In the creative world, there’s this disturbing phenomenon of reading, viewing, hearing, experiencing art that slaps you in the face with your own insecurities and makes you never want to pick up a pen, brush, camera, tutu ever again because you’ll never be that good, that skilled, that talented. It taunts you with its beauty and ease, sweetly whispering these are heights you can never even aspire to.
It breaks your heart even as it delights you.
For my whole life, this demoralizing bitch-slap has been something that happened to other people. I’d hear friends bemoaning their artistic inadequacies and be completely dumbfounded that they could experience someone’s art and be anything except inspired. Especially if that person is better than you – they’re showing you the next level, giving you a new awesome to shoot for, teaching you technique.
And then it happened to me.
Last week, I started (and eventually finished) reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender on a writing buddy’s recommendation. Magical realism + food + teens? Count me in, motherfucker.
But by page 21, I was in tears. Not because the story was so moving, but because it’s so fucking well-written. I was holding a masterwork by the sort of author I want to be. Knowing that plowed ugly furrows in my writer self and demolished the inspiration I’ve always felt when reading excellent fiction. Bender’s fluid style, voice, and characterization crushed my tiny sense of self-satisfaction at starting my second novel. I sobbed at my own shittiness.
I tasted the fear of confronting an artist so good that I felt like I shouldn’t even bother. I can’t unfeel it. That’s part of me now, something I’ll live with every day, just like so many other artists across myriad fields of creativity. I’ve been inducted into that tribe (with a beating, which is apparently normal).
This book is so good it ruined my fucking day.
Naturally, like any good web denizen, I took my feels to the internet.
I was hurt and confused. Knowing so many people face this same demoralization –many who either quit making art or never start because of this fear – I thought surely my tribe would understand.
And they came out of the woodwork to support me. Folks I hadn’t heard from in months and followers who’d been lurking offered comfort, tough love, and pompom shaking in truckloads. A couple dozen comments all reminding me not to compare myself to other people. That my writing is perfect for me, that I’ll only get better, that I should never quit. Outpourings of love from friends, family, and fans all wanting to help me cheer up and regain my feet.
I was so fucking angry that I had to excuse myself from the internet.
I felt supremely unheard and misunderstood. I cried more with every message telling me to ignore what I felt, put on my big girl pants, and move on. After all this time of connecting and being naked on the internet, when I had a moment of internal crisis, I received the opposite of what I needed. I wanted to throw up, trash my manuscripts, and blow up my social media accounts. What was the point?
I realize this makes me sound like an emo douchebag, so let me deconstruct this a bit.
What happened here is that I needed to be witnessed and heard. Not advised or patronized. My world was shaken, and I reached out to my tribe for comfort.
But I didn’t tell them what I needed.
If I’d said, “No advice, please. I just need to be heard,” the situation would’ve been totally different. But since I wasn’t clear that don’ts, shoulds, and rhetorical questions hurt more than they helped, no one knew. Duh, right? Without direct guidance, everyone simply did their best to support me. They wanted to make me feel better because they love me.
Part of what hurt so much, though, is that no one asked me what I needed. A good 60% of folks I connect with online are highly-sensitive persons and/or are super into communication skills. Yet every response I received was an assumption. Everyone leapt to my defense (against myself) without checking to see if that’s what I wanted.
Best intentions, right?
But don’t worry: I got up the next day and wrote. And the next day. And that whole week. Because writing is my Big Work. I can’t not do it, even with the phantom of Aimee Bender haunting my heart.
The point of me telling you all this is that artists – whether you are one or love one – need understanding and support for our creative feels. And we have to ask for it; we have to stop expecting everyone to be a fucking mind-reader. Art doesn’t have to be hard, but it does have nasty pitfalls and potholes. Practicing asking for what you need and asking how you can help is how you navigate them gracefully.
Now go make motherfucking art.
I don’t care what famous master or perfect work is scaring the shit out of you. Your tribe understands. I understand.
Let’s do it anyway.