Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Demonslaying 101 Part I


Being an artist is a blessing, a true joy! So inspired, each piece expresses the love, delight, and dedication that buoyantly sweeps an artist through the creative process. But it isn’t easy. We have learning curves to master, a stream of challenges to tackle, big ambitions to chase, walking the tightrope of public opinion and treatment, and a host of other factors that can make an otherwise average day a tricky dance. Yet there’s a darker side to arting, one that beats down from inside that’s hardly ever talked about in the arts community. Why? Well, traditionally there been far more fixation on romantic notions of creative fulfillment, the journey of self-discovery, and the mystery of inspiration angle in the larger arts community than it has been about the actual reality of making art. So to gloss things over, whatever dark realities are involved become wrapped up in the artistic mystique as though this kind of pathos was something to be glamorized, even turned into a curiosity of The Grand Artistic Struggle.

That being the case, the public has this skewed impression that arting is this life-fulfilling dreamland of satisfied full expression of ourselves. That it’s fundamentally one of deep personal meaning and fulfillment full of rainbows and blue skies. And — yes — all that is positively true! Absolutely, it’s very much that, and one of the primary things that keeps many creatives going. But “full expression of ourselves” means exactly that and that’s a problem. How so? Every artist I’ve ever met has their own unseen demons they battle, their own invisible torments that put the creative act on a precarious ledge. Sometimes, one tip in the wrong direction can even bring that drive to a full stop. Yet we don’t hear of this spoken of enough in art from an everyday, practical standpoint, do we? Rather, we’ve all heard of the sentimentalized “suffering artist,” right? And maybe that’s true, but even so, the actual living-through-it is anything but romantic, anything but glamorous. It can be demoralizing, paralyzing, depressing, and traumatizing. And at times it can turn arting into one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. 

We need to talk about this in a down to earth way because artists should know that their experience isn’t unique, that many artists are touched by this dynamic at some point in some way — and some all the time. They also need to know it’s not something that should be suffered in silence because its power can be mediated through a support network of shared struggles. Yet while each artist has demons unique to them, there are three in particular that are pretty consistent that could even be the root cause of all the rest perhaps because they speak so deeply to the kernels of our self-worth and sense of purpose and meaning. So what are these demons? They are imposter syndrome, negative bias, and the behemoth itself, self-doubt. At some point, they’re going to show up at our party and once they do, that’s it — they’ll never leave. Oh, we can shut them in a room and close the door, but they can yell quite loudly and pound on that door like a storm, becoming pesky voices in our heads spewing a stream of negatives to make our experience more difficult, sometimes impossible. Being so, artists usually find ways to live with them through myriad coping mechanisms to find some measure of peace. Because wow — once they start, they do not shut up! And they don’t care how successful or popular our work is either — they’ll just crash our party all the same. Truly, it might surprise many people to know that their favorite artists may really be struggling and that their creativity may hang by an unseen thread at times. Indeed, for me, these demons showed up early and entrenched themselves in my living room, becoming bigger and louder as the years rolled by, igniting into screaming fits with each success. Especially self-doubt — wow. They’re like this terrible pushback of equal force that muffles each high point, almost ruining it completely. And believe me when I say there are plenty more in my boat with these jerks. So if we’re finding ourselves sailing those rough seas, know that we’re surrounded by a flotilla of kindred spirits who know all too well these waters. 

So let’s talk about them. It’s important to acknowledge that there’s far more to arting than simply smearing clay and pigment around, and learning curves and inspiration, and some grand quest of self-fulfillment. Those are awesome, of course, but it’s also helpful to more fully understand this dark side of creativity because based on some comments I heard on Facebook, it’s like an undercurrent affecting some of our artists. And the problem may be far more pervasive than we think because here’s the thing: These demons draw their power from two sources, from inside the artist and from their circumstances to attack on two fronts. So as the stakes ramp up in our genre, this feeds that pre-existing internal dialogue to form an emotional gale few little boats can navigate well enough. Altogether then, this negative miasma can affect our want to make art at all or even compromise our enthusiasm for this activity. 

