Here’s a link to the column I wrote for the art marketing blog at Fine Art Views:
I hope it helps you with your next studio housekeeping chore!
Here’s a link to the column I wrote for the art marketing blog at Fine Art Views:
I hope it helps you with your next studio housekeeping chore!
It’s been awhile since I’ve written here. Thank you to all of you who wrote, because of the silence, to ask if anything was wrong.
There were some scary things going on this holiday season. It’s been impossible to share them, for many reasons. The main reason is, to do so would violate the privacy of someone I love more than my life. It’s not really my story; I was a bystander who got caught in the backlash of the tornado.
After the worst of the storm had passed, and things looked more like normal (and I am very, very grateful for normal), I wondered why I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I usually do. I felt violated, stripped of my reason-to-be, and off-balance about the role art plays in my life.
Two things have put me back on the path.
One is a children’s book I’ve been reading this week. It’s the finale to Susan Cooper’s marvelous series THE DARK IS RISING, about the battle between good and evil in the world. called “Silver on the Tree”. I found “Silver on the Tree” at a thrift shop last week, snatched it up and read it.
Near the end, the heroes venture through a beautiful kingdom, a land of makers and craftspeople, singers and story-tellers, in search of a magic sword to help them in their quest. The king of that land, the maker of the Crystal Sword, sits alone in his castle, immobilized these many long years and silent.
And right there, on page 161, is this amazing passage:
(The enemies of the Light,) they showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing–fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth. Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless Fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds. And gradually he was put into despair…..Despair holds him prisoner, despair, the most terrible creation of all.”
I saw myself.
To be open to the world, to be open to your creativity, also means we are exceptionally vulnerable to the dark forces of the world.
When we are open to the chaos of possibility, we are also vulnerable to the chaos of evil.
Even as we delight in the small fierce flame of creation, in ourselves and in others, we are in danger of someone carelessly, deliberately, cruelly, snuffing it out for the sheer enjoyment of tormenting us.
It’s frightening to realize the world has such people in it. They’re surprisingly hard to see, too. In fact, they may be the most charming person you’ve ever met.
Your only clue may be how awful you feel about yourself after dealing with them. How inadequate you feel, how selfish you see yourself, how useless your talents are to the world.
And because you yourself have let in that despair, only you can see it, and only you can tell it to leave.
There’s no logic to it, except this:
You can accept there is evil in the world, and give in to it.
Or you can say there is also good in the world–and embrace it.
I have to choose the latter.
I have to believe in what I do, and in who I am.
The other thing that’s a miracle today, is a little piece of paper I found while cleaning piles and piles of my crap for a party we’re having tonight.
It’s typical of my little notes to myself: Written on a torn sheet of paper, some little thought–the title of a book, an idea, an insight–in an futile attempt to shed some of the mind-slurry that is my brain into something that might help me organize. Or at least remember!
In the middle of a list of books is a quote:
Writing is a meditation for you.”
I have no idea where it came from, or who said it. It sounds like something my friend Quinn MacDonald would say. Heck, maybe I said it! But surely I would have remembered….??
What matters is this: It’s true.
I need to write to process what happens to me. My lack of writing has delayed my healing.
I’ve been writing, privately, the last few days, after this long drought. And slowly, my heart is making sense of the last two months’ events. And some peace is restored in my soul.
So I find myself at the end of the year. It’s been a hard, hard winter already, and many more dark, cold nights ahead.
But now I know this for sure:
When winter comes, can spring be far behind?
And I am so very grateful for these two tiny, wonderful miracles in my life today–a torn piece of paper, and a well-worn old book.
And I’m grateful for my marriage, my children, my family, and friends, and dogs who sleep on your feet at night, and cats who try to sleep on your head.
Who knew exercise could be so educational!?
(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)
What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?
My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:
INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent
DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent
TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent
IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent
We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:
Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.
I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.
You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.
And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.
My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.
If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.
Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”
But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)
Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.
You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.
You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)
I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.
Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.
How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?
When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)
When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.
Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!
When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”
(This post was originally published December 11, 2002.)
“Be careful what you wish for….” This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It’s like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes (“The Sausage“) and bargains with the devil (“The Monkey’s Paw.”) People get their wishes granted, but live to regret it.
Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves in the morning light.
It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! “The universe likes nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other.” Yow!
Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, see it as an challenge to dig deep into your heart, to what you really want.
When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big. We’re afraid to ask for too much.
Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.
You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps in their work. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little. Then when you get it, it’s just not enough. Or it’s just all wrong.
Years ago, I reclaimed my artistic self. (I know, I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning….)
I didn’t ask for much. I attended a seminar for women artists. I told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make wonderful little toys—tiny dolls, knitted sheep—that you could hold in your hand and marvel at. I wanted to make things that made people happy.
It’s a nice thought. But in reality, I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness.
I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.
So I wished for a way to sell lots of my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low.
After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and of course, they wanted them yesterday.
I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep.
At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! But after five in a row, the joy faltered. It was… Hmmmm… Let’s just say that knitting little sheep—lots of little sheep—gets boring fast.
After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again. At #24, all I could think of was, “Twenty-four down, twenty-four to go.” By #42, I was sick unto death of little knitted sheep.
And I still had to sew them up, and tie little tiny bells on each one.
I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another.
I kept one or two of my stash, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned.
Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. Ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after my cost for materials.
I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. Okay, I’ll be honest. At first I did.
