive, and focused in a way that I often long for in the present tense.

I think back on the way I think I was back then and I get jealous. Of myself.

There are days now where I wonder what I exactly I’m doing with my time. There are days that I think about other artists and I am certain that they are getting so very much more done than I am. There are lots of days where I think that I am wasting the precious little life I have available to me by not doing more and getting more and being more than I currently am.

Are you an artist who thinks this? Probably.

Because chances are if you are a creator there are a million more idea seeds then there will ever be emotional, physical, mental resources to carry out those initial impulses to conclusion.

This, despite all emotional evidence to the contrary, is as it should be.

I was watching some show the other day on successful show runners for TV and listening to people talk about the insanity of that process. In one case a showrunner described the schedule for the creative product he worked on and then concluded by saying that humans have the capacity to do 90% of what he just explained. The last 10% were fumes and exhaustion.

You know what my first thought was after watching that?

“God you’re lazy.”

You know what my second thought was?

“You’ve only taught a class, written an essay, and spent 45 minutes on a creative project today. This is like a vacation day. Tomorrow you’ll do a real amount of work.”

Can I just say, what the fuck is that?

Because the other part of the show, the one that I think is the most perverse kind of pride, is the strange way that these creators talk about being miserable. They talk about loving the show so much that they sacrifice their lives, their loves, their actual in the moment living for it. What exactly is all of it for then? What kind of art will you make when you have no life other than art to draw from?

This is possible in short term bursts, perhaps. Maybe sometimes even preferable. But this is not a plan of artistic longevity. I don’t just mean that you’ll be tired and exhausted. I mean you literally will have no time to fill your creative research stores to make anything else worthwhile.

I don’t know about you but I want to be creating in 10, 20, 40 years. I don’t want to burn out at 35. To do that I’m going to need some opinions and stories beyond the ones I have now. If I miss all of my life and use up all the creative stores of inspiration in a mass and panicked frenzy of making, what will be left?

There is a complex, I think built in some part by our own internalized sense of worthlessness mixed with a Hollywood idea of fame and success, that tells us that the only version of productive creativity is one that exhausts the creator. We aim for the stay of constant producing, of being pushed to the very limit of what is possible, of working and working in a fevered dream state until we are used up and left empty husk shells at the side of our works.

This is the idea of creativity as inspired and frenzied genius – that it is something that possesses us, that we are nothing without it, that it is only through work that we can prove our value and work.

I know exactly zero people who actually work this way all the time.

I know about a million who work really really hard, then fart around watching bad television and doing nothing of “substance” for big stretches in between.

Of those million I’d say, oh, ALL percent of them feel shitty about the downtime.

Even writing these words, right now, I am thinking about the myriad of actual things I could be doing. I could be writing something that will go towards a brilliant novel. I could be practicing my piano and vocal improvisation skills. I could read one of the giant pile of books on game theory that I’ve amassed on my shelf. I could grade the mountain theater journals sitting next to me.

I could theoretically do all these things and if I try to weigh what I am doing in this moment against all the potential things and their potential values and usefulness, I will always always always come away thinking I haven’t done enough in enough time for enough people.

Does this sound familiar?

As you read this are you simultaneously saying, “Yeah, sure but she can say that because she’s actually doing a lot and I’m actually lazy” because my guess is you are.

I have been busier this semester than I have been in almost any time in the past 10 years that I can remember but I still watched a lot of bad TV. I still found time to fart around on the internet. I still found time to play video games.

And I think that part of the reason I was able to do so much wasn’t in spite of the down time but because of it.

We need to give ourselves a break once in a while.

It’s actually necessary for the work.


I look back at that person I was in college and if I am honest with myself I realize a few things. The first that I never worked as hard as I want to remember. There were long days of producing nothing, of taking time and cooking meals or searching I also know that I worked hard, but often far less smart. I spent hours and hours on things I can knock out in 20 minutes now. This is what comes with experience, the ability to get down to the heart of something and really do it and be done.

So in the interest of honesty, I’m going to stop pretending like it’s possible to work all the time. I’m going to stop pretending like a 30-minute lunch break is for quitters. I’m going to stop acting as if I don’t have phases where I just need to mess around on the internet. This is actually part of the way that the creative work gets made. The farting around is part of the work.

If I step back and really look at my body of work, I can see that boredom is a necessary part of the process. It creates room for new ideas to form. It allows space for us to consider something we don’t already know.

If you’re perfectly productive, you’ll never get bored.

So next time you think you should be making or doing something but instead you take a walk or a Netflix, don’t get so mad at yourself. I won’t.

Because if there’s one thing I really shouldn’t make time for in my schedule it’s the constant self-flagellation.

– A

Owning It

There’s a great quote that starts one of my favorite books about the artistic process – Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland – that goes like this:

Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

– Gene Fowler

The book is a pretty straightforward and unsentimental view about art making. It talks about how much of your output will be ignored (“Virtually all artists spend some of their time – and some artists spend virtually all their time – producing work that no one much cares about”) and the various ways we set ourselves up for self-sabotage. What this book also says is that the only way to get better at making work is to make a lot of work. As they say, much of your output is there simply to “teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”

I like the idea that when I make crap, it’s not just crap, but crap that builds a bridge towards something else that is not crap. Then at least the crap is useful. And I need that crap to feel useful. Why?