To add more wind to the waves — because yes, there’s more — our particular niche is highly demanding, isn’t it? It’s a brutal technical taskmaster that’s not only ready but actually eager to pot-shot anyone who pulls up just a little short. Sure, we can tell ourselves, “I’ll just try harder next time,” but that only works for so long before our frustrations, confusions, exasperations, and insecurities start spilling over to flood our coping mechanisms. And truly, there will come a time when they won’t work anymore because they ignore that our art niche is a real challenge for the typical artistic mind. Honestly, any artist who works happily in our genre with any sense of self-preservation is probably equally adept in their coping mechanisms as they are in their skills! Because think about it — we have creatives who are already battling their inner demons now plunked right in the middle of a take-no-prisoners art form which is wrapped up in competitive comparison in a cacophony of voices, many of them conflicting, thoughtless, even callous. In my 30+ years of doing this, it honestly still amazes me that any artist sticks around at all. No wonder so many artists throw up walls! What we need is awareness to develop a landscape better able to help its artists beat back their own internal onslaughts and in so doing, better foster an explosion of bold new work from a more nurtured creative base. So let’s drag these three suckers out and take a good, hard look at them square in the eyes…

Let’s start with imposter syndrome. This is the belief that our skills are to be doubted and played down because we feel like a fraud, like our skills really aren’t all that so we really don’t deserve the kudos. Because — hey — only we know the accidental nature of some of our work so aren’t we just going through the motions of being an artist? Don’t real artists know exactly what they’re doing and so are entitled to feeling confident and good in their work? Really, aren’t we just a total wannabe? And gosh we struggle with our art — it’s hard and often confusing — yet all these real artists do it so easily and confidently which only proves we don’t have that magical ingredient for making real art let alone good art. Then when our art isn’t going over as well as we’d hoped or the arting process becomes difficult at times, all that amplifies the idea that really gifted artists don’t have these problems which is all the more proof that we aren’t a real artist and definitely not a talented one. Heck, we don’t know all the technical terms for anatomy or the color and patterns, but real artists know all that stuff completely, right? What an internal onslaught! And while this syndrome is especially strong in high-achieving people, it will happily torment any thoughtful soul who finds success in their field to make them dangerously self-conscious about their arting. Honestly, this demon will bust down our door, park its hinder in our favorite chair, eat all our chips, and just start mouthing off. And the more successful we become, the bigger it can grow to fill our creativity with anxiety, trepidation, and hesitation. Sadly, I’ve known a couple of artists who become heartbreakingly anxious when even given a compliment on their work! So highly effective at all this then, imposter syndrome can be devastating. For instance, it can lead to self-disdain in our worth, talents, and goals, making an artist afraid of, even disgusted in, their own abilities, dreams, and inspirations as well as suspicious of and shying from the accolades they rightfully earn. A terrible place to be for sure. It can also prime them to put too much crippling weight on mercurial public opinion for validation, an even worse place to be. Mash all that up and we have a miserable psychological landscape for arting yet it’s one some artists endure unspoken on a daily basis. 

We now come to imposter syndrome’s older sibling, negative bias. There’s a belief in psychology that humans are wired for negativity, perhaps as a byproduct of evolution. Think about it: It was the negatives in our lives that could hurt us. Subsequently, we may be predisposed to respond to negative stimuli much more readily and to dwell on it stronger and longer, and even at the expense of the positives, known as “positive-negative asymmetry.” Quite literally, we feel the pain of a failure or rebuke more strongly than the elation of a success or compliment, sometimes much more. There can be a lot more pain than pleasure in our creativity at times then, a lot more anxiety than elation. So here’s the thing — this demon has always been at our party only we just never saw it for what it was even as it grew to monstrous proportions scarfing down our fancy appetizers, wiping its hands in our couch, and prosecuting us with our every imagined misstep. It’ll also cause us to overthink the negatives and become riveted to them as they become absurdly amplified in our reality. Thinking about it then, negative bias could be precisely why we can receive an enthusiastic stream of “HUZZAHS!” yet it’s that one negative comment our brains will replay in our heads like a never ending grating gear. It’s also probably why artists tend to fixate on the perceived flaws in their work to gloss over, even ignore, the good points. And lemme tell ya — this single phenomenon can be so catastrophic it can even cause an artist to anticipate the negatives so they recoil even before they begin! Honestly, at some point, in some way to some degree, it’s going to back every artist into a corner and we have to fight ourselves out. Yet even if we’re successful at that, all we’ve done is learn to live with it, becoming a painful bruise we always wear. But gosh — we get good at hiding it, don’t we? Know it or not, every artist has scrapes and scars they hide, testaments to private battles they’ve won or lost, and are still fighting. I don’t know of a single artist ever unscathed, yet much of this brutality can come from within, behind our own defenses. Truth be told, setting up frontlines to deflect the mortar shells lobbed by others is a walk in the park compared to digging trenches in our own psyches against ourselves. In our genre, in particular, where the shrillness of “perfection” finds amplification to eleven and where “failure” can be met with casual cruelty, this war in our psyche has these two fronts at full engagement. Is it any wonder then why our community can be so exhausting for many creatives? (Add this to an artist’s tendency towards sensitivity and we have another layer to the problem. We talk about this in Pickled Art.) 