But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank heavens I hadn’t gotten more orders!
So here’s what I learned from this experience:
I learned production work was not for me. I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And at least I had $240 in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors. (Hint: I did NOT buy yarn to make more sheep.)
As time went by, this process occurred over and over.
More ideas and more opportunities crossed my path. Each time I’d think, “Maybe this is the thing that will take off!” They always did—just enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped. I followed them til they either petered out or til they grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire. Then I’d let go, and move on.
Along the way I learned a lot about making and selling things. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, how to create a distinctive and original product, how to locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested them in my business.
I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the potential–and the limits–of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work.
I taught classes when I could, but soon learned a little teaching goes a long way for me. I’d rather make more and teach a little. (But I also found I could teach through this blog.)
Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart.
If you had asked me way back then what I wanted, I would have said, “I want to make something that makes people happy.” I wasn’t digging very deep into what makes me tick.
It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.
I found a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now centered on getting my story and my art out into the world.
When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation.
And I loved the entire process. Even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.
Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned.
I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me now. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it.
I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.
If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one.
I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!
Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that. There’s a lot of learning and failing, growth and change in five years of business….
So look at what you’re doing now. Think about your biggest, deepest wish.
Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If my first wish had been granted five years earlier, I would have outgrown it within six months.
Are you digging deep? Get past the “nice” things to say (“I want to make people happy”) and find your true story. There’s power there.
When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”
Do you realize how amazing you are?
Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?
I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.
When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”
I agree with her friend.
I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.
I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”
When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.
Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”
It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.
It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.
Taking ourselves for granted.
So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:
I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!
Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.
Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.
If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.
But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”
Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)
I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.
And then something wonderful happens.
I realize how amazing I am.
Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.
Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)
For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)
At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.
I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.
And how I still end up there again.
And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.
I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.
If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.
If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.
If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.
These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.
If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.
We are afraid we are not enough.
And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.
What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–”I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–”I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."
Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?
Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)
And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"
Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.
I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.
Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!
When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….
When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….
When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…
I realize we truly are all made of stars.
I am. And so are you.
p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.
Originally published on December 2, 2002
What Meryl Streep and I Have In Common
(Hint: It’s not blond hair.)
I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house. But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.
In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day. I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me.
He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret….
I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go? “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.” Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.
My friend was astounded. He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….” He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’ I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too. So how did you turn it around?”
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually. I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.
Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices. I said I stopped listening to them.
It came about through a long, slow process. It wasn’t any one thing.
It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time. It was the birth of my oldest child. It was a workshop I took. It was trying to spiritually accommodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago. It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year. It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)
We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too. When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong.
Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger. I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic. When we still hear that little voice, we may panic. Dang! It’s still there! Where did I go wrong??
One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power. You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–”You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!”
Then I get up and do it anyway.
Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice. I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices. I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out. I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them. But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go. They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.
So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common? In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act. And she answers
“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up. You get the cold feet. You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this? I don’t have to do this.’ It is something I confront at the beginning of everything. I have to start out with nothing each time.”
KB: And reinvent the wheel.
MS: “And reinvent the wheel. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard….”
There you have it. The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record. She’s actually won two Oscars. Her work ethic is legendary.
And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!
I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?
Are you ready to start all over again?
I’m really hooked on the Four Stages of Competence and I’ve written about them a lot.
Years ago, I received this remarkable little set of learning stages as a handout in a martial arts class:
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
It’s so easy! The joyous stage of the beginner, when you simply jump in and start a new endeavour. You feel full of promise and potential–”Hey! I have a real a knack for this!” You may have some natural talent, or you just may not realize how bad you really are. Beginner’s luck falls into this category, too.
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
It gets hard. It begins to dawn on you how hard this stuff really is, and how much there is to learn. You become painfully aware of how inadequate your performance really is. ***Most people quit at this stage of learning. “I can’t do this!” or “I’m no good at this!”***
Stage 3 Conscious Competence
You keep working at it. You have acquired skill, but you have to think about it, and practice it, until you get to that most amazing place…
Stage 4 Unconscious Competence
You master your craft. Your techniques have become automatic. Your body simply knows what to do, and works in sync with your mind to achieve even greater heights. You know now that learning this skill is a life-long pursuit, and your studies have really just begun.
This handout changed my life. I still pursue my art and the martial arts, knowing that only perseverance, practice and passion will get me to that glorious final stage–and beyond.
It was a big “aha!” moment when I learned most people quit at the second stage–me included. Knowing that, I now try to stick with something I really want to learn.
And when we watch someone who’s mastered their craft, we say they “make it look easy”–whether it’s a practiced potter raising the clay; an artist talking passionately about their work; or a black belt throwing a spinning back kick to the head. They make it look effortless.
Because, at that stage of their mastery, it is. They don’t have to think about it–they just do it.
So where did I come up with the Fifth Stage of Competence?
Recently I’ve had a chance to watch some extremely talented people, people who are experts at what they do, try to learn something new.
They brought skills that would translate well to their new venture: Analytical minds, perseverance, physical skill and fitness. In many ways, they were able to master the new venture more quickly, with less time and effort than it had taken me.
But they still struggled. Because there were still key elements that were foreign to them, things they had to learn simply by putting in the time. Things they had to master by simply doing them, over and over and over again.
What struck me was how quickly they got stuck–and quit.
