[EDITOR’S NOTE: I recently found this piece in a Facebook group for Audio Drama Scriptwriters. While The Rat Hole is (obviously) a website dedicated to tabletop gaming, the points made here are just as valid in creating a new game, a GM preparing to run a roleplaying game, or just about anything else that goes into a game before a player ever touches the dice. I’d like to thank Craig Robotham for allowing me to present his thought provoking bit of inspiration to you here. -dc]
Am I an artist?
A question on a facebook page recently got me thinking – “Do you think of yourself as an artist?”
It’s a pretty simple question and it should have an easy answer. But it doesn’t.
That’s because answering it out loud (that is, publicly) gives reign to all manner of insecurities.
If I say “yes”, will I be seen as arrogant?
If I say “yes”, and people think my art is bad, what does that make me? Deluded?
If I say “yes”, and I think my art isn’t up to scratch, am I being a fraud?
Who am I fooling, if I say “yes”. Myself? Others? Anyone?
And can I call what I do art anyway?
This little essay isn’t about what makes a person an artist (though I am going to provide a definition, probably in the next paragraph, so that we are all on the same page – at least regarding what I mean be the term) but instead, is about the psychological baggage many of us carry around that makes answering the question hard.
Here’s my definition… An artist is someone who makes art. That’s it. In this definition the art doesn’t have to be good or bad… it just has to exist – and whoever makes it is, by definition, an artist. Whether the art was made by Og the Caveman scrawling on a cave wall, or Leonardo DaVinci, if the product is art, then its maker is an artist.
So if I make art, then I am an artist.
See what I did there? Did you notice? I still didn’t come out and say it. I added that little “if” in there – a little wriggle room to back out of categorizing myself. I think I’d better close up the loopholes a little.
Here’s my definition of art… Art is any creative product (in digital or physical form) that can be shared with others – a painting, a sculpture, a play, a film, a piece of music, an audio drama, a television show – that find its origin in the human imagination and is made open to perception by human effort.
As a definition it probably has limits (I’m hedging again) but it will do for this discussion.
So here goes… I write plays, therefore I am an artist.
There, I said it. And my stomach sank as I did so. Right now I want to step back and qualify that statement in about a thousand ways with comments like “and, yes, I know some folks don’t think my plays are very good”, and “I’m still learning” and “there are plenty of folks who are better at writing plays than I am” and “it’s still true that some folks think I’m a hack (and I half agree)” etc. Why?
Well, the simple answer is that most of the time I feel like an imposter, and that feeling, apparently, is VERY common. So common that it has a name: Imposter Syndrome.
“Imposter Syndrome” is a term that was coined in the late seventies by a pair of clinical psychologists (Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes). It describes the feeling of just not measuring up; that secret fear that, if you dare to label yourself competent, someone is going to expose you. It is the secret belief that you are a fraud and that someone could expose you as a fraud any minute. Worse still, it is the fear that, once exposed, you’d have to agree with the judgment. Essentially, it is insecurity writ LARGE!
Not everyone feels like an imposter. In fact there is a psychological effect (the Dunning-Kruger effect that describes those who OVER-estimate their own abilities) but, it is suggested, Imposter Syndrome effects about 40% of the population (so 2 in five people – a fairly sizeable minority).
There are some personality traits that are closely related to the experience of imposter syndrome.
Perfectionism – Perfectionism is a curse. You always know you could do better – that what you’ve achieved isn’t quite there yet – and so, you feel like a fraud.
Fear of failure – Fear of failure is crippling. It encourages us to just give up. It causes us to plateau in our abilities. And, like perfectionism, leaves us painfully aware that we are not yet all that we would like to be.
Overwork (workaholism) – Folks who overwork, obsess over the details, over-prepare, etc. can sometimes do so out of fear that, if they don’t, someone is going to “realize” they aren’t really all that good at what they do.
Minimizing accomplishments – A function of old-fashioned insecurity, sometimes perceived as false-modesty, can also be driven by the fear that you might be exposed as a fraud.
The common thread in all of this is, of course, insecurity – an unjustifiably low opinion of ourselves coupled with an unreasonable fear of the opinions of others, and artists are particularly prone to it.
The vulnerable artist
The artist has a great deal to fear. Art is something the artist creates for others to appreciate. Conceivably, art can be created for our own enjoyment. It can be locked away, true. But for most artists there is a tiny spark of ego at work that drives us to put our work in front of an audience. This invites judgment and we can be powerfully afraid of those judgments. No matter how welcome a favourable judgement from an audience member is, the fear of an unfavourable judgement is also very real.
This is further complicated when our identity and self-worth is tied up with producing our art. It is true to say that every artist puts a piece of themselves into every work they create, and that having done so, every harsh word about that work can be difficult to distinguish from a personal attack.
I sometimes wonder if reviewers have any real idea of just how devastating their judgments can be. In recent years I’ve noticed a trend away from objective reviewing of material towards a self-aggrandizing personality based form of review that judges its success on the basis of how entertainingly they can mock the targets of their reviews. That’s not to say that reviews can’t be entertaining to be good, only that when a review serves the ego of the writer and not the audience through an objective evaluation of the pros and cons of the work, it has left the path of wisdom… but that’s another topic for another day.
The point I’m making is that artist’s make themselves vulnerable to the opinions of others and often have a lot at stake because a certain amount of their identity is wrapped up in the works they produce.
This is both a strength and a weakness. The personal investment of the artist adds power to their work, but makes them vulnerable to fear.
