For much of my life, I’ve been stymied by the question of what I was. I could tell people how I made my living, but I wasn’t sure how to define myself. I went through a serious identity crisis when I was 29 years old.
I had been operating a publishing company for about three years, but the company failed and I had to shut it down. It was the first major failure of my life, and it threw me into a tailspin. Up until that time, I had defined myself as a businessman and as a newspaper editor, but everything felt hollow at that point. I realized that I had a serious question: “What am I?”
I spent the next year in a general state of depression and despair. I’m not sure how I made it through that period. Nothing seemed to matter. And every day, the question from the face in the mirror mocked me: “Who are you, David?”
After considering and discarding a million ways of defining myself, I finally found an answer to my existential crisis, but that answer scared me even more than the nothingness of the depression had. It felt true, but I somehow felt like a fraud to say it. I was an artist.
I realized at that point that all I’d ever wanted to do was create new things — to develop ideas and then bring them to life. I wasn’t an illustrator or a painter or a sculptor or any of the things that typically spring to mind when we mention artists, but I realized that’s who I was at heart. I didn’t know what my medium was. I didn’t know what my canvas was. But I knew for the first time that I was a creator, even if I felt like a fraud to apply the word to myself.
In the years since then, I’ve struggled artistically. Too much of the creative work I’ve done has been for clients who were only interested in whether they won elections, not in whether I did good work. About the only time I’ve allowed myself the chance to do something just for the joy of creating was when I made a short film six years ago. I still sometimes struggle to define what my canvas is and what medium serves my purposes best, but I know I’m unhappy when I’m not digging into myself and finding ways to bring new things to life based on the ideas I find inside. And I know I’m miserable when I can’t share those ideas and creations with others who can “get it.”
I thought about this all day Wednesday because of a discussion with someone Tuesday night about creating art. Someone who means a lot to me was going through a creative crisis of her own, and talking to her about her experience made me think about myself in this regard. It’s made me think about how to share my own experiences with her, and it’s also made me think more deeply about the practical limits I still try to place on myself.
Admitting that you’re an artist — whether it’s going to be a vocation or simply a creative outlet — means seeing the world in a different way and it also means taking creative risks. But for those of us who are driven to create things, the emptiness of not creating eventually outweighs the fear of failing. When that happens, you can’t keep looking at the world the way other people do (even if you once did).
In her book, “The Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron talks about how an artist can no longer see things the same way everyone else does: “To be an artist is to risk admitting that much of what is money, property and prestige strikes you as just a little silly.”
It’s a subtle shift, but it creates a bit of alienation from those who don’t understand you — a barrier because the things they value don’t really matter to you so much. Even if you still live a life that looks much like their upscale plastic material lives, the things you value change, because you feel something different from what they feel.
What you feel isn’t just expressed through whatever you create, but rather through the entire creative process itself — and it can frequently be frustrating. This other budding artist I mentioned is very talented and highly intelligent. She had tried her hand at a new art form recently — and hit a home run with her first attempt. She did something amazingly good and refreshingly original. And then she tried to do it again, but the result wasn’t as good. She tried several more times. She was devastated, because she couldn’t immediately replicate her first success. “I should be able to just spit this stuff out,” she said.
And that’s the heart of what brought me to think all day about this creative process. For those of us who are sometimes able to produce things that we love and are meaningful to us, it’s a constant source of nagging doubt for us that we’re not able to “spit this stuff out.” When we can’t immediately crank things out on an assembly-line basis, we have fear. We fear that anything good we’ve ever done was a fluke. We fear we’re not talented after all. We feel like frauds.
Psychologist Eric Maisel says fear is part of the creative process. He says we have to learn to be comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing whether the next thing we do will be any good or not.
“…[T]he process demands that we don’t know until we know: it is a voyage into the darkness of an unknown place where our plot or image or melody resides. People want to know right now, even before they begin: they want a kind of guarantee that they will succeed based on already knowing the outcome.”
One of the more humbling experiences of my life was writing a script for my 10-minute short film. I’d been writing for years and I had a clear concept that I liked. How hard could it be to write a script?
I struggled with it for weeks and weeks. I would sit in various restaurants day after day with my notebooks, but I didn’t have any success for a long time. The process itself was hard. Despite years of writing other things, I found that I knew nothing about writing a script, even something as relatively simple as what I was trying to do. I came close to giving up and deciding I’d never get it right.
I finally concocted a method of diagramming the structure of the script with boxes and then making notes next to the boxes. The early versions of that were still disasters, but I eventually started figuring out how to make it work. (I can’t find the early versions, but the page you see above is from one of the many later versions.) Eventually, I had a script. When other people read the script, all they saw was a finished script. Nobody saw the process of learning and sweating through my doubts. But when people in film/video production started reading the script and laughing, the pain of the process no longer mattered.
I still almost didn’t make the film. I was naïve and ignorant about filmmaking, even though I wanted to do it. I backed out of it the first time it was scheduled, because things weren’t coming together. I tentatively scheduled another time months later to try, but I almost backed out that time, too, because … well … I didn’t know what I was doing well enough to feel confident. I felt scared.
(Classic success author Napoleon Hill said in one of his books that men almost always do something beyond what they think they can do when they’re under the influence of a woman they love, and that was the case for me. I needed to prove I could do what I said I could do.)
The production process and editing process were bumpy. I made lots of mistakes along the way. I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. But when a finished short film was finally burned onto a DVD in May of 2005 and mailed to the first film festival, I wasn’t worried about the long and painful and messy process. I was bursting with pride at having done something that brought me immense satisfaction. It was like giving birth to a child and no longer feeling the birth pains.
It frequently seems as though work must be much different for the creative geniuses we admire. When I read some of Ray Bradbury’s work, for instance, it gives me the terrible feeling that I can never be as good a writer as he is. When I watch some movies, I get the horrible feeling that I can never write as cleverly as a certain writer did or direct a movie as well as that particular director did. But then I find out what well-known creative types say about their own fears. It turns out they’re just as scared as I am.
“I still have pretty much the same creative fears I had as a kid,” said director Steven Spielberg in a CNN interview. “I’m not sure I’d want to give them up; a lot of these insecurities fuel the movies I make.”
For many of us, that kind of insecurity can make us feel unworthy to keep trying to create. It makes us want to give up instead of persevering. And this points out the one thing that can stop creative people. It’s not other people’s disapproval. It’s purely our own fears and self-condemnation. We stop ourselves. Other people very rarely do.
A scared person doesn’t feel that she has talent. A scared person doesn’t feel as though she has anything to say. In almost every case, intelligent and creative people have plenty to say. When they’re first starting to explore their creativity in a serious way, they’re just afraid to step out of the molds they’ve been pressed into. If they can listen to what’s really going on inside them, they can eventually express truth through their art, whether it’s great writing or painting or filmmaking or whatever. If you say the same old things everyone is saying, nobody is going to pay attention to your art. But if you tell the truth, you’ll stand out.
If you take the time to learn your craft and you tell the truth as you understand it, you can express yourself in a way that will amaze you. You can even change the world sometimes.
This is something I constantly try to remind myself — and it’s something I hope my creatively struggling artist friend will remind herself. I know she has the talent and the intelligence and the insight to do great work. She has to keep working and learning — and she has to learn to trust her feelings instead of judging herself.
And that’s the end of the first lesson. There are many more that can come — if you really want to use your talents.