First, there are the clichés: write what you know. Learn the rules before you can break them. Practice every day because practice makes perfect. (Or does it? According to Twyla Tharp, “Perfect practice makes perfect... Art is a vast democracy of habit”). They’re tried and true because they do have merit; you don’t get to be a cliché for nothing. But they’re also boring and non-specific. If our teachers, idols, and mentors are the ones spouting these clichés, it’s hopefully because they’ve found them to work. Ideally, they combine the familiar with more curated advice. If not, well, you can’t squeeze blood from a stone. Knowing what advice to take is as much about understanding your own potential as it is about seeing other people’s limits.
When I asked my network on Facebook about the worst advice they’d ever gotten, much of it was vague, like “make it more real.” (What does that even mean?) Other notes seemed downright insensitive. “Write less weird” or “don’t be so emotional and all over the place” with your acting are not constructive comments and give away the critic’s (negative) opinion without taking into account the intentions of the artist. Ouch. Though it’s easy to dismiss such sloppy advice, that doesn’t take the sting out of it.
Here’s a tale of three teachers: in grad school, one teacher told me my stories had no emotional weight. I was crushed (no pun intended). This guy, a supposed role model, thought my work was meaningless, or so I believed. Then, another teacher in the program told me to write from my own experience to add heft to the work so that I could eventually write empathetic characters who were far removed from myself. The two were essentially telling me the same thing, but the packaging was different. The latter was also more specific: he told me what to try vs what not to do. I followed this advice and began to produce more experimental, emotionally resonant stories, resulting in a novel in the form of semi auto-biographical prose-driven vignettes that completely perplexed a third professor. “You’re a poet,” she said, throwing up her hands. It wasn’t meant as a compliment, or an insult. She wrote linear, realist work and had no idea how to talk to me about what I was doing. Out of the three, only one knew how to effectively offer constructive feedback that was specific to my work. Knowing the difference was my job.
Then there’s advice that would be brilliant for someone else but just isn’t your style, perhaps because we tend to advise others to tackle obstacles in the ways that have worked for us, vs coming up with new strategies based on what we know about the other person. You will have to trust your gut enough to resist such well-intentioned suggestions, or else try it and be ok with it when it doesn’t work out—don’t fret over false starts, instead see them as part of the process, then move on. For example, a professor I know was advised to have papers in different stages of the publishing process at all times, which is similar to notes on submissions that I’ve received as a fiction writer, but she found it set an insane expectation. Rather than run herself ragged, she gave up the exercise and found other ways of achieving. Remember the method is supposed to work for you, you don’t contort yourself to work for the method. Same is true of the popular admonishments about getting up before sunrise every day to work on your art, an impossibility for many of us. Some advice just isn’t a fit for you. This is why clichés can’t be applied universally and must be paired with more curated input from a mentor who is paying attention.
One of the greatest skills I can teach is learning when to agree and when to pass. That means following the suggestions that get you nodding excitedly as soon as you hear them, as well as the ones that make you inwardly weep as they hit upon a worry you’ve harbored about your work, like biting down on a sore tooth. You can always give a suggestion time to settle, then see if it feels right. In the end, it’s your work, your career, and you have to be consistent in your values and goals to maintain a sense of self. The person most affected by your choices in your work is you.
So, take all advice seriously. Sift through it like a gold panner.
Pay attention to what resonates, even if it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to hear hard truths. Other times, someone is being petty or doesn’t understand what you’re trying to achieve. Be honest with yourself; your gut knows the difference.
At the same time, it is ok to take suggestions that don’t work—that’s part of the process. Keep taking risks. You’re not here just to look pretty, you’re here to make something incredible and that often happens wildly, surprisingly, and half by accident.
Forget about the people you want to impress. Find the people who get your work. Join collectives, exchange work with friends and other creatives you may meet at events, or in groups online. If you don’t go to such events or belong to such groups, start. We all need feedback to grow and that dynamic is most effective when it comes from an honest, agenda-less place of support.
Over time, you will fine tune your instinct. Though the work itself may never get easier, processing feedback will.
Historically, New Year’s resolutions began as a bargain with forces beyond our control, which seems an apt metaphor for dieting in our calorie-rich society. The Babylonians left behind a record of a new year tradition the involved making promises to the gods to ensure prosperity in the coming year. So will the gods favor you in 2020? If the fruits you’ve sown reap no reward, if your business fails to thrive, is it because you’ve displeased the divine and brought ruin upon yourself? Maybe what goes around comes around, but we also live in a world of inequality and natural disasters. In a sense, New Year’s resolutions are rooted in a narrative of self-blame and accountability for what actually amounts to good—or bad—fortune.