Now, I know we can’t all spend 10,000 on any old thing that crosses our path.
And I know we have to have some attraction to the thing, something that helps us get through those oh-so-difficult stages of incompetency (especially that nasty second stage.)
Even so, the Fifth Stage is…..
Being able–being willing–to be a beginner again.
Being very good at starting over.
P.S. Now imagine my embarrassment when my daughter tried to teach me swing dancing last month, and two minutes into it I protested, “I’m just no good at this!”
MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.
Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.
Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.
“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.
This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.
Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.
Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.
I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.
But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”
I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.
The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)
The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.
I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)
Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.
When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.
So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.
I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.
Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.
The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.
Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.
And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”
Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.
So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)
Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.
But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.
Because it has to. Or I’ll die.
It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.
It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.
What’s important is–it’s back.
I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.
I just have to do it.
oooh, I’ve always wanted to use the word “segue” in an essay!
In my last “Myths About Artists” post, a reader said there are some people who , feeling entitled, simply want to simply “be” an artist, with all the fame and glory and controversy they think automatically comes with it.
Several themes came to me after reading his thoughtful comments.
First, as a parent, a former teacher, and even a former child (yes, and please, no comments about not having enough fingers, toes or other digits to compute how many years ago that would be), this sounded very familiar.
We all have a desire for our work to gain some attention and respect in the world. And if you’re like me, you probably wish we didn’t have to constantly work so darn hard to get there.
This is a very human trait, after all. Yes, some people work very hard at becoming excellent at their craft, whatever it is. But many of us start out dreaming of an effortless success.
When I dreamed of horses, and of riding horses, I pictured myself riding fearlessly a beautiful horse, galloping wildly across a boundless plain under an open sky.
I did NOT dream of the long and often painful process of learning how to acquire my “seat”–how to sit comfortably for hours on a horse, how to balance instead of bounce (ow, ow, ow), how to control a horse (because atop a wildly running horse can actually be a frightening place to be.)
I did NOT envision the hours of hard work involved in caring for a horse, including grooming, mucking stalls and tacking up. And of course, boarding fees, vet bills and farrier costs never entered my pleasant daydreams, either.
No, it’s all too human to see the glory, not the grit, in our dreams.
But the person who believes they deserve an easy success? This is not the person I have in mind when I write these essays.
In my mind’s eye, I always speak to the person I used to be–the person who never believed that dreams can come true.
I was lost because I was too afraid to pursue my passion, and suffering because of it. I made the lives of my loved ones miserable, because I could be difficult to be with. (Er…still am, actually.)
In the words of my favorite bumper sticker, “Those who abandon their dreams, will discourage yours.”
Eventually, the pain of NOT being an artist surpassed the fear of failure. And that’s when I took my first steps to becoming not just an artist in name only–but an artist with gumption.
When I had the courage to take those first few tentative steps–and to keep on taking them–then I was truly on the path to becoming a more whole person.
That’s what it felt like, anyway. As my pursuit of art became more habit than daydream, my ability to love more freely, to judge less harshly, to be more fearless, to be more thankful, also grew.
Am I perfect? Heck no. I am still racked often–even daily!–by self-doubt, envy, fear, jealousy and sour grapes.
But I just keep on plugging away. Because I believe trying–making a true effort to attain our goals and dreams–matters.
A good friend sometimes says I make too much of this “thing about the horses”. She makes the case that if my current art changed, if I took up another art form, even if my ability to make any art were to disappear, I would still be me. I am not my art.
I get that, I do. But I am still pathetically grateful I had the chance to make this work, and took it, even so.
And every word I write is with this intention–to encourage even just one more person on this planet to do the same.
I encourage you to take the same journey, in your very own individual, inimitable way (of course!)
To paraphrase another friend’s words, I truly believe our acts of creation, by putting positive energy out there, by becoming a more whole human being….
By believing we can all achieve something good by making something that is useful, or beautiful, or both…
…is ultimately an act of peace, and makes the world a slightly better place for all.
Okay, I know I just quoted a hobbit here, but that’s what I believe.
Myth: Real artists devote their entire life to art; real artists never compromise! (And its corollary: Artists sleep til noon because they don’t have real jobs to go to.)
Reality: Any time you can make art is a good time to make art!
I’m beginning to think that history books and movies have been the source of most our myths about artists.
Again, remember that what makes for a good “sound bite” doesn’t always reflect real life.
We’ve all seen the movies about artists who devote themselves passionately–and exclusively–to their art. Marriages, kids, friendships fall to the wayside in their relentless pursuit of their vision. Charlton Heston as Michaelangelo, lying on his back painting the Sistine Chapel as he exchanges barbs and retorts with the pope. Or Ed Harris as Jackson Pollack, fierce in his artistic throes, with the entourage that devoted themselves to promoting his art (who ended up tossed by the wayside as they burnt themselves out doing so.)
And what do we know about artists throughout history? Usually a sentence or two, or at most a paragraph in the history books. An entire chapter, or maybe even a book, for the stellar ones.
So we’re only a “real artist” if we devote every waking minute to our art, and plow through our personal relationships with the sensitivity of a back hoe.
There are other ways to make art, of course. And the artists involved are just as “real” as you and me.
Yes, some artists are fortunate enough to pursue their art full-time. But their art becomes their profession–they work just as hard at it as anyone else does in THEIR profession. If they sleep til noon, it’s because they just spent 36 hours straight completing new work for an upcoming exhibition, or they put the finishing touches on a new CD, or they finally figured out how to use QuickBooks to bill their galleries, or they just got back from a grueling four-day wholesale show on the other coast.
