Eli invited 31 different artists to answer the question, “What does being an artist mean to you?” If you join her Demystifying the Artist mailing list (and I’ll include a link in the show notes), every day in May she’ll send you a new essay from a different artist. It’s been really interesting to read what other artists have been writing!
As I was working on my answer, I realized it would make a great podcast episode, so that’s what I’m sharing with you today!
What does being an artist mean to me? It means allowing myself the freedom to play, to explore, to make messes, to follow my curiosity—purely because it feeds me to express myself in this way.
Being an artist doesn’t have anything to do with medium, or tools, or format, or genre.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that, whether we’re talking about visual artists, writers, musicians, or any other kind of creator, there is only one difference between artists and everyone else.
It isn’t talent.
It isn’t skill.
It isn’t taste, or style, or whether or not you make money from what you create.
It isn’t awards, or public praise and attention.
No, it’s much more foundational—and perhaps more subtle–than any of that.
Before you can create, you need a sense of permission. You need an internal understanding that yes, you get to do this thing. That making art, in whatever form that takes for you, is not reserved for the elite few, nor is it a frivolous, self-indulgent waste of time.
Entitlement means that you see creating as an important act, a worthy act, one that you have just as much right to as anyone else.
This inner sense of permission is innate. It’s our birthright. Every single human is born with it.
The problem is, most of us lose our sense of entitlement by the time we reach adulthood, and often long before that.
Shame and Creativity
Brené Brown has spent a good chunk of her career researching shame, and her data suggests that over 40% of the population can remember a specific incident from school in which they were shamed around a creative act so badly that it forever changed how they thought about themselves.
My best friend was shamed around drawing when she was little. Big surprise that she avoided drawing forever after. She doesn’t even enjoy going to museums.
In the school choir, my mom was told to “mouth the words, honey—nobody wants to hear you try to sing.” Can you guess how she felt about her voice after that?
I know more people than I can count with similar stories.
Nobody said nasty things to me about my art, but as a pre-adolescent and young teen I managed to do a fine job of shaming myself, by stepping in the Comparison Trap. I compared my work to other people’s work that I admired, and to my dismay, mine always came up short.
So at thirteen I gave up making art entirely.
Back then, it seemed to me that being an artist meant being able to draw. As in photographic realism. And although I wasn’t terrible at drawing, I was also not one of those kids who naturally excelled at it.
Now I understand that drawing realistically is simply a skill that can be developed with time and effort. But at thirteen I didn’t understand this. I was also consumed with self-hate, as a lot of young teenagers are, so when I noticed that there were kids, let alone adults, who were able to translate what they saw onto the page much more skillfully than I could, the conclusion I drew from that was that they were the real artists, not me.
So I quit.
A few years later I did the same thing with music. It was clear that other kids were better at their instruments than I was at mine, so I concluded that they were the real musicians, not me.
So I quit.
And then I repeated the same scenario again in my late twenties, when, for a brief time, I thought I would become a writer. I couldn’t write nearly as beautifully as my writer heroes, so I concluded that they were the real writers, not me.
So I quit.
Yep, I didn’t write for fifteen years, until I started my blog!
A Former Non-Creative Person
In fact, for most of my teens and young adulthood I truly believed that I was not creative. Not just that I wasn’t an artist, but that I was a non-creative person.
Anyone who meets me now finds it impossible to believe that I once thought I was non-creative, but it’s true. I spent a good fifteen years living my life in black, white and grey, with my creative spirit locked in a closet. And the problem, I can see with hindsight, was not that I wasn’t good enough, which is what I believed at the time.
The problem was purely that I lacked entitlement.
Entitlement = Space
See, when you’re entitled, you make space in your life to create.
You don’t go on the assumption that only the specially anointed get to create.
You don’t go on the assumption that everything else in your life is more important than your creative expression.
You don’t go on the assumption that a negative judgment of your work means anything other than an individual opinion. And it certainly has no bearing on whether you should keep doing it!
And this applies even when the negative opinion about your work is your own!
You may still have those self-critical gremlin voices, even if you’re entitled. In fact, any time you do something truly creative you will have those self-critical gremlin voices, because gremlins exist to keep you inside your comfort zone, and creativity only and ever happens outside your comfort zone, in the zone of uncertainty! But when you’re entitled, you don’t give the gremlins any credence, and you certainly don’t let them drive the bus.
So now, when my gremlins tell me, as they often do, that “So-and-So’s work is so much better than yours,” and “They’re the real artist (or writer, or musician, or teacher, or performer), you’re just a hack, and you really should quit,” I simply thank them for their opinion, and for trying to keep me safe.
Then I send them off to get a pedicure and I get back to work.
Desire Is the Only Requirement
Here’s the thing: when you’re entitled, your desire is the only requirement.
And guess what? When you have entitlement and a strong desire, you’ll do your art. Which, of course, will make you better at it.
Even when you’re convinced your work is total crap, when you have entitlement and a strong desire, that doesn’t stop you. You can simply remind yourself that some days are always going to be better than others, and besides, we need the crap, because remember:
It’s the crap that fertilizes the good stuff.
So how do you regenerate the entitlement that you had as a child? This is really the focus of my work as a creativity instigator, speaker, writer, teacher, blogger, and podcaster.
For me, it’s been a matter of setting that as my intention, and then practicing.
I also had to forgive myself for being human, let myself make crappy art (remember, we need the crap to fertilize the good stuff!), and learn to dismiss the gremlins and spring the Comparison Trap over and over and over again.
This is what artists do. This is what allows me the freedom to play, to explore, to make messes, to follow my curiosity.
And that is what being an artist means to me.
Quotes In this Episode
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Resources In this Episode
The Comparison Trap: Wrestling with Envy (Blog post)
Thanks for Listening!
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