Each turning of the wheel is an opportunity for further growth, but it can feel like an obligation to reinvent yourself instead. New Year’s resolutions reflect this pressure and consequently often take the form of sweeping statements promising dramatic transformation. I’m thinking of the classic weight loss and fitness goals and their accompanying “before” and “after” photos, as if a changed body indicates a transformation of the soul. While getting in shape may make you feel better and live longer, it won’t make you a better listener to your friends, or a more organized boss. This is why the pressure and promise of New Year’s resolutions are so dangerous: we want our resolve alone to be enough to change our lives for the better, change us for the better, and eliminate some of the burden of being a modern human. But once you address your underlying motivation for change, you also have to construct a plan to implement that change, one step at a time.
The Romans continued the tradition of New Year’s promises but moved the date to align with their own civil calendar in 46 B.C.E. Roman NYE included worship of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, from whose name the month January derives. A beginning suggests hopefulness, while an ending gives permission to leave something behind that has come to a natural conclusion, or no longer serves you. We can arrive at the new year unencumbered, but with stars in our eyes. So let’s not think of resolutions—a hard resolve—so much as ambitions—a hope and a dream. If you “resolve” to achieve an ambition, then you’ll have to set incremental goals to make it happen.
Start with a specific achievement like “get a solo show.” Then brainstorm the steps needed to achieve your goal. It may be difficult to estimate how much time each step will take you, which is why breaking it down into more detail can help put it into context and give you a sense of real time. Then make a timeline of the milestones to achieve over the next month, then the next three months, then six.
For example, if my goal is to get my own solo show, I’m going to think about my current status as an artist.
Do I feel like my body of work is ready? Am I emotionally ready? Is my website even ready? I know gallerists will check it out. Is my CV up to date to submit with a proposal? Maybe I need to produce more pieces to round things out. Maybe I’d like a former teacher or an artist friend to give me some input on my proposal and pitch, which I realize as I’m brainstorming I’m definitely going to have to write. And I know my favorite former professor can take a month to get back to me.
Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about what connections I have.
Where do they work, who are their friends, where have they shown? Come to think of it, which galleries am I even interested in targeting? Who has connections there? Maybe the director of the residency I attended last summer… How do I approach them and ask for help? How do I forge new connections that could help me?
I keep scribbling notes on a to-do list, or making circles on a mind map, then I start putting them into chronological order. I notice each step, like building up my website, has sub-steps. Already, I’m beginning to see that I have months of work ahead before I’m even going to be ready to start cold-calling galleries or getting friends to reach out on my behalf. Perhaps this will take longer than a year, as not all of this is within my control. But I know from my timeline that I have at least six months of tasks planned out and that I can start working towards them today. That is my New Year’s ambition.
The process of brainstorming each step towards achieving my goal, then placing it on a real timeline can be revelatory. And painful. A lot of us give up because our goals seem way too far out of reach or it’s taking too long to get where we’re going. We live in a culture that loves stories of overnight success, especially when it happens to someone who’s under 30. As Lizzo has openly discussed, there is no such thing as overnight success. Patience is a virtue for a reason: it’s really f’ing hard to achieve something. That’s why building a creative career is usually a lifelong pursuit. You’re playing the long game here. So give yourself credit for how far you’ve come and space to get where you’re going. Remember, “Beyoncé wasn’t built in a day.”
One of the biggest challenges for creatives is finding the time to actually create. Between day jobs, kids, chores, social obligations, family gatherings, their accompanying drama, and all the other stuff of life, it’s hard to keep a consistent practice going. During the holiday season, most of us just shake our heads, sigh, and decide we’ll get to it next year. But it is possible to enjoy the holiday hubbub and still maintain your creative practice. If you don’t have one yet, starting during the holidays may seem insane, but it could actually save your sanity to purposefully carve out time for creative expression.
Make a Plan
You know the holidays are coming. In case your calendar isn’t enough to remind you, every mall and chain store was hosed down with glittering red and green as of midnight on Halloween. The pressure is definitely on. But don’t be fooled, Thanksgiving is weeks away and Christmas isn’t here for over a month! You still have time to plan around the yearly rituals you know are coming, like that annual shopping day with your mom or your kids’ school pageant. If you keep a consistent creative practice, now’s the time to begin playing Jenga with your entire schedule to free up some creative time to keep going. And when I say “time,” I mean anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours. Every second does indeed count towards achieving your goals; being an artist is a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe 5 minutes is all you’re going to get each day between now and New Year’s. That’s ok, that still counts as maintaining your practice! If 5 focused minutes a day is actually more than you currently get, then carving that out now will make you feel great and ready for the new year, with all its pressure to improve yourself. (More on that in a post to come).
