Good news: you’re an artist, not a sociopath

Validation is a tricky thing. We all need it…. Ok, most of us need it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re a sociopath. And if you need too much of it, you’re needy and exhausting and we all wish you’d work on your self-esteem.

It’s hard to strike a balance. Or to even know where the line is, exactly. This is especially true for artists. What’s “good”? What’s not? How do we know? If we are on the cutting edge, we don’t even have anything to measure our own work against. Sometimes it’s nice to just hear that all our hard work is appreciated and maybe even…gasp!…valued!

You wouldn’t think an offer to have work purchased (Hello, money!) would be an insecurity trigger. But my artist buddy called me the other day, questioning himself and his work because he’d received offers to buy the rag he’d used to wipe his paintbrushes. The problem was, people hadn’t shown much interest in the paintings that he’d labored over, sometimes for days at a time. The attention “The Paint Diaper” had gotten seemed to say “Why bother trying to create anything meaningful? — Just sling some color around.”

My friend was demoralized.  I told him I understood.

Some nights on the poetry slam circuit, I would get so disgusted by what I deemed the unsophisticated tastes of stupid audiences.

The average poetry slam audience liked pieces that rhymed. They liked poems with word play – regardless of whether they actually made any sense. They liked poems that were full of bravado and rebellion – they didn’t notice the logical or factual problems. Worst of all, they loved poems that sounded like hundreds of other poems. The predictable and familiar almost always won out over the inventive and challenging.

The truly creative, the challenging and artfully rendered pieces sailed over most people’s heads like a fine bone china plate, shattering into bits of polite but bored applause at the end. It was enough to make me want to scream or quit. Sometimes, like my friend, I wondered why I bothered at all. The only answer some days was that I couldn’t stop — that I was compelled to keep writing the same way he is compelled to paint.

But the day my buddy called me to tell me about “The Paint Diaper” situation, I had a new perspective. I had seen a picture of the rag when he’d posted it on Facebook. I’d enlarged the photo to get a better look.

The little swabs of color caught in the waffle weave of the cotton rag were random, yet they made sense. The effect – the unity of chaos and simplicity – was reassuring and lovely. But most of all, it was easy to like. It didn’t ask much from the viewer other than to be perceived as color and pattern.

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T o pander or not to pander? That is the question.

And I suddenly understood that my high expectations of my audience lacked compassion for the fact that life is often complicated and difficult, and people often just want art that distracts or pleases them, not another demand or challenge.

I understood my friend when he said his “real work” felt diminished; I reassured him that his art has value whether people appreciate it or not.

If our art is about an expression of ourselves, then had he not done it? And hadn’t I? We had both honored that urge that compelled us to create. And if it wasn’t appreciated the way we had intended, did that matter? I mean, so what if it was the unintentional result of the process that delighted people?

And so what if my own “real work” was less appreciated than my commercial work or the poems I’d composed intentionally pandering to audiences so I’d get high scores? Hadn’t my efforts both to express myself and to be appreciated allowed me to understand my friend better and to connect over a shared experience?

And isn’t that what art is about after all: expression and connection?

The entire creative process is fraught with questions and dilemmas that philosophy and spiritual traditions (religions) have grappled with, found answers and solutions for…and then codified. But creativity, to me, is real faith. It’s a living breathing thing in which we explore and celebrate and struggle with what it means to be human.

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The dark side of awesome …

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Free to be me!

Self-help is such a huge industry that it’s become the M.O. for many of us who want to be the best selves we can be. But in some ways I think it’s become insidious in its negation of who we are.

For instance, perhaps I could watch less TV. Then again, I enjoy stories. The shows provide an escape, and I also learn and am inspired by what others see as mindless drivel.

Take The Almighty Johnsons, a kiwi show about four brothers who are Norse gods. The gods’ attributes contribute both power and weakness to their characters. For instance Ull, the god of hunting, while good at games and finding things, can easily cross the line into stalker territory. Bragi, the god of poetry is a natural at PR, but he is also a bit of douche, using his powers to get women in bed. These gods can’t deny their powers, nor the fact that there is a dark side to them.

