Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Oh hey, I transferred my blog to a fancier platform. This article is from April 2019.
Last week I wrote about the lies we collectively spin around talent, and how they can cut you off from your natural creativity. Myths like this work on us in so many ways, from multiple angles, through diverse voices, over the span of years. When you find yourself in the grip of a pernicious myth, it doesn’t release overnight. Recognizing a thought-form as a myth or lie is only the first step of a deprogramming process you will have to repeat habitually. To that end, I’d like to share some journaling exercises that I use to quell my inner critic and detangle myself from toxic mythology in art and creativity. All makers have to find ways to contend with internalized doubts, discouragements, and misleading beliefs. Here are some of the techniques I use. Perhaps they may be of use to you as well.
Step one is to ID and name the thought patterns preventing you from engaging further in creative work. Last week’s post should give you a head start here, as we’ve just covered eight big ones that affect so many budding creatives. You’ll know blockages as the uncomfortable, critical voices in your head that throw you off your art game. What runs through your mind as you turn away from the blank page? It could be a personal hangup, a fear, a cultural belief, or a memory of something a friend, teacher, or parent once said to you. It could be a tangled snare featuring all of the above. Pay attention to your inner monologue when you feel blocked, or run from something that’s always interested you.
Ask, Who Does This Benefit?
Once you’ve identified a troublesome belief, statement, memory, or art lie, ask, who does this statement benefit? Who wins if this is true? If this is false, who wins when people buy into it? Where have you heard this notion, who told it to you, and what stake did they have in your attention and belief? Understanding how you came by an idea, and why it’s sticky, can help you evaluate whether to allow it or to drop it. Some people tell us art lies to protect us from burnout or failure in competitive fields. A valid concern if you’ve a mind to go pro, though the concern is not always handled and expressed helpfully or appropriately. Some people tell us art lies because they’re repeating what they’ve been told, and deeply internalized themselves. They think if they can’t do a thing, neither can you. Sometimes this springs from jealousy, but comes just as often from genuine concern and a protective instinct. Sometimes people tell us art lies because they don’t want to deal with art messes, or to field too many creative questions. They want or need us to sit down and focus on something else, and they’ll say anything it takes to enforce quiet, rationality, pragmatism, concentration, order in the classroom, or any other aim of the hour. Some people tell us art lies because they have a material and social stake in systems that privilege mediocre work from those with the right connections, or that benefit from cutthroat competition and fewer people succeeding all around. Some people tell us art lies from personal insecurities or grudges. Sometimes a person just doesn’t like you, and they’ll take an opportunity to punch you in the art. Some people troll, and not all trolling is obvious. Tracing the very human motivations behind the myths loosens some of their power by bringing them back to our level. An idea falls from the pedestal of self-evident, universal truth to something someone said once, for reasons that may or may not have been noble and wise. Asking who said so? and why? and who wins? can reveal a long held belief as absurd, tragic, or malicious. In some cases, throwing distance, maturity, and recognition at these patterns makes it easy to forgive past discouragement, and in forgiveness, let them go. Forgiveness is a bonus, though, not a necessity.
Rewrite The Bullshit
My favorite part! Get a scrap piece of paper and two colors of pen or pencil, one lighter and one darker. In your lighter color, write out all the bullshit that’s holding you back. If you’d like to work through last week’s list of talent lies, put them into your own words, in the stickiest language that trips you up the most. Next, go point by point and decide why these statements are wrong. Come up with a clever way to argue against them, or choose a better truth. In your bolder color, call BS and write your negating truths right over the art lies. I see this as constructively disagreeing with myself. I’m taking time to review two very different ways of looking at the same puzzle, and I’m choosing to overwrite the one that blocks my creativity with the one that nurtures it. Make sure that whatever you write over your old nonsense feels true. I’ve got no time of mind for grand affirmations that don’t connect to lived experience. For example, maybe you can’t see yourself as talented yet, so don’t go there when you’re calling bullshit. This re-writing process can play out in several stages over time. Maybe for now, “I suck at everything” becomes “I don’t suck any harder than average. I’m pretty okay. I’m okay enough to practice more.” Down the line “I’m pretty okay” can get over-written as “I have some skills.” Don’t aim to be exclusively positive, psych yourself up, or force yourself into optimism. Aim to gradually shift what you see as true about your creativity. Because creativity is subjective, there is no single objective truth. We can use the divided mind to our advantage by airing two arguments, and choosing for ourselves the more supportive and productive truth. (The more supportive truth usually proves truer than the troublesome belief—in this context at least, not universally.) The ability to feel and recognize a sense of truth is key. Re-writing old beliefs doesn’t work when we try to call bullshit with starry-eyed wishes we partially resent because they feel like lies in the opposite direction. If you like to get ritualistic, you can burn your finished paper, or rip it into tiny pieces and throw them in the compost or recycling. (Always be smart about burning things. Use a safe fireplace or outdoor campfire.) That bit’s not necessary, but it can feel cathartic. I prefer to keep my lists tucked in journals so I can review them as needed, and remind myself of my counter-arguments against my hangups. Repeat this exercise as often as needed to let your better replacement beliefs sink in.