And finally we come to the mother of all arting demons — self doubt. This demon won’t just bust into our party, it’ll envelop our entire house in a bubble of negativity to poison everything in our experience. It spills everything all over our carpet, punches holes in our walls, and devours all our hot dishes. It has a power all its own, but also amplifies imposter syndrome and negative bias to boot. What’s the result? A cascade of lasting self-destructive convictions that pelt the artist like a gatling gun from within. In this, self-doubt can also henpeck us as we work, nitpicking every decision and swipe of our tool in this needling barrage of self-punishment. As such, this demon will take that well of insecurity each of us carry and barrage us with the notion we’re really just fooling ourselves, we’re delusional in our belief that we have talent and that what we're doing is good and worthwhile. In this way, it’ll even take the successes of other artists to beat us with them as proof of our actual ineptitude, trying to pop our balloon. Oh, but it doesn’t end there! It’ll go on to cram all our past work in our face as proof of our incompetence, yelling in our ear, “See — your work was always junk only you were too lame to realize it, just like you are right now!” Self-doubt is also the source of the belief that our work just isn’t appreciated or acknowledged, or even will be ridiculed or criticized, or worse, that the failures we’ve suffered are inevitabilities, and any number of defeatist thoughts. Now add in our highly technical and demanding art form, and we have a 100% intimidation factor! In this way, self-doubt can cause an artist to hesitate and hold back, to exercise too much caution when none is warranted, when even their genuine growth is hampered by this restraint. It’ll also cause an artist to lose joy in their efforts as its toxic brew pollutes every creative impulse, making arting that much harder to even do in the first place. Honestly, self-doubt can defeat an artist even before they begin, becoming a crushing, soul-smashing and joy-killing psychological smother, capable of snuffing out the creative drive altogether. And here’s the thing — one can be highly successful, yet still wrestle with self-doubt. This demon doesn’t care how popular we are, how well regarded our work is, or how many awards we’ve won. Those things simply don’t matter to it. It’ll cause us to feel apprehensive all the same, becoming that persistent awful voice in our heads the feeds our unease, self-disdain, and self-distrust. In short then, self-doubt is the dark shadow to every creative endeavor and so every artist will grapple with it throughout their career in some form. To be blunt then, sometimes the most marvelous thing an artist can do is to just keep going.

“I don't believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.” ~ Tennessee Williams

So what does all this distill down to? Fear. It’s fear that lies at the heart of all our struggles, our enemy and the true agitator of our demons. And that fear takes many forms, custom-made for each of our own anxieties, each targeting a demon intent on tormenting us. Yet perhaps all these fears can in turn be summed up into one thing, right? Fear of the outcome. Can we do this? Will this turn out as well as we hope? Will it meet with applause or indifference, or worse, ridicule and contempt? It’s so odd that the one thing we yearn for — the brilliant completion of a new piece — would entail so much fear wrapped up into it, too. Whether we acknowledge it or not then, so much courage and pugnaciousness goes into every new attempt, each new start like our own psychological mini-Everest, our art is both the cause and the cure of our anxiety. One could call it a self-destructive vicious cycle if so much love and joy wasn’t involved.

“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.” ~ Yayoi Kusama

So if we could somehow manage and redirect our fear, perhaps even dampen it, maybe then we can dampen our demons, too? The good news is — yes! Yes, these things can be managed and manipulated to better poise us for success in spite of it all given some tactics and insights. Let’s explore some of those then in this six-part series, starting with Part II. So until then…keep climbing that Everest!

“Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.” ~ David Bayles

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