Real artists run the gamut of everything you can say about artists. Some are so successful selling their work, they can support themselves and a family doing so. Some work part-time or even full-time jobs to pay the bills, painting in their spare time. Or they marry someone whose passionate profession pays more money than making art does.
Some get famous, some don’t. Some blow through people like kleenix, others have solid relationships and happy families. Some create public murals that cover tall buildings that thousands see every day. Others make wonderfully tiny artifacts you can cup in your hand and known to literally a handful of people.
Again….there’s room for us all.
Of course, the converse is also true. If you work full-time or engage in other activities, and don’t make time to make art, then you may be an artist at heart. But there will be nothing in the world that reflects that intention.
If you watch TV, do housework, put everyone else’s priorities ahead of yours, then your art will indeed only take up only the tiniest space you’ve allotted for it–nada.
Yes, life happens, especially if you are the caregiver in your family, the social planner, the “fall-back” person. Our sales fall off and we have to scramble to pay the bills. We get sick or injured, or a loved one does. We enter periods of self-doubt and despair. Our desire to create can seem fragile, tenuous during hard times.
But ultimately, we have to come back to this–the only person who can make your art is YOU.
Whether it’s a song, a prayer, a painting, a dress, a garden, a play, a dance, a necklace, if it’s in you, find a way to get it out into the world as soon as you can.
So make time for your creativity a priority. Carve out a little space for it in your life. Plan for it. Honor it. Respect it.
Because if, like I did once, you walk away from it entirely, you will always feel that empty space in your heart.
I will never go “there” again. And my wish for you is that you never go “there”, either, at least not for very long.
Tip: This is where a well-written, passionate artist statement comes in handy. The kind where you really talk about the WHY of what you do. When you read yours, YOU should be inspired to get back in the saddle and ride off into the sunset with your art.
Myth #2: You not only have to be good, you have to be the best.
Fact: You just have to be “good enough.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Mostly because the single biggest block owned by many artists–visual, musical, performance–is they feel if they don’t “make it”, it’s because they aren’t “good enough.”
I love to quote my friend Lori W. Simons on this one. Lori is not only a talented artist, she is also a writer. I was curious if the 2-D art world sorts itself out so neatly. Do the best artists become the most successful artists? She hesitated and then said quietly, “Being good HELPS.”
What does that mean? It means that you can be successful at whatever you throw your heart into, and it isn’t directly related to how good you are. Or whether you’re “the best”. Or even whether you’re one of the top 10.
It’s about how badly you want it, and how hard you’re willing to work at it. How smart you are about maximizing your opportunities, and how savvy you are with managing the business side of your art.
No one ran harder or farther from their art than I did. But it just wouldn’t go away. I finally gave up. My turning point was when I realized that if I did not pay attention to this, I would be destroying a part of myself that was too important to my very life. I had hit bottom, too. My exact words to my husband were these:
“I have to be an artist, or I’m going to die. I don’t even care anymore if I’m a GOOD artist. I just have to do it.”
Period. Nuff said. I had to swallow my pride, give up making judgments about how good I would/could or wouldn’t/couldn’t be, and just do it.
And you know what? Once I gave up basing my entire act on caring what others thought, that’s when my art began to hit its stride. Once I was making art I cared about, deeply, and once it came straight from my heart, that’s when I began to achieve some success with it.
That, and a lot of hard work, too. Ya gotta wanna, but ya also just gotta DO it.
This doesn’t mean the road was easy after that. There were still a lot of twists and turns. There were adjustments, suggestions, modifications along the way. But the core vision was always there. I had a story to tell, and a story to get out into the world.
Which brings us to this corollary to our #2 myth about artists. “Only the best artists are successful artists.”
Once more, with feeling. It helps if you’re good. You’ll get a little further a little faster. But just being good won’t ensure your success. And conversely, you can be highly successful even if you’re not the BEST.
Need proof? Look at Olympic-quality athletes. Sometimes they lose by 1/100 of a second, or 1/100 of a point. When we get into subjective judgment about who is “the best”, and that is determined by what the temperature was that day, or whether those new athletic shoes were rubbing the wrong way, or whether a competitor turned an inch too far back, we are talking about, “Who was the best, in the minds of those particular jurors, at that particular moment on that specific day.” Are we saying those other competitors were not sucessful, too? Nah… It may not have been their day, but they are still amazing athletes.
Now…would you rather run a 24-mile marathon, or get started on a new piece today?
Get in that studio! Don’t worry about how good you are. Just do it good.
Class is over, and now the real learning begins.
I really need to start renaming how I number the posts in this series, or someday I’ll be up to “The Hundred-and-Fifteenth Step”….
Yesterday was my last hospice volunteer training class. I’ve been gently, quietly freaking out. The time for talking the talk is over. Now it’s time to walk the walk. And I’m not sure I can.
I thought I was the only one that felt this way. But of course, a little talking among my classmates quickly overturned that little paranoid delusion. We all felt anxious about actually doing what we’d signed on to do.
This week, we had current volunteers as guest speakers. They were relatively new, having completed their training only a year or two ago. And they had this to say:
The first time is scary. You want to do a good job, and it feels like there is so much to remember! But it changes into what it needs to be….