While you Jenga your schedule, consider reducing some of the other demands you make on yourself. If exercise is your thing, maybe drop down from 5 gym sessions a week to 3 so you can use that remaining time for your artistic work. You can cut corners at home, too. A little more laundry and a slightly dirtier house might be worth it so you can still make art and feel like yourself during this joyfully hectic time. Remember everyone else is stressed out, too. Cancelling book club this month might just result in a collective sigh of relief.
So there are the holiday needs you know are coming, like cooking and shopping and decorating your ice-covered roof with lights, but then there’s all the inevitably last minute stuff that pops up without warning, like snow days, and throws your whole schedule out the window. Now is the time to be flexible and forgiving. Take the time you’d spend beating yourself up over not keeping perfectly to your schedule to instead make some notes, or just close your eyes for a minute and meditate on your work. Remember that the work of an artist is largely invisible: all the time you spend dreaming, plotting, planning, and feeling your way through your creations still does indeed count towards your goals, even if you are actively engaged in another activity. In fact, the distraction of the mundane is a great way to stimulate the subconscious, so be mindful of that as you sip nog and deck the halls.
Ask for Help
The holidays often mean more mouths to feed (and listen to) but it can also mean more hands. Maybe the college kids home for break or a visiting relative can handle dinner while you go hide in the garage with some bourbon and work on your sculpture. Consider hiring babysitters to watch the little ones or using apps like Postmates and Task Rabbit so someone else can go pick up milk or a wreath from Home Depot. Free yourself from the fallacy that being efficient and productive means you do every single thing yourself. It’s all about creatively delegating. Speaking of, maybe those little Santa fanatics in your house could start walking the dog or vacuuming to show Santa how good they are, giving you a much-needed break and some additional free time.
You don’t have to attend every holiday party you’ve been invited to. You don’t have to attend any, in fact. If you’ve already accepted invites and are now breaking out into a cold sweat thinking about it, you can admit to a scheduling snafu and opt out. You can admit you have a lot going on and have a feeling you won’t be able to make it. Telling the honest truth now means way fewer hurt feelings later when you claim to have a cold at the last minute. (Don’t do that). Instead, assess your calendar honestly. Consider your priorities: is this event important to you? Where does your art practice rank in relation to it? If your practice is above that afternoon of cookie decorating, then be true to that. You can still show all your love and caring for your near and dear regardless of whether or not you show up to every single thing. You can also opt out of the drama surrounding these decisions.
One of the biggest drains on your energy during the holidays can be the emotional labor struggling friends and family members expect you to perform. It doesn’t make you a bad supporter if you acknowledge you hear your sister’s concerns about Uncle Frank’s drinking or that you sympathize with your friend’s anger at her mother for putting oysters in the stuffing, then disengage. Most of these conversations don’t need to be taken further than that, as the drama will play out anyway, with or without your participation, and you are likely not the only one getting the play-by-play. It is ok to safeguard your time and sanity by stepping back from the drama, unless you’re using it for research for your next book, in which case, have at it.
You can also decline to spend lots of time and money shopping. You don’t have to get a gift for every single person you think might give you one. (My mother used to keep some lovely but generic gifts around, already wrapped, with a blank card, just in case she got a present she didn’t expect. I strongly recommend this strategy if you can afford it). If shopping is more of a budgetary issue and you feel the pressure to make a gift for everyone instead to save money, I’m here to tell you now not to do that. Making gifts can actually end up costing you just as much in materials, especially when the value of your time is added to the total. Send cards, give hugs, but don’t exhaust your body and your bank account on consumerism.
You don’t have to make all the food yourself, either, nor do you have to make anything from scratch. Everyone is still going to have a great, memorable season if you buy pre-made pie crust. That will in no way negatively affect their memory of the holiday but could positively impact the rock opera you’re writing.
If you’re feeling pretty organized and maybe a tad sneaky, try scheduling fun things for everyone else to do, like holiday word games and crafts, or tree lightings, then slip off while they’re all distracted for some “you and your art” time. It’s also ok to tell your boss or your partner you’ve got a flu shot to get or an urgent holiday errand to run, then go sit in your car and sing, write, draw, etc. You don’t need to explain or justify to anyone exactly how you spend every moment of your day, even if others make you feel that you do. You are entitled to privacy.
Part of surviving the holidays is recognizing the demands the season makes on your time and sanity can be continually renegotiated. The holiday machine doesn’t want us to know that. We’re supposed to feel obligated, guilty, and stressed. Otherwise, we’re selfish, right? But there’s nothing selfish about maintaining your sanity. The art you endeavor to create will also benefit the world far more in the long-run than any single present you can buy or casserole you can bake. Art is eternal!
