I’ve always been hesitant to call myself an artist, or even more specifically, a writer. Since I don’t earn a living writing and am not famous, two of our culture’s main measurements for success, I’ve never thought my art really matters.
But watching some artist interviews during “The New Artists” series at The Orchard the past few weeks has helped me realize that my art does matter. It not only matters in my life, but it matters in the lives of others, no matter if it’s just a handful of readers or tens of thousands.
Watching the interviews throughout this series, I found myself in awe of more accomplished artists, such as the multi-talented Maureen Gasek or published, well-spoken writer, Beth Corcoran. Listening to all these incredible artists from my very own community has been both inspiring and a tad bit intimidating. And if you’re still a novice beginner like me, it can be easy to forget that we were all made to be creators in some form, and that we can do this simply by tapping into our creativity wherever we’re at in life.
One of the things I found most encouraging about these interviews was listening to the artists’ struggles, for no matter how seasoned the artist, their struggles were oddly familiar to my own. I found it comforting, for example, when Elizabeth Corcoran described how negative feedback affects her. I’ve always worried that I’m too over-sensitive to be a writer, but it was empowering to see someone face and push past criticism. She described uplifting feedback as these soft whispers, and harsh criticism as people shouting all in caps, and how these are the voices take over if we let them.
I also related to visual artist, Stephen Signa, as he talked about creativity being hard work, “Essentially, you’re engaging a problem. You’re tackling fear and (an) audience….kind of like life.”
Stephen and Pastor Scott Hodge talked about how sometimes the hardest part is just getting started. As Scott pointed out, “90 percent is just showing up.” I can see this so much in the transformation that my life has taken over the past two years.
Several years ago, I attended a writer’s group regularly, setting small goals each month, yet I never once wrote. I would bring essays to the group that I had written a year or two prior, but I just couldn’t bring myself to actually sit down and be vulnerable enough to write something new. I had a million excuses in my head, but looking back now, I really just never showed up– I never sat down to actually let it happen. Or as Ben Thomas, a songwriter (who also happens to be my husband!), put it during a short film on song-writing, it’s about “not getting in the way– letting the song be born.”
I think part of my resistance to sitting down to write was just being in a stuck place in my life in general, and once my life and community shifted, so did my art. I’m now in a writer’s group and artistic church community that I feel really engaged with, connected to, and supported by… and that’s a really great starting point for an artist. I think that’s where art goes beyond individual creation and moves into collaboration.
As Ben put it, “We can be true collaborators with the divine,” which may sound strange at first, but there is this huge part of being an artist that has nothing to do with the artist. “Something outside of me goes into it,” says Ben.
I have never really said this out loud, but I get a certain feeling when inspiration hits me. It’s kind of like a warm wave of goose bumps, and I know it’s time to sit down and write. I know that the muse has opened the window, and a creative air has entered the room.
There is craft involved to a certain degree, but there is an even larger, fuzzy gray mass where thoughts simply pour out, and I become more of a scribe. I go back later and edit, of course, but that which I create when the window is open has an energy and life to it that I can’t replicate when the window is closed. Author, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks eloquently of this notion in a recent TED talk, explaining the history of this outside source of creativity, recognized back in Greek and Roman times as something outside of the artist. She does a beautiful job contrasting how we place so much emphasis today on the actual artist, which has evoked fears and egos that draw people away from wanting to create.
For me, there are subtle things I can do to encourage the muse to open the window, such as reading books that inspire, hiking through nature or creating a clean, simple creative space to work. But for the most part, I just attempt to quiet my mind and wait, pen in hand (or keyboard in lap, to be more accurate!).
There have been times when the window seems like it has been sealed shut for days or even weeks, lined with ice in freezing temperatures, and no matter how hard I pound my fist to chisel the ice, it doesn’t budge. At other times, I pry my fingers underneath the windowpane, sticky and slow-moving in humid air, and it releases with a squeak. The more I actually sit down to write, though, the easier the window opens.
The weeks in which I find myself in a good rhythym with my writing are like a really good friendship…. the kind that flows almost effortlessly yet with lots of intention. It’s those rare, kindred-type friendships in which inside jokes spring up daily, and the growth is natural and steady.
And just as growing friendships naturally result in spending more time together, growing as an artist results in a natural shift in priorities. I used to squeeze in writing time every once in awhile, usually just when an inspiring idea was literally staring me in the face. Now I have an entire day devoted to my art, and while it takes childcare, money and time away from certain social and household duties that I used to deem more important, it doesn’t feel as difficult as I had construed in my head.
For me, putting on the life of an artist started out as a trial, like walking around in a new pair of jeans that felt kind of tight and uncomfortable at first. But after walking around in them for a bit, I’ve found that the denim is soft and stretchy to the point where they almost feel like comfy, flattering sweat pants that I want to keep wearing. And when this pair gets holes in the knees, which it surely will, I want to get another pair just like them. And another…
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