This past year of Pandemic retreat time has been awful in many ways, but turned out to be perfect for chewing and noodling and processing some insights that have come my way. The subject: myself as a creative person, my creative process, and creative living.
A huge challenge of mine is and has been equating my self worth/self definition with my success as a specific kind of artist and, further, my understanding of the word “success.” The limited way I've defined "success" has been: mastery of singular passion -> career -> $$$$. This has shifted recently, helped along by wisdom nuggets in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and some pointed questions from my friend and creativity expert Sara Saltee. I've come to realize with their help that I can be an artist, make art, and share art divorced from the other stuff in that silly equation. Money, Career, Fame, blah blah blah: they are not a requirement. It's funny, I keep thinking I've got this figured out (see my past post HERE ), and yet here I am again. Sheesh.
Isn't it interesting how culture informs our perceptions of ourselves and our trajectory in life, and how sticky and pernicious those ideas can be? As an American White-skinned Gen X type person, the message I received (and maybe you did too!) was the following:
1.) Choose ONE thing you are PASSIONATE about!!!!
2). Master that one thing in college!!!
3.) Make a career out of that thing!!
4.) Succeed at that career by making lots of lettuce!!!
Since according to the previous equation of success I had to narrow down all my interests to ONE THING, I chose ART. Art was something that I couldn't seem to stop doing if I tried: making art things was and always will be my jam. Since I had to master this passion in order to make a career out of it, I studied Illustration and Graphic Design. Then I headed out into the world to make the dollar bills. Result: Eh, not so much. I’ve had mild success as a designer type, and there is so much I really love about it. But that love never offset enough the dislike of the challenges of a design career.
Fortuitously for me, I had partnered via marriage to someone who did have a successful career in the realm of money and health insurance, so I had room to ditch the whole Designer/Career idea and take the risky step towards…an ARTIST career.
I couldn't just call myself an artist without trying to do the career part, because If I didn't make art into a career, was I truly an artist? I was pretty sure without the career and attendant cash money, I was just an.....amateur*. The horror!
The unfortunate result is that I have saddled my creative process with the pressure of my idea of what an artist is supposed to look like, what a career is supposed to look like, and the amount of money I earned from my artwork.
Oh, what a WEIGHT I have put upon my creative self!
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the creative muse as magical, conscious ideas that seek out a human to manifest them into the physical world, going from creator to creator until she can be made physical. I have had real world experiences that confirm in my head that Gilbert is onto something: I can't tell you how many times I've had amazing (and oddly specific) ideas that then I've seen manifested into the world by someone else, including a mixed media painting that I had sketched out and planned that I then saw on social media a few years later created by another artist!
That is the Big Magic that Elizabeth talks about; getting to collaborate with Ideas-in-Spirit in order to make them Real-in-the-World.
And that's it, that’s the agreement.
Things that this amazing contract does NOT include: the promise of dollars, the promise of fame, the promise of self worth. Things the contract does include: the joy of partnering with creativity and the joy of creating.
Just to clarify, it's not that artists have to be poor and money isn't allowed, or that there isn't such thing as lucrative art careers. The epiphany was really more around the idea that career/money doesn't define success as an artist. Having gallery representation doesn't define success as an artist. Having fame doesn't define success as an artist.
Being an artist means not being able to stop making art things.
I am and always will be an artist, regardless of the other stuff. Going back to super smart-pants E. Gilbert, she tells a story about herself as a young person making a promise to her Writer Self that she would always do whatever it took to continue writing. So, she would get jobs to support herself and give her Muse room to create with her on projects. It turned out that writing became a career, but that was never part of her promise.
That just resonates with me so much. Instead of asking my Muse to serve me in order to have a career/wealth/fame, what if I served Her instead? Or even better, collaborated as a partner?
So now the question I’ve been posing to my Muse during this crazy lock down year: what if the sole goal for me with art wasn't to have a lucrative career, but rather primarily the joy of interacting with my muse and seeing what we come up with together? What does my creative life look like if I unyoke it from the pressure of money making, and unyoke it from my grasping ego?
....to be continued.
Some Resources for Creative Living Wisdom Nuggets that I've been inspired by:
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art and Fear by David Bayles + Ted Orland
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Amelie (2001) Written and Directed by Guillaume Laurant + Jean-Pierre Jeunet
* The original definition of the word amateur is to do something purely for the love of it, regardless of fame and fortune. The condescending connotations only came later. Prolly with the prevalence of capitalism.