You’ll get your cues about what is needed. The patient will let you know if they need interaction, or quiet, to be touched or left alone.
The things you thought would be easy, might be hard. What you thought might be hard, will be easy.
Try not to anticipate what will be needed. Don’t be a “fixer”. Let go of that need to jump in and take over. Hold that part of yourself down.
And open yourself up.
Center yourself. Get quiet. Be peaceful. Observe. And be present.
We also had a hospice nurse talk with us. His final words of advice: You are all ready for something different in your life, or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t consider yourself a gift to others. Don’t worry about that part. Just consider the gift you are being given…. (to be with someone at the end of life.)
And now I can I see where my anxiety is coming from.
I’ve been working too hard on giving.
That sounds silly, I know. Here me out.
Lately, it feels like my gifts aren’t needed or wanted. Neither my art, nor my self, nor my intentions feel honored lately. My artwork sales are falling, the galleries say no, the memorial service I felt I was not welcome at, my artist friend who did not enjoy the article I wrote about him–one of my best, btw!–my son who does not want my mothering right now. All feel like failures, failures in what I do, what I don’t do, who I am.
And when I ask for help, I worry I’m asking for too much. It feels like I’m constantly asking for too much.
Now I see that in my search for the perfect exchange, that perfect moment when what is given is exactly what is needed, when what is needed is exactly what I have to offer, I have actually been selfish.
I’ve been trying to control the outcome. I have been driven by the need for gratitude.
And I cannot control the other side of that transaction. I have to let go of that. I can only control my actions, my intentions, my offering.
If my presence is not wanted, then at least I showed up. If my article caused anger, then at least I wrote out of love and respect. Doug may not accept it right now in this angry teenage phase, but my unwavering love for him is the greatest gift of all. I choose to give it freely, and he is free to not want it right now. Or rather, he is free to choose not to show he wants it right now.
And so here is where my real journey will begin. Next week, I go back to interview for my first volunteer assignment. It may be days, or weeks, or months before I am placed. I’m scared. But I’m going to do it.
I will show up, and see what’s there.
And I will be grateful.
When that “jack-of-all-trades, master at none” becomes all too true, maybe it’s time to give “master of ONE” a try.
When I left Tae Kwon Do a few months ago, after yet another injury, the head instructor asked if I were leaving because my green belt test was coming up. Was I a person who quit when I was challenged too hard?
I was hugely indignant, but I admitted the thought had occurred to me.
Was I a quitter?
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what he said, coupled with reading an interesting article, “Mastery Plan” by Kelly Corrigan in the January 2009 issue of Oprah Magazine.
Corrigan reinvented herself in several disciplines–photography, journalist, author, playwright. She was the ultimate student, reveling in steep learning curves that produced spectacular results. Where learning a new discipline causes most students drop out at level one or two, she made it easily to level six or seven.
But never to levels eight, nine or ten.
She wonders if all the excitement of the reinventions, the ‘look at me, I’m good at this!’ moments, learning in leaps and bounds, avoiding the point where learning comes in tiny increments “… just might be a distraction from (her) greatest fear…”
Fear of failure.
She talks about the people who work more slowly, but create something of that lasts, something with true elegance, something of value. She wants that, too. But she’s not sure she can.
I wonder if part of my conflict with my art is fear, too–the fear I’ve already done my best work?
It feels too hard…
…Maybe it’s supposed to?
Thinking it might be time to move on to something else…
…So I can avoid the hard work that’s called for now?
It reminds me of being a parent. How hard it is, but exhilarating, especially when your kids are young. You’re exhausted, but you’re also rewarded every day with some new discovery, some new milestone they achieve.
Til they hit the teen years, and everything slows down. And gets really, really hard.
You learn to let go of expectations, and big successes. Your rewards are tinier–”She said thank you!” “He did the dishes the first time I asked!
But you also dig in–because as hard as it is to parent teens, as thankless as the job is, they actually need you more than ever.
You can’t stop being a parent just because it gets really, really hard. We may never know if we were a ‘great’ parent–but our best efforts will be ‘good enough’”. And it’s certainly worth our while to do our best.
Corrigan ends the decision to write a second book, determined to keep working at it til it truly reflects an indomitable spirit.
Which is, oddly, an attribute of black belt. Indomitable spirit.
Last night I talked with my Tae Kwon Do teachers about returning to practice.
It means much more work on my part. My teacher says he believes I’m capable of so much more than I believe I am. He says attitude is everything. I’m doubting myself, and the only person who can turn that around is….me.
Maybe he’s right.
I’m going to find out if I can turn this around. I want to find out.
Last night, I also decided to keep making my fiber art and jewelry. It feels right. For the first time in ages, I heard no negative voices in the wee hours of the night.
I’m not abandoning my new journey. Maybe the hospice will open up something else, and I look forward to exploring that. Something’s calling me there, and I want to find out what it is.
But just as I can study Tae Kwon Do and be a parent, I can explore this new venture and make my art. The art may change, it may not change. But maybe it will simply get even better.
Being a parent is teaching me, and Ms. Corrigan, how to be a more deeply creative person. How to create something of value that will really last, as an artist and a martial artist.
Change is always hard, but learning to recognize when it’s TIME to change, gets easier.
In my last two posts, I described two big fears in my life. The first was knowing a change was coming. The second is not knowing what it is.
The third is being afraid I’ll get stuck in the new change.