Because I live, work and create in a shame-based economy.

It might not seem like it from the outside, but if I’m really being truthful, most of what I do is to avoid the pain of looking like an idiot. That awesome rehearsal plan didn’t just spring happily from my mind. It took the spectral terror of being left with nothing substantive to say in front of the room to make it come into focus.

People have asked me why this writing project was something I wanted to make public. I might, if I’m being cagey, tell you that I sensed a lot of people were feeling the same way I was.

True. But not actually the truth.

I do appreciate the people who’ve responded to what I’ve written. And I love hearing from you all that these struggles are shared. But the real reason I am writing publically is to shame myself into getting my ass in gear to put words on (virtual) paper on a regular basis.

I do things like this when I know I need a kick in the ass. When I decided I had to leave my day job at NBOME, I wrote a post-it that I affixed to my computer with the date. I gave myself one year from that post it to get out of that job. And then I told everyone I knew about it.

Why? Because, like I said, I live work and create in a shame-based economy.  I knew if I kept telling people about the post-it, people would remember to ask me about it. And when those people asked me about, that feeling that I might not get it together to find some other, more sanity inducing, way to make money would surface. I did get nervous that I would disappoint, and I figured out a way to make life happen without the work that was making me miserable.  And 4 months before the post-it deadline I left.

If I know that someone will think less of me, if I think that someone will perceive me as failing, I work harder. It’s why I love structure and clear evaluative systems. It’s easy to know if you’re staying ahead of the curve if it’s clear what wrong looks like. I spent a lot of my education in high shame-potential situations. I committed to more than seemed possible. I tried things that I saw other people do a lot better than I did and then held myself to their standards. Once in a while I felt a little insane. I beat myself up about stuff a lot. I was also really productive and found myself doing things I never knew I was capable of.

You might say that this is unhealthy. You might be right. Heck for a really long time I felt a lot of shame about feeling so much shame.  That’s how deep it goes.

So for a period of time after school I worked really hard to remove all the shame inducing motivators and gave myself huge swaths of freedom for my art to wander through. I stopped comparing myself to people who had more advantage or resource. I kept things a little closer to the chest so that stuff couldn’t be critiqued until I decided it was ready. I wanted to give my art room to blossom on it’s own, without that fear of failure looming over me.

And while I was in the middle of doing that I noticed something:

I wasn’t making or doing anything I cared about.

I had tried to force myself into a place where I acted as if I didn’t need to care or listen to that niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach when I didn’t do anything creative for a few days. I had convinced myself that the ambition and failure terror weren’t linked. And I was semi-successful for a little while. Until I looked at what a life without one of my biggest motivators actually left me. And that was something I wasn’t really all that excited about.

And then I started to feel bad about that.

Oh, old friends embarrassment and remorse, you’re back! How I missed you so.

I’ve come to terms with regret and shame as ways that I learn from my past mistakes. Just as the impulse to jump too deep into the pleasure pool can get one’s life off track, so similarly can overwhelming feelings of mortification cause one to block their creative selves. But no one sane advocates for the removal of all of life’s pleasures. So maybe we can leave a little room for the negative emotions, so long as they help us get where we’re going.

Thinking about this I recall a thing that I always tell my students when they first start working on their voice. I say that there is no such thing as a “bad” voice, only voices that do what you need them to, and voices that don’t. The voices they have were developed from a style and set of communication patterns that helped them, at some point, achieve something.

High pitched and squeaky? Maybe it helps you to sound small and cute.

Low and monotone? Perhaps you need to show the people around you that you have emotional control.

The point, as I tell them, is that these patterns emerge when doing these things a lot offers some kind of reward. It’s efficient. And there’s nothing wrong with a sound if it’s doing what you need it to. The pattern only becomes a problem, only gets called a bad habit, when you decide you want something and the voice you have gets in the way of doing that.  When the natural voice you have developed is something you can no longer control the way you want to.  Flexibility is the key.

Whether it works for you is what actually matters.

“Ugly” voices aren’t bad if they’re useful. I think “ugly” feelings can be viewed the same way. Some of my best work has come to me when I have felt my worst. Which is different than saying that I need to feel at my worst to get anything done. For as long as I can remember, shame has been a strong motivator. Sometimes towards good things and sometimes not.

So the question isn’t, “Can I remove shame from my life entirely?” because from what I’ve lived so far, the answer will be no. Instead:

How do I use and shape the natural impulses I can’t always control towards a healthy and productive life?

There’s another saying in the Art and Fear book that I really love:

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.

– Stephen DeStaebler

I write this blog knowing that other eyes will see it.

Because I want to be culpable.

Because I want to be exposed.

Because I want to increase the pain of not working.

It’s already worked, clearly, because I’m still here.