By now you’ve realized that when I say “selfish,” what I really mean is self-protective. Launching and keeping a creative practice is in part about ninja-level scheduling and finding a rhythm that works for you, but it’s also about knowing your worth. You deserve time to make art. It is ok to view that as more important than other events or obligations in your life, including the emotional ones. That doesn’t make you a Picasso-esque ego monster, just an artist with priorities.
Whether you worship one god or many, or none at all, you can still catch the “spirit” of Samhain. The blurring of the boundary between the spirit and physical worlds is an apt metaphor for fluidity between the conscious and subconscious mind, where creative inspiration sparks. This is a great time to face your fear of starting or returning to a creative project, as well as to open your mind to creative possibilities.
For context, Samhain (pronounced SAH-when) is one of the year’s most important holidays for pagans such as myself, marking the end of the bounty of fall and the beginning of winter, when the year is darkest and barren. Its occurrence is about halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. While Halloween has roots in this celebration, they are different occasions: one a folk holiday, the other a two-day celebration honoring the dead and reflecting the cycle of Nature. Samhain is a time for resolving grief and communing with spirits.
To get inspired, here are five low-key ways to celebrate:
Take a Nature Walk
Consider taking a Samhain nature walk as a meditative exercise and time to reflect upon Nature and your place in it. This is a time to regain perspective by fully being in the present moment. If you have loved ones buried at a nearby cemetery, consider visiting their graves, or stroll through and say hello to all the spirits, familiar or not. Cemeteries can be beautiful, peaceful places for reflection.
Build an Altar
If you’ve lost loved ones and are processing old or new grief, you consider building an altar on a table, dresser, bookshelf, or any other surface with photos and mementos belonging to the deceased. Light candles for those you’ve lost and then sit quietly with your memories. Inspiration may just visit you.
Commune with the Relatives
If an altar is too much, call an older family member with a good memory and ask to hear stories about your family’s heritage. You could take notes or just listen. Try having this conversation right before bed, then see which ancestors or images appear in your dreams.
Host a Samhain Dinner
If you’re really getting into the spirit of things, consider hosting a Samhain dinner, either just for you or with guests. Set a place for the dead at your table, or make offerings of the meal at the altar you built. Share a bite or a sip of everything with your intangible guests, then leave their share in a spot outside as an offering. If a whole dinner seems like too much work, find a Samhain potluck to join!
Remember that breaking out of your routine and pushing yourself beyond your immediate comfort zone can be inspiring and help you feel a sense of renewed possibility. This Samhain, I call upon you to do something unexpected, something out of character, and to push your creative work in the same direction.
What a harpy of a question, one which plagues those of us in creative fields. It arises from—and is fueled by—our insecurities, our doubts, our anxiety about poor time management. Every time we opt to go out for that office happy hour instead of heading to the studio, or reach for the remote, there it is again: the question that, by its very nature, suggests our choice in that moment elucidates exactly why we lack success: we aren’t committed enough, we aren’t driven enough. We aren’t enough.
What if the question itself is flawed? What if we restructured it, gave it a facelift? Then it might look something like: How are you a successful artist? A question that would push us to identify the ways in which we have already achieved recognition or satisfaction as creatives.
This leads to a larger discussion of what defines “success.” In our society, success is viewed in terms of wealth and status. A high-status job often pays well, so one thing leads to another, just as people privileged by wealth are more likely to maintain high social status. The why and how of the devaluation of the arts in our culture is a whole other subject. In any case, each of us has the chance to define what success means to us personally. The fact that artistic work does not tend to be well-paid is unfortunate and unfair, but also an opportunity to redefine achievement beyond dollars and cents. After all, whether valued at zero dollars or a million, the actual art is exactly the same. The only thing that shifts is the perspective.
So, what if you began to think of your art as “worth a million bucks?” In other words, what if your talent and creativity became a worthwhile pursuit? A worthy investment of your time and energy? Perhaps you already have this feeling but haven’t been able to act on it. I’m just too lazy, you tell yourself. I’m not driven enough, not like those other, more successful people over there posting photos on Instagram of their gallery openings and book launch parties. (Guess what? Those photos demonstrate that the objects of your envy have become successful at using social media as a promotional tool for marketing. Good on them).
The thing stopping you from investing in your art, from producing work to sharing it or marketing it, is not laziness. It’s not a lack of discipline, though of course discipline can help, or poor time management. It’s fear.