Now, if this isn’t anticipating trouble, what is? Right?
But I’ve seen many people leave the art and craft biz, trying to take their experiences to draft a new career for themselves. There are drawbacks to leaving that source of knowledge and passion.
Some did it beautifully, and have given much back to the community. Others had “steam” for awhile. But eventually, driven again by the need for fame or fortune, or fear of changing what works, their contributions become stale and rote. Like a burned-out teacher two years from retirement with two kids in college, they slog away, feeling they are simply in too deep to quit. They grind on for “just a few more years.” And making life miserable for others around them. (I don’t mean to pick on teachers, it’s just something I witnessed once that wasn’t pretty, and it stuck.)
I dreaded ending up in the same boat.
But once I recognized this for what it is–anticipated fear of failure–it was easier to put it back in the box.
First, I have no idea that’s where I’ll go next. Being afraid of something that might happen from a new career direction I might head in seems awfully silly.
Second, I realized it just won’t happen. If I’m paying such close attention to my changing desires now, I always will. That’s who I am. I will always be questioning, and rigorously testing my motivation.
Several readers mentioned this in their comments to my last few posts. It’s a journey, with more than one destination. More than a few travel plans will change. We never get to one single place and then plop there for the rest of our lives. “Got mine, get in line,” is no longer a justifiable or sustainable model for the self-aware. Change is always just around the corner.
Which reminds me of something a friend told me years ago. It was at a dark time in my life, just before I realized I was being called to be an artist. I was so fearful of everything in my life, and especially for my child. The world seemed to dark and full of evil. I said I couldn’t figure out how to protect her and keep her safe.
“You can’t!” exclaimed my friend. “That’s not our job. Our job is to teach them to be themselves, and to believe in themselves, so they can handle anything life throws at them. I want to teach my children to dance on the edge of the universe!’
Her words sent shivers down my spine. Here was a fearless mother who knew a good way to truly protect her children–teach them to adapt gracefully and beautifully to the inevitable challenges that come their way in a fully-lived life. She showed me how to drive that debilitating fear right out of my heart, and put love and faith and courage in its place.
So who do I want to be? An anxious whiny person, determined not to risk what I have in order to move forward?
Or do I want to dance on the edge of the universe?
ps. Years later, my friend had more difficult pregnancies, resulting in children with debilitating special needs. Emotionally exhausted, financially overwhelmed, the family made the decision to move across county to be closer to family and old friends for support. The night before she left, I took her some gifts, told her how much her friendship had meant to me.
“You led me out of a very dark place, and I will always be grateful”, I told her. I repeated her words back to her.
“I said that??” She couldn’t remember ever being that fearless and sure.
It was then I realized the real reason she’d told me those words was so I could repeat them back to her when she needed them most.
They had been held in trust for her.
Letting go of one stage of life in art, moving on to the next.
WARNING: The following is my personal experience and thoughts on this particular juncture in my life.
I do not cast judgment or aspersions on anyone else’s decisions and goals. It is simply one person’s thoughts (mine) on what I’m going to do next, and a discussion on how I’m getting there.
Time to share some of the reasons I checked in with artist/writer/life coach Quinn McDonald last week, and some of the insights I’ve had since then.
I’ve been feeling like a failure.
Or rather, I’ve now achieved all the goals I set for myself fifteen years ago, for better or worse, and I can’t find new ones.
Some were great: Getting juried into the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Getting juried into the equally elusive Buyers Market of American Craft winter wholesale show. Getting juried into one of the country’s top retail show, the ACC-Baltimore show.
I’ve been featured in national magazines. Interviewed on TV–twice! Wrote a book. Wrote articles, even a regular column, for magazines.
I’ve been a guest lecturer for the Arts Business Institute. Given speeches at an international crafts symposium, various state and regional artist groups.
I’ve sold wall hangings for $5,000, an outrageous goal when people were balking at paying $50. I’ve had my work exhibited alongside some of my art heroes. I was selected for juried exhibitions in dozens of other states. I’ve won awards.
I’ve learned how to apply for public art proposals, how to create an exhibition proposal and how to pitch an article idea to a magazine editor. I’ve learned how to promote myself as an artist and writer.
In the process I’ve met wonderful people, made new friends, traveled across the country, and enriched my relationship with my now-adult daughter (who was three when I started all this!)
Some goals proved hollow or too elusive, and I’ve set those aside for now.
But I can’t think of any new goals. I have no idea what’s next.
Not knowing feels like failure.
Last fall I came across this incredible article on failure in the October 2008 issue of soon-to-be-defunct ODE magazine. Writer Marisa Taylor explores why failure is not just critical, but crucial to our development.
I know something is changing in me. But “giving in” to it was terrifying.
What if this “next step” means walking away from my art? What if it means not being very good at something?
What if it means going deeper into my art, and I’ve already used all my talent? What if I can’t sell it? What if I can sell it, but I don’t know how? Or don’t want to??
I realize I’ve fallen back into bad thinking habits. Thinking I have a finite talent for learning, focusing only on what I do well, whether I love to do it or not. Fear of looking stupid.
I realize lately I’ve taken more risks with my writing than with my art. How many people do you know would say it right here, “I’m afraid of looking stupid”…??
“The brain is a muscle,” says Taylor, “that grows stronger the more it’s used.” Failure, she says, creates even more synapses, more connections. Success and failure in the business world is about taking big risks–because only mediocrity lives in that middle ground.
