We’ve had a small flock of chickens for awhile now. We enjoy them immensely, not only for the delicious fresh eggs but because they’re so funny to watch.
A few days ago, though, we saw the worst of all chicken behaviors.
“Pecking order” among birds is not merely unpleasant, it can be deadly. Chickens will mercilessly attack and kill not only a strange bird, but one of their own flock, if they perceive it as sick or wounded. Theories abound about why they do this, and the theories make good sense. But it’s still hard to see in action.
Our little flock had turned on one of their own. They started in on one hen, pecking at her til they drew blood. We took her out of the coop and put her in a large cage in our mudroom.
The “house hen” was happy enough for a few weeks. But my daughter, convinced she was missing her flock, returned her to the coop.
We either put her back in too soon, or she’d become enough of a stranger to the others that her fate was sealed. The next day, Robin found the bloody carcass, minus a few important body parts (like her head).
It was an awful sight, especially to us “chicken newbies”, and Robin was devastated. She declared she wanted nothing more to do with chickens ever again.
We talked about it later. As I shared with her these “chicken lessons”, I realized they can also be good lessons about making and selling your art.
1. Chickens can’t choose. We can.
Chickens are not people. If, in fact, they are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, then we are dealing with instinctive behaviors that have been in place millions of years before humans appeared on this planet. Our own human heritage has evolved to allow us to choose whether to fear and hate “the other”. We can choose to behave differently.
Chickens can’t choose. It’s not fair to attribute such human notions as “kindness” and “cruelty” to behaviors that keep the species healthy and viable at the expense of the individual.
We, too, are not completely at the mercy of the world when it comes to our art. We may feel that way sometimes! But we actually have tremendous choice.
We can choose what kind of art we make, what quality of work we produce, and who to market it to. We can choose how to promote it and where. We can choose the story we tell people about it.We can choose our own balance of prestige, money and fame, if we are willing to do the work associated with each choice. I could go on, but you get the point.
2. Don’t make it personal.
The chickens didn’t do this to make us miserable. It’s just part of owning chickens. Sometimes bad things will happen. A fox will take one, or they will get sick and die. We can minimize the bad stuff by taking good care of them, but we will still make mistakes. And even if we take perfect care of them, stuff happens.
When it comes to making and selling your art, try to avoid taking setbacks and failures personally. “They” don’t get my art…. “Nobody” likes my work…. “I did that show and it sucked big time! Nobody wanted my work!” Who is “they”?? “Nobody” likes your work?? Is it really just you and “everybody else”? Statements like this are gross generalities. They set you up against the world, they doom you to pessimism and lassitude.
Instead, try to view your marketing and promotional efforts as experiments. You got results that were effective or ineffective in furthering your goals. “I tried that show and didn’t do well. Its audience was not a good fit for my work.” Or even “I may need to invest a few more years at that show to build a good audience for my work.”
3. Only brittle hearts break.
To rephrase: T’is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.
When we love something or someone, it stretches our hearts. When that object of our affection is hurt, or hurts us, it feels like our hearts are broken. We feel like never loving again, because it is too painful when things go wrong. I know people who, when their beloved pet dies, swear they will never own another–because it hurts too much to go through that again.
But that pain we feel is is the growth forced on us by experience, by living life to the fullest. The pain I feel when my spouse and I are fighting is excruciating. Yet that is simply a consequence of being a different person than him. Though we love each other, sometimes we just don’t feel the same way about certain things. My children drive me nuts sometimes, and if anything were to happen to them, I would feel like dying. But I never regret for an instant my decision to marry, nor our decision to have children.
The same with our art. Sometimes it seems too hard to get it out there, and the setbacks seem unbearable. Some days we may feel, “What’s the use? I just don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere. People don’t care. Why should I keep butting my head against this wall??”
But when I think back to what my life was without my art, I can hardly breathe. As hard as it gets sometimes, it was worse–much, much worse–not being an artist.
I am grateful to have had the chance to make beautiful work that has brought so much joy not only to me, but to others. My life is richer for it.
4. Gain, don’t blame.
It’s so easy to fall into the pattern of determining whose fault it was. But in reality, we were all to blame–and none of us to blame. After all, I could have called a friend to ask their advice about the situation. If I’d really felt it was too soon for the hen to go back to the flock, I could have stood my ground. In fact, some of the anger I felt about the situation was guilt for my part (lack of action)….
But that doesn’t get us anywhere. Hindsight is always so damn obvious. We shoulda, we coulda…. Guilt and dismay keep us locked in the moment. They are only useful if they help us resolve to do better next time.
In the end, it’s not about “What did we do wrong?” It’s about “How could we do better?”
Try not to dwell on the mistakes you’ve made with your art in the past. Instead, look at them as marvelous opportunities not to make that same mistake again.
5. It’s still a good life.
After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, I realize that even with this unhappy event, our chickens have lived a humane and enjoyable life, compared to the chickens raised commercially for eggs and meat. Our chickens get to run free, eat bugs, enjoy the sunshine and dig to their hearts’ content. For a chicken, it’s a pretty good life.
So, too, despite the ups and downs of the artist’s life, it’s a life I would choose again, and again, and again. Because this is still my best life so far.
As I get older, people are starting to say to me, “How did you get so wise?!” Okay, I admit it–I love it when they say that!
But the truth is, wisdom comes with experience. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to learn from the mistakes of others. Mostly, we learn from our own.
Everything you read in my blog is me working out the good stuff from all the bad stuff that happened to me. Sometimes I do it easily, and sometimes it takes me a few days, or weeks, or even years to get there. I’m a work in progress.
But the wisdom is always there, if you are willing to look for it. Even in the sad death of a single little chicken.