After working for years with creative students who struggled to complete their work on time, who consistently fell short of the credits needed to graduate, who stayed in bed rather than face a critique, I realized that their problem wasn’t just about time management. The biggest blocker was a fear of not being good enough, of disappointing teachers, parents, peers, and themselves through inadequacy and mediocrity. They would spend hours and hours on work that was “never finished,” meaning it wasn’t yet perfect, and would absorb the impact of a zero for showing no work at all rather than make themselves vulnerable, reveal the “unfinished” work they’d poured their heart and soul into, and risk rejection and criticism. Sound familiar?
Here’s the thing: an artist’s work is never “done.” You will always find things in your work you’d like to change or even blot out completely, and I don’t just mean typos. Growth, by nature, means continual movement. If your work always pleases you to the point that you think you cannot do any better, then how are you growing and changing? It’s like expecting your baby shoes to still fit. Do you want your feet to stay that small?
There will always be expectations surrounding you that put pressure on you to live a certain way, be a certain kind of person. It comes from your (sometimes) well-intentioned parents and teachers and it’s writ large in our culture, broadcasted constantly and reinforced by the public image of The Artist. You live in that shadow. You feel you will never get out of it and all your innermost fears about yourself feed that anxiety.
But you can get past your fear. You don’t have to be governed by insecurity. You just need the right tools: a support system, a plan, and a new perspective. A creative coach can help you get there.
In redefining your metrics for success, you acknowledge you may not win a MacArthur or a Nobel Prize or a Guggenheim. Those are external forces beyond your control and tying your sense of worth to recognition will choke you. Instead, you can be fully yourself, the most “you” you’ve ever been, which includes the creativity you bring to the world. To do that is already a success. So when the harpy of self-doubting questions comes by, you can tell it to f*ck right off.
Want to know more? Contact me.
It’s become chic to have a nemesis, or nemeses. Well-known writer Roxane Gay’s frequent—but tantalizingly anonymous—tweets about her nemeses have fans and Twitter allies following her rivalries like it’s “Downton Abbey.” (Monica Lewinsky went as far as to dress up as one of Gay’s nemeses for Halloween). This has sparked a trend of nemesis-related commentary and confessions on social media.
This is a pretty different kind of nemesis than the one I’m familiar with, which is rooted not just in rivalry, but payback. The word “nemesis” comes from 16th century Greek, meaning literally “retribution,” from nemein—“give what is due.” Yet Gay’s nemeses don’t even know they are objects of her ire and, in fact, just might not even know who she is.
The currently popular version of a nemesis isn’t the Potter vs Voldemort kind of relationship where both sides are aware of each other and believe retribution is owed. It’s more like Ahab vs the whale, where one party is investing a lot of energy and the other is, uh, a whale: unattainable, untouchable, coasting through the depths, oblivious to the enemy floundering in a little boat on the surface.
In my practice as a creative coach, I teach clients that envy is destructive. Rather than pushing you to work harder, as The Atlantic posits, being envious of a creative who has something you want suggests that their having of it deprives you, as if success is a non-renewable resource. It’s more productive to be encouraged by others’ success—if they did it, so can you!—than to put pressure on yourself to compete against another artist. We should foster a community of support and collaboration in the arts. Goddess knows, it’s hard enough to be a creative as it is.
Secondly, it’s a misuse of your passion. The flush of rage and want you feel when you look at someone else proclaiming their success on social media diverts energy from your craft and sends it towards the screen, where it bounces back, like feng shui gone wrong, and disappears. This experience encourages you to focus only on the outcome of work you produce, rather than the value of producing it. Remember the act of creation is different from the business of selling art.
Of course, social media is designed to fuel destructive envy. So maybe avoid or limit your exposure to social media if you find yourself feeling that sick-to-your-stomach sensation of toxic envy every time you scroll through your Insta feed. Mute your rivals and focus on pictures of adorable owls in hats instead. It might be fun and productive to even create a piece inspired by or in honor of your nemesis, allowing a chance for deeper reflection about the nuance of expectation and competition that goes into the feeling of envy in the first place.
And that’s just it, envy is only a feeling, or a composite of them: desire, frustration, disappointment, anger, jealousy. It’s natural and sometimes unavoidable and no one is beyond it, including public figures we admire, which is perhaps the most positive aspect of someone as well-renowned and respected as Roxane Gay openly discussing her envy.
It’s trendy to have a rival, but it’s healthier and more productive to have a role model or a collaborator. If gazing at someone else’s trophies and great skin makes you feel like crap, turn the gaze inward. Don’t waste the drive fueling that envy on someone else who doesn’t even know you’re watching.