Diagram Your Aptitudes and Interests
If you haven’t read last week’s article about talent lies yet, go back and review the section under the heading “Only Some People Are Talented.” When It’s time to deprogram beliefs about talent specifically, remember that talent derives from a combination of aptitude and interest. Aptitude is the ability to learn something faster than average. Interest is the desire to put time and effort into learning something. Both axes matter, and we make a mistake in only counting the first. Last week, I wrote about these axes as spectrums ranging from great ability or interest to great difficulty or disinterest, with some silly examples of potential aptitude and interest spectrums. If you are trying to discover and foster talents within yourself, it may help to diagram your own wiring through these spectrums. Draw two lines, one for aptitude, and one for interest. Mark a zero on the left and a ten on the right of the page. In aptitude, zero is great learning difficulty, the midpoint at five is mediocre natural ability, and ten is great aptitude—your shortest learning curve. In interest, zero is total disinterest—the work you least enjoy, five is meh—you could take it or leave it, and ten is greatest interest—the stuff you get most excited about. Now plot out some subjects along each spectrum. Get specific, and try not to compare yourself to others. Think relatively within your own sphere. For instance, you might not feel more talented than others at painting, but if you learn painting faster and easier than you learn most other subjects, plot painting higher than five on your aptitude spectrum. Review your finished spectrums. Any surprises? Do your aptitudes line up with your interests or do they differ wildly? Have you been encouraged to follow both your interests and your aptitudes, or only one side over the other? Have you been pushed to pursue activities on the low end of both spectrums? Perhaps it’s time to start correcting some imbalances. This exercise should help you recognize the complexity and potential of talent. Talent grows from the cracks between these two spectrums, in more organic and chaotic ways than we tend to allow for. Stop discounting your interests and tastes if you have been.
It’s really helpful to make friends with other artists, especially ones starting at the same level. You can find small art communities online and through social media. Classes, meetups, drawing groups, and art events in your area are great places to meet others with the same interests. Not everyone there will be looking to make friends and share process talks, but some will. You might also enjoy discussing creativity and artistic hangups with a therapist who can help you unpack stubborn baggage and self-sabotage.
Don’t Let Talent Matter
I don’t mean to sound glib here. Relaxing desires for talent, recognition, and encouragement takes repeated reflection. It’s not as simple as choosing not to care about something, and it’s a lot easier to care less when you do receive encouragement and recognition. This will come as you grow in skill. You may care deeply, and continue to feel strongly about talent and ability in spite of yourself. If that’s the case, you’re not alone. You can keep caring and feeling, just don’t let heavy sentiment prevent you from practicing and making. Behind the scenes, all artists have to make peace with our personal brews of abilities, disabilities, passions, insecurities and hangups. You can too. We don’t all air our dirty laundry and talk about it in public, but everyone has hangups, stumbling blocks, internalized baggage, and insecurities, even your favorites. What an artless world we’d have if all makers waited to feel talented before committing to making! All these exercises are designed to clear your mind and battered heart for the making and doing, so follow through with practice and play. There’s more to consider and work through if you want to go pro, but don’t worry about that yet if you’re just starting to rekindle a stifled creative drive. One goddamn thing at a time! Creativity is for everyone, and we’re better for it. Let yourself explore what you love, just for kicks. Give yourself the tools you need to experiment in art and craft without shame. You may have greater aptitude and abilities than you can imagine! They’ll reveal themselves in time.
Wishing you the best of luck deprogramming any internalized discouragement! Got any notes, or tips you want to share? Add a note or ask a question in the comments! Crave more sweet creative musings? Sign up for my newsletter to receive exclusive shop talk, process shots, art tips, and creative exercises on the regular.