Fear is the enemy
One of the most revolutionary insights I have ever been granted came from the book “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I’ve written elsewhere about how perfectionism and fear of failure hold us back from developing as artists, so rather than repeat myself here, I’ll just include this wonderful anecdote from the book…
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
And this quote clarifying its meaning…
“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. Your cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do, away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.”
But I promised to talk about defeating insecurity in order to keep on writing, didn’t I? So, what helps us do this?
Before I suggest some helpful strategies, there is one more point I need to cover (so I hope you’ll hang in there with me just a little bit longer).
We’ve looked at some of the sources of insecurity (fear, self-doubt etc.) and some of the ways that insecurity manifests itself (perfectionism, avoidance, workaholism etc.) but it’s also important to discuss a little about the way the brain deals with these things.
Giving the brain a good talking to
A lot of us have a very erroneous and damaging belief about our feelings. We think they are triggered by events. If I were to diagram the common perception it would look something like this…
EVENT –> EMOTION
I know this looks like common sense, but it is actually quite wrong. Let me explain.
I’m a teacher and, as such, I spend at least some of my time supervising kids in the playground. Imagine for a moment that I am crossing the school yard when a ball comes flying out of nowhere and strikes me in the back of the head. That’s a triggering event, right? One that could conceivably result in an emotion (anger, embarrassment, etc.).
But lets look at it a bit more closely. If I turn around and see a terrified primary school child looking apologetic and horrified that they accidentally kicked the ball and it hit me, am I likely to feel anger? Of course not. But if I turn around and see a kid sniggering and pointing at me to his friends so that I believe the kick was on purpose, well, anger is a very likely result.
You see, events don’t lead inexorably to emotional responses. The interpretation we place on those events and the thoughts we have about them do. A more correct diagram would look like this…
EVENT –> THOUGHT –> EMOTION
And this is the final understanding needed to begin talking about dealing with insecurity as an artist.
Beating insecurity – Seven key techniques
1. Understand where your insecurity comes from and how it manifests.
“Know yourself” is always good advice. If you know your insecurity comes from fear of the opinions of others, or low self-esteem, you are already well on your way to addressing the issue, even more so if you know that your insecurity manifests itself in an inability to accept praise or a crippling perfectionism etc.
2. Test your understanding of reality
Unrealistic beliefs about ourselves and our work are counterproductive. Our emotions follow our thoughts and beliefs, so it is important that we be objective in our understanding of ourselves and our art. Apply the “reasonablesness” test to your thoughts. Is it reasonable to expect perfection? Is it reasonable to discount your achievements because of the flaws you are aware of? Is it reasonable to tear up that manuscript because it didn’t achieve everything you were aiming for?
3. Adopt a new perspective
When you uncover unreasonable perspectives, replace them with realistic ones. “Yes, I can always do better, but given the time available I have done a good job”. “Yes, it isn’t perfect, but it never will be and each piece I produce brings me closer to the perfection I’m seeking”.
4. Challenge negative thoughts
Our negative self-talk is a major obstacle to our ability to see the world (and our own work) clearly. Often our self-talk has become a habit, entrenched through long years of repetition. “You’re no good”. “You’re a fraud”. “You’re not a real writer” etc. These thoughts must be challenged and replaced… and it will take some effort and practice – particularly if the negative thoughts have been established by long habit – and it may be a slow process.
Have you ever been feeling low and had someone try to cheer you up? Have you ever wondered why most people find it incredibly annoying when someone, with the best of intentions, tries to do that? As human beings we are addicted to strong emotions. We often don’t care that the emotion is a negative one. If it is strong enough, we are content to enjoy it and wallow in it.
As a result, it often isn’t easy to challenge negative thoughts and emotions when we have been captured by them in the moment.
For this reason, it is important to practice positive self-talk when things are quiet and going well. Think of it like practicing a fire drill. You don’t wait for a crisis in order to practice the drill. You do it over and over when things are safe so that when the crisis occurs you can reach for the strategies you have been practicing without panic and survive.
5. Embrace your identity
Practice voicing your identity. I create art, therefore I am an artist. I write plays therefore I am a writer. Tell yourself these things. They are objectively true. Try not to shy away from them.
6. Seek out challenges (and never stop being a student)
One of the key things that I have had to learn about myself (and come to accept) is that I will never be the writer I want to be. There is always more to learn. And the only way I will ever learn the skills I have yet to master is if I seek them out. I need to seek out challenges, criticism, feedback and (dare I say it) opportunities for failure, if I am to improve. It’s how learning takes place, so I must resign myself to failure as a necessary tool and teacher. It takes courage, but if you can celebrate your failures as milestones (and even look forward to them for what you will learn) on the road to greater mastery of the craft of writing, rather than as a source of shame and self-loathing, your skills will grow faster and faster.
7. Make more art
And of course, make more art. The person who never succeeds is always the person who stops trying. Keep making art, and with every piece you will grow into your self-understanding as an artist.
The simple question that opened this piece “Do you think of yourself as an artist?” does, in fact, have a simple answer – but one that required a lot of unpacking. I am an artist, and so are you if you have courage enough to put pen to paper and release the result into the world.
Insecurity is your enemy, but it can be vanquished with healthy doses of reality and a determination to press forward to become better and better at your craft.
Craig Robotham is the mind behind Weird World Studios and the “Host Your Own Old Time Radio Drama” dinner parties, which are like those murder mystery theme parties only better. He is also in the process of developing an Old Time Radio styled Roleplaying Game. Both of these products, and more, are available at www.weirdworldstudios.com