On Owning My Creativity
Four years ago, perhaps while sipping a post-shift margarita at the restaurant where we worked, my coworker introduced me to a friend who ran a local art gallery. The friend was a charming, intense woman in her mid-20s, and during our brief conversation she asked me, “Are you an artist?”
Caught off guard, I paused. I thought of my love of singing, my violin playing, my growing interest in documentary making, and I seriously doubted that any of those things made me an artist. As I stammered, she cut in, smirking gently, “Usually when people hesitate,” she said, “it means they are.”
I have been for many years what Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, would call a “blocked creative.” A “shadow artist.” I’ve always been an enthusiastic consumer and dabbler in all kinds of art. I’ll cover a pop song on ukelele any day. Take a Latin dance class? Hell yes. Check out some experimental theatre? Absolutely. But create something of my own? Nah. Wouldn't even know how to begin.
Every blocked artist has her reasons for shadow-lurking. Cameron encourages readers to mull through their past experiences to “acknowledge creative injuries and grieve them,” to psychologically trash the “old enemies of your creative self-worth.”
My personal monsters are a topic for another day (in therapy), but I can say that by the time I was an overachieving 18-year-old, I’d learned certain actions were more virtuous and important than others. The verbs so highly prized by those around me? Serve, share, give. Excel, perform, surpass. I got really good at them.
Now I’m trying to reclaim other verbs: Imagine. Try. Fail. Experiment. Make. Innovate.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is not uncharted territory; it’s a homecoming. I was once a little kid, and to paraphrase Picasso, all little kids know they’re artists. However, society soon got in the way. Psychologists say we start experiencing shame as young as two or three years old, and often our gut reaction to being shamed is to stop taking risks.
How young were you when you first started to absorb negative ideas about creative risk-taking?
When was the first moment your fully formed adult brain considered yourself an artist?
In our final semester of college, my then-longtime-boyfriend took up a personal manifesto: “#ProducingNotConsuming.” This was mostly pre-Instagram and pre-Twitter for us, so the hashtag was a bit of a joke, but his use of the catchphrase was sincere. He was deep in thesis research, and “#ProducingNotConsuming” was a love poem to the process, a celebration of his budding identity as a scientist. How satisfying to finally be testing his own hypotheses, creating his own body of work!
I was happy for him, but secretly resentful, especially when he would emerge from his thesis cave to roll into bed at 3am night after night. In my most petty moments, #ProducingNotConsuming became a symbol of how our relationship was being eroded away by his dedication to academia.
In reality, I was deeply jealous. I was in the middle of my own thesis project, and though I was passionate about the topic—food sustainability—I was not producing any work I was proud of. I was feigning confidence, directionless. I felt ashamed of pouring so much time and energy into a project that, like much of my academic work, simply checked other peoples’ boxes rather than acting on an inner drive.
A few weeks before our graduation, Scientist Boyfriend asked if he could interview me for a class project. We sat knee-to-knee in my bedroom and he asked me sincere, thoughtful questions about my thesis work. I burst into tears. I couldn’t explain why.
Even as I type this piece, I am battling my inner critic. “This is silly,” she mutters. “No one cares. Self-indulgent, worthless…” She’s always there and challenging her is exhausting, but recently I’ve decided the battle is worth it. Because: I want to make radio stories that make people cry and laugh! I want to be in a band! I want to embroider and dance and learn to skate!
Of course, it’s not just career and hobbies that require my creativity. I need it to figure out how to be a good partner, friend, and eventually parent; to help build the kinds of communities I want to live in; and to challenge the misogynist and racist norms and structures all around me.
To live the life I want to live, I need my creativity ON OVERDRIVE. So in the end, my inner critic can't win.
I have a lot of gratitude, and by expressing some of it I hope other shadow-artists-in-recovery might find some inspiration.
To my parents, for putting me in dance and music and summer camp from the age of six to 17, for driving me to rehearsals and showing up to all my performances. To my aunt and two cousins for being the only people in my large extended family to take your creative pursuits seriously.
To my partner, for your abundant love of connecting through art and your patience with my journey.
To womyn who make art about how hard it is to art in this society, about being unsure that your art is "good enough": Sammus, Rookie writers, Tracy Clayton, Yumi Sakugawa, Jill Soloway, Mari Andrew. It matters hugely to know that people I admire also sometimes suffer crippling self-doubt—and keep putting their stuff out into the world anyway.
To Erin and the Cushy community for giving me this space to experiment out loud. To my editor Dani for urging me to respect my muse even when my muse doesn’t respect deadlines.
I don’t know a lot, but I do know that every regular degular shmegular girl has something valuable to offer. I believe everyone has an original perspective, unique set of gifts, a story worth hearing. That core belief is what drew me to the documentary arts and it’s what drives my work as a journalist.
It’s about damn time I choose to believe it about myself, too.