And creativity is all about new connections. Like mediocrity, it never lives in that middle ground.
For me, selling my work gently but firmly led me to making creative decisions from my wallet, not my heart. Playing it safe, lowering my prices, focusing on work I thought would sell more easily.
Now, selling artwork is not a totally bad thing. It’s wonderful to have people love your work, it’s incredible when they tell you how beautiful it is.
When they buy it, it means they value your work enough to pay you for it. Their hard-earned money for your incredible work. One of my 15-year-old goals was to sell a wall hanging for $10,000. The day I sold one for $5,000 was a banner day.
But that thrill of selling is short-lived. Defining my success as “how much money I made at this show” or “how much money I made this year” made my world smaller and smaller. As the recession hit harder, and fear affected more and more of my customers, my sales took a walloping.
I kept saying I would not give in to that, but I did. As I look at all my decisions the last few years, I can see I’m still holding on to that lame definition of success.
It’s left me with an empty place in my heart.
My coach said it’s easy to see how I got there.
Just for simplicity, she suggested I temporarily replace “success” with the phrase “thrill of selling”.
Art shows are all about making money, from the producer to the show guide publisher, down to the booth holder and the parking lot attendant. Money is the coin of the realm here.
You sell your work or you don’t. You make “enough” money because enough people buy your work, or you don’t. If you are“successful”–selling your work for a lot of money–well, it gets harder and harder to raise the bar.
And if not….if you feel you have something–a pot, a quilt, a necklace–to offer the world and you’re “not successful”–it’s not being valued/bought, that’s painful.
The recession has made that worse. There’s been a sea change in our culture since 9/11. It’s a culture of fear. And it’s been exploited by many for a lot of different purposes.
So, said my coach, you’ve got something wrapped around your axle, so to speak. You are an artist–and money is not important. You are an artist–and money is important.
It is very, very hard to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. Which is where some of your discomfort is coming from.
Here’s the first question I was asked:
“What if money were not the coin of the realm?”
(Actually, the very first question was, “Are you a perfectionist?”, but we all knew that answer….)
So if I mentally/emotionally remove myself from that art show environment, what else is there?
I realize this morning why I’m feeling stuck.
I just found out there is no Santa Claus.
Part of my muddle comes from reading an odd little book called The Awful Truth About Selling Art by Dan Fox.
Mr. Fox shows us one way artists can be successful–I paid $15 for this book, which took me about 20 minutes to read. To be fair, you can probably get it second-hand.
Fox’s book is caustic and cautionary, explaining why most of us will never get into a major art gallery and why most of us will never be a rising art star. (For one thing, I’m now too old to be an emerging artist….) He also explains why we shouldn’t want to get into a major art gallery.
He goes on to tell us how none of the other ways of marketing ourselves and selling our art will work, either. We’re left with perhaps having some modest success as a “local” art-in-the-park level artist, or teaching or suicide. (Just kidding, there are a couple of other choices available.) (Oh, wait, no, there weren’t.)
It’s incredibly discouraging, yet pretty much what I already knew about selling art.
On the other hand, I didn’t become an artist to become rich and famous. (Okay, I was hoping to become a little bit rich, and a little famous….) I do crave some kind of success, even if I’m not sure what that looks like right now–especially in this economy.
So how to have wild, audacious, fabulous dreams and goals for our art, knowing that in reality, most of them will never come true?
How do you avoid letting this become an excuse for not making art? (“I’ll never sell my work anyway, why make it??”)
How do you let go of outcome, and yet still have goals?
How do you figure out what it is you want to achieve, and then accept you might never achieve that?
And then go make art anyway?
It’s sort of like when I first found out there was no Santa Claus. I remember thinking I knew it was too good to be true, but it had been fun to pretend it might be.
Just because there is no Santa Claus, that doesn’t mean we should quit striving for goodwill, peace and love in the world.
If I can figure this out, maybe I’ll have a place to rest my brain while the rest of me makes wall hangings this year.
I have a funny feeling that, if I work on my artist statement, that may give me a clue.
P.S. Actually, I think I just found everything I need in the January 2009 issue of Oprah magazine….
It’s rare that we make decisions that literally mean life-or-death. Unfortunately, our brains are hard-wired to think that way.
We express decisions in “either/or” mode, and issue ultimatums with great drama: “We’re at the end of our rope. Either I get that job with XYZ company, or we’ll lose our home. We’ll end up in the streets!” “I can’t stand the dating scene a minute longer. Either that guy calls me back, or I’m shooting myself!” We say our situation is life-or-death, and then we believe it.
Or we believe there is only one acceptable outcome to every situation. One of my favorite lines from the original The Stepford Wives is when the robotocized Bobbie (played by Paula Prentiss) breaks down and chirps, “I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe!” It always got a big laugh in the theater, until she started chasing Katherine Ross around the kitchen with a butcher knife.
In real life, it’s not so funny. Though it’s not as scary as the butcher knife thing, either. “If I don’t get into that show, my business will fail!” “If I don’t get into that gallery, I won’t succeed!”
And my personal favorite: “If I can’t do it perfectly, then I’m not doing it at all.”
Here are three scenarios, all true:
A talented pianist who studies diligently for years. Upon realizing she will never be “concert-grade” material, she quits–and never plays again.
A passionate horse rider has knee surgery. Now she can’t sit properly on a horse, “the knee angle is all wrong, it hurts…” She vows never to ride again.