The_Almighty_Johnsons_season_2If I were among the pantheon, I would be the goddess of the escape. When I was young, I had a knack for breaking in (and out) of places, though seldom causing any real mischief. I wanted to move between spaces, explore different worlds, and I couldn’t see any reason why I should be locked out or in. I slid out of my bedroom window at night, and I wandered into people’s homes, into schools, into hotels after hours. This may have developed because, unless I was in trouble, I was virtually invisible in my family. I could leave for long, unaccounted for hours and return without having to explain myself.

To checkout of the void of a lonely childhood, I read books that transported me to other worlds. I remember fondly Désirée, a very long historical romance novel about Napolean and his lover, where an entire week went by and I existed in a different place in time even when my face wasn’t in its pages.

When I was locked up  – first briefly in juvenile detention and then for about a year in a behavior modification program – for running away from home as an adolescent, I escaped by constructing elaborate fantasies and daydreaming my way into other realms that were more appealing than the church pews I was forced to sit in the entire day to be reprogrammed. I never made an actual break for it because though I’m dreamy, I’m also practical, and I knew I’d be better off in the long run there than on the streets.

After being locked up, I learned to immerse myself in academics, using scholarship and achievement as a socially acceptable form of checking out of the real world. In my early adulthood my problems, like my abusive marriage to an older man, went away as I immersed myself in literature and philosophy. When I abandoned my marriage, I escaped my troubles with drugs and alcohol and men, none of whom I kept around for long. As I got older, I gave up the escapes that were the most destructive. I made a commitment to better self-care. I also committed to a few other things: To my daughter (which kept me in the same geographic place for 18 years), to my writing, to my cats, and to Truth. Not necessarily in that order.

The expression of escape changed. Fundamentally, however, I am still a free spirit. Especially when it comes to ideas.

I have a friend Paul, who regularly calls me because he has “figured something out.” I’ll answer the phone and he’ll deliver some truth he has arrived at such as “It’s all love…love is not the exception” or “If we’re suffering, we’re in ego.” Generally there’s a long story that accompanies the realization. I made the mistake once of saying, after he delivered his punchline (the realization), “Well, Paul, that’s an absolute, and absolutes usually aren’t true.” There was a long moment of silence for the dead idea.

In the interest of our friendship, I have had to learn listen to Paul’s stories and not to respond with the exceptions that do, in fact, unravel his theories. Some people like the solidity of Desireeabsolutes; it makes them feel safe. As the goddess of escapism, I’m also the queen of exceptions because exceptions allow the mind to wriggle free of the confines of a governing concept.

“I can see how you would be difficult for people,” our mutual friend John said (I tend to collect friends named after the apostles, evidently). “You’re hard to pin down.”

In fact, one of my favorite things about teaching English was that I teach thinking – that is how to think, and what people have thought, rather than a specific point-of-view. For me, my superpower is that I think fluidly, I am often unattached to ideas, and I can see things from multiple perspectives.

Sure this comes with its challenges, for instance, I can be indecisive. But when it comes to my relationship with Truth, it actually is helpful. I’m not talking about truth with a lowercase “t” as in “Did you take the garbage out? Tell the truth.” I mean the Truth about the nature of being, about why we are here, where we go when we die, and what it all means (if anything).

I’m very comfortable with a multiplicity of views. And I’m very comfortable knowing that these are questions that point at the infinite (God-type stuff) and that my intellect and language is finite and so my thoughts and words can only generally point in the direction of what I am discussing. And when this infinite shifts and takes on new form, I’m comfortable going “and there it is again over there contradicting what I just said.” It’s part of the mystery of life. And I can know it and revere it without being able to explain it.

Of course, part of the nature of being in flow like this is that I tend to not attach myself to things like money or people for very long. It has its challenges, for sure. And when I get on a self-improvement jag, I can sometimes start yanking at the roots of this thing, forgetting that in doing so, I’m going to eradicate what makes me me. I named after the wind, after all, and destined to slide between cracks into spaces that want to be explored. And like wind, I may settle down, but never for long.

It seems to me that my job is to know my power, to explore new opportunities to use it, and to do my best to use it responsibly – with the understanding that sometimes my power is more powerful than my will to control it.

The dark side of awesome is still awesome. What’s your superpower? What’s its dark side? How can you help save the world?

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