I don’t really want to create things. Honestly, I don’t. In one way or another, I’ve fought it all my life. Creating is difficult. There’s tremendous risk of failure and embarrassment. There’s frequently not a lot of money in it (if at all). And it’s hard to explain to people what you do and who you really are.
I don’t want to put up with any of those things. I hate them. I’d rather be something easy to explain. I’d rather do something that other people were more willing to pay for. I’d rather do something that more readily gives me the money that a future wife wants.
But I don’t have any choice. I have to create things. When I don’t, I start dying.
As with so many creators, I struggle with the question of whether I’m an artist. Honestly, I’m afraid I am, but I feel like a fake to say so. Artists are those who paint or sculpt or do something that’s displayed in galleries. My work these days is mostly for myself or friends on Facebook or something for readers here. But am I actually a writer? Am I am artist?
A friend had been bugging me for months to read a book by Steven Pressfield called “The War of Art,” which deals with the excuses that creative people find not to pursue the things they need to be creating. I finally bought a copy about six weeks ago, but I proceeded to lose it after I’d read the first 20 pages or so. You don’t suppose that could have anything to do with the fact that what I was reading was making me uncomfortable, do you?
I finally found the book a few days ago and I hesitantly read a little bit while I was waiting to meet with a client. I ran across a few sentences that speak directly to my fear of being a fraud:
“If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
I think the thing that still scares me the most is that maybe I am talented. As long as I’m not really talented — or have just enough talent to monkey around with as a hobby — I don’t owe myself any apologies for not doing anything with it. But what if I really am good enough to do something creative that’s really good work? Am I cheating myself? Am I cheating someone else?
It was Franky Schaeffer who first introduced me to the idea that we’re actually emulating God when we truly create. In his book, “Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts,” Schaeffer criticizes the mindset in much of the modern church that devalues art for its own sake. He points out that much of the American church sees art as simply a tool of evangelism, not as an objective good thing that pleases God in and of itself.
There’s something about pursuing art that feels very much like trying to find the truth about a thing. When I photograph something or write about something, I’m trying — somehow, some way — to say something that expresses the truth in a deeper sense. That seems obvious when it comes to the writing I do here, but it’s equally true of photos. When I take a picture of my cats or dog or sunsets or a leaf, I’m struggling to feel something true about each of those things. The camera becomes a very imperfect extension of my eye and my heart, a tool for helping me to share the way I see the world — the way I feel the world. When I do it well, it feels like truth.
When I do something that feels true, I feel alive. When I spend my time doing things that don’t feel true, it’s soul-crushing, even if I’m being paid to do the work. I desperately need to feel alive and I need to feel as though I’m expressing the truth, even if the truth is something I already knew.
Songwriter Terry Scott Taylor expressed it well in some lines from a song called “Ribbons and Bows” that he wrote for a group he fronts called Daniel Amos:
And there may not ever be
Anything new here to say
But I’m fond of finding words
That say it in a different way
I don’t want to feel any of what I’m telling you. If any of this resonates with you, there’s a good chance that you don’t want to feel it, either. If you’re an artist or someone who’s been running away from creating what you were put here to create, you probably feel terrified, too. If you don’t feel scared of what you’re trying to do, it’s probably not worth doing. If you’re trying to do something that can make you feel alive and free and whole, you have to take creative risks that scare you. (I know that mostly because I run from those.)
I made the only film I’ve made seven years ago. It never would have gotten made if I hadn’t been inspired by loving a woman and wanting to show her what I could do. It scared me, but it worked better than I could have imagined. It somehow got into 20 smaller film festivals and won five awards. It’s been seen on YouTube more than 300,000 times. It made no money for me and it was a terribly imperfect film, but I’ve never done work I’ve been as proud of — not because it’s perfect, but because it successfully expressed the truth about something from my point of view in an entertaining way. I’m terribly biased, but I think it was good art — and I’m scared to admit that to you.
When I worked in politics, I made a very nice living, making good money. But I didn’t do anything that mattered. I didn’t do work that challenged me. Even when the work itself — the advertising — was beautiful and well-done, it didn’t express truth. It was manipulative work designed to achieve my clients’ goals. Ultimately, that feels dishonest.
I know I have to move forward and create new and different things today. I’ve known that for a long time, but I’ve tried to ignore it. I figure I might even be financially successful with it. The idea of making good art and getting paid for doing it is one of those dreams similar to professional athletes talking about getting paid millions of dollars to play games they love.
I don’t like believing that I’m an artist. I still feel like a fraud. Sometimes I try to ignore it. Ultimately, though, I can’t ignore it. I have to admit it. As much as it pains me to say it — and as much as I wish it weren’t true — I’m an artist.
Maybe you’re an artist, too. If this touches something in you, don’t ignore it. Find the truth you need to express. If you don’t, keeping it inside will kill you. Expressing it will make you feel alive. It’s your choice which you want to feel.
Note: The five photos with this article were all taken with my iPhone. The tree at the top is on U.S. 11 in Trussville, about a mile from my house. The first cat is Charlotte, taken earlier this week. Next is a shot of Lake Purdy, which is south of Birmingham and is a major source of drinking water for the area. The mostly white cat is Amelia sitting on the corner of my desk late one night very recently. The sunset below is a panorama I shot last Thursday.