A lifelong rock climber who, in his seventies, realizes he can’t do the most strenuous, difficult climbs as well as he used to.
Yet he still climbs. Regularly. He learned to modify his climbs and techniques to meet his abilities. He realizes that, though he’s not at the top of his game anymore, climbing is hugely rewarding emotionally, physically, spiritually.
Who do you want to be?
When I think of the years of enjoyment the pianist could have had from her music, my heart aches for her. It’s too bad the rest of us will never know the gift of her incredible musical abilities. All because it felt to her like she had to be “the best”–not just “good enough”. All…or nothing.
I met the horse rider during our travels in England. I tried to tell her that I didn’t even start riding regularly until I was in my fifties–and after I’d had two knee surgeries. It’s not always comfortable, and some days are better than others. But it will do.
She couldn’t hear me. She felt she’d lost too much. It was all…or nothing. Her horses were absolutely beautiful. But other people ride them now. I ache for her, too.
As for the rock climber, he and his wife, Barbara, are old family friends we visited in England. They are both life-long rock climbers, and even taught it for a living. They are both “life heroes” to us. Despite many injuries and physical setbacks, Barbara continues to climb, too. Climbing is as necessary to them as breathing. For her, it’s actually easier than walking right now. “Some blokes, if they can’t do those big, daring climbs anymore, well, it’s all over for them,” Don said. “But we just keep doing what we can. And we have a great time.”
I, too, tend to think in black-and-white, and absolutes. But I saw a mental health therapist briefly this spring, and he showed me a better way to think about things.
Undesirable outcomes are not necessarily unbearable outcomes. Perhaps they can be tolerated until something else comes along.
Not every decision is either/or. Sometimes there is a middle ground.
How we talk about our situations can determine whether we allow them to control us, or not.
I now say, “I would prefer to have that gallery carry my work. But if they don’t, there are plenty of other galleries that might.”
Or, “I would prefer to write for this magazine, as I have a good gig going with them. But if the situation changes, I can find other writing opportunities.”
“I would like to be the best artist in the world. But I can settle for being the best artist I can be, because I enjoy it so much.”
And my current mantra: “I might have been a better martial artist if I’d started earlier, when I was physically stronger. But I’m glad I can still participate on some level, because the benefits are huge.”
There is a time and a place for absolutism. But absolutes don’t get you far in everyday life.
Don’t know about you, but ultimatums tend to backfire with me, whether I’m giving them or getting them.
Passion is good. Drive and focus are excellent companions. But compromise and negotiation are good skills to practice, too. They can take you miles further, when absolutes might take you right out of the game.
They can get you so far, you may be pleasantly surprised to find yourself at your heart’s goal before you know it.
Or maybe even a different, yet better destination, one you never could have imagined before.
It started out innocently enough.
I just wanted to knit a few hats for a friend. And maybe a baby sweater for another friend expecting his first child.
“I’ll surprise her with a hat!” I thought. Then I read in a forum that this can be a bad idea.
I emailed her to ask her if 1) she wanted a hat; 2) if so, please choose from an assortment of online patters I’d found; and 3) what colors she would like.
She emailed back with not only her color and style choices, but she ran out to actually buy a few balls of yarn and sent them to me.
And now the sad tale begins.
I have tons of yarn. I have a barn attic full of yarn. Not only do I have a lot of yarn (did I mention I have a LOT of yarn?), in my search for the appropriate yarns, I found another huge stash of yarn in another attic that’s been there since we moved into this house eight years ago. (I forgot all about it. Hey, that’s where all my brown yarn and mohair yarns went!)
Turns out the best yarns for really comfortable hats are not wool. I have mostly wool yarns. Not only mostly wool yarns, I have very few yarns suitable for soft hats and baby sweaters. In fact–none.
And, although if you’d asked me three months ago what colors of yarn I have, I would have happily exclaimed, “Every color under the sun!”, it turns out I actually have only a warm palette of yarn.
Lots of rust. Tons of turquoise. Many, many soft greens. Gold, pumpkin, orange. Periwinkle blue. Even red. Even a teensy bit of black.
No fuchias. No purples. No bright clear blues or corals.
I’ve also rediscovered why I don’t actually knit that much.
Although I am a competent knitter, and read about knitting voraciously, although I know four different ways to increase stitches, although I conscientiously knit gauge swatch after gauge swatch, although I broke down and bought tons of new knitting needles because I have lost my entire stash in my attic (I hate my attic! It’s too good for storing stuff), although I picked the easiest pattern (a beret–I have knit many berets before) and experimented with dozens of yarns to find the perfect ones….
I actually have a rather profound and pronounced inability to follow directions.
I found all this out this weekend when I spent three straight days knitting what I desperately wanted to be the perfect hat.
And ended up with a giant, floppy, heavy, heather gray-purple hat that is completely unwearable even by me.
And because it’s mostly silk/angora, it won’t even felt down into shape.
And I can’t add elastic to the the cuff/brim (which is way, way too big and loose) because that would be too harsh on tender skin.
Maybe I can make a bag out of it. Or give it to my darlin’ daughter, who looks marvelous in anything she puts on her head. I swear you could give her a pair of
underpants underwear to put on her head, and she could pull it off. In fact, I think we tried this once, and she did indeed look good with underwear on her head.
Back to the drawing board.
p.s. Hey! Maybe I could make a bag out of it!