For most of my life, I lived with a fear of not being understood.
When people misunderstood me in some way — my intentions, my ideas, my motivations — I rushed to explain myself. The more I grew and changed, the more my ideas and thinking diverged from that of the mainstream culture around me, so the more I felt alienated. The more I felt misunderstood. And the more I felt a slight panic that I would be “in trouble.”
This took me a long time to figure out.
When I was a child, I constantly had to explain myself. My father could launch into one of his verbal assaults any time the mood struck him. If I said the most casual of things which he misunderstood — as “disrespectful” or wrong in some way — I could be under assault without warning. And once he started, he never backed down.
I learned to go to insane lengths to be clear to him, but I still worried about the inevitable misunderstanding — and I grew up to take that same fear of being misunderstood into all of my life.
Over the years, I’ve frequently read of artists who declined to explain what their work meant. That always puzzled me, because I thought they would want people to understand what they were trying to say. Something about it seemed arrogant or rude to me, too, as though they were saying they were too important to explain themselves.
But I think now that when I heard those people, the little boy inside me was screaming, “Don’t you know you’ll get into trouble if you don’t explain yourself?!” There was something terrifying to me — on a gut level — about not explaining. I unconsciously reacted like someone who knew those artists were violating a rule which I knew could get themselves punished.
But after spending most of my life trying desperately to be heard — and to get people to understand my ideas, thoughts and feelings — I’ve finally started to understand those artists who don’t want to explain.
This has been a slow and gradual process for me.
Explanations about art and ideas are generally going to be misunderstood. Those who are going to “get it” will get it from the work itself. If you spend time explaining yourself, you’re not doing new and better art — and your explanations are almost certainly going to be misunderstood by people who are never going to understand no matter what you say.
For a long time, I’ve seen my work as expository, but not anymore. More and more, I don’t care to explain. I still want to be understood, of course. I need someone to love me and understand me on that level. And I fervently hope to be understood by those who have ears to hear what my work is saying — but I need to forget about those who aren’t going to understand no matter how much I explain.
Most real artists are filled with self-doubt to one degree or another. I started out filled with more of it than most, because I judged myself according to how well others understood what I was trying to say. When others misunderstood — as often happened — I felt like the little boy who couldn’t make himself understood enough to be emotionally safe. I felt panicked.
For whatever the reason, I’m slowly getting past that. There will always be a tinge of the self-doubt, but something about it has shifted for me. I’m less worried now about whether I’m expressing myself well — and I’m more hopeful of the right people finding my work and connecting with it.
I can’t control whether I have talent or not. I’m confident that I have some, but I have no idea whether it’s enough to deliver the success I want. But I can ultimately control how I deal with doubt.
I’m slowly leaving more of my fears behind. (My father’s death helped.) I finally understand that getting past the need to explain myself is a key step toward creating the art that’s trying to get out of me.
I hope you understand that, but it’s OK if you don’t.