Putting words to the angst accrued from my first year of doing full-time art.
I did not set out to become a full-time artist lightly.
It’s not that I was scared of the uncertainty of that lifestyle. That aspect felt more thrilling than anything else. But I knew many people who walked that path had been blindsided by just how taxing the first couple of years are. Tight finances, rejection, and a continual questioning of your decisions from within and without are just a handful of the many plagues that come up in the creative industry. I wanted to be as prepared as I could possibly be, so that nothing would take me by surprise.
I read every single interview and article I could get my hands on. I heard all of the talking points from all of the seminars, and they were engraved on the forefront of my mind;
“Always practice; cultivate your style.”
“Do what comes naturally to you.”
“It’s ok if you start off slow, everyone does!”
“Having submissions turned down is hard, but it’s part of the process.”
“It’s easy to doubt yourself, but don’t listen to them.”
“You’ll be ok.”
This was everyone’s story. All of the articles and interviews I read boiled down to those principles. If that was the whole story, I felt that was something I could handle. With the map laid out before me, I plunged ahead, knowing exactly what hurdles to expect and what to do to overcome them.
The first few months were joyous. Bounding and splashing down the waterfalls of creative impulse is as freeing and life-giving as you can imagine. Paintings, designs, and illustrations flowed from my fingertips as I continued to sculpt and refine my talents with equal artistic enthusiasm. I made a few commissioned pieces, showed at a few local galleries, completed my first series, and was even hired to create live art for a stage production. Objectively speaking, I was moving along at quite a clip. My artistic journey was progressing much more quickly than I or any of my close friends should have expected.
But whatever was and still is happening in my artistic career, something else was happening in the back of my mind. I didn’t notice it for a long time. How could I have? Everything was going according to how I had heard it would. I was practicing my art as I always had, constantly critiquing what I could make better. I was allowing my style to affect my work as naturally as it could, doing my best to embrace the tendencies of my aesthetic. Things were moving more lethargically than I would have liked, which was to be expected in my first year. Many, many submissions had been turned down or not replied to, which, as I had heard just as many times, was a normal and healthy part of the process. I was fully prepared to encounter all of these aspects of the artistic journey.
And yet the voices I had heard so much about began to grow. Ah, yes. The voices;
“You can keep practicing, but it still won’t make up for your flaws.”
“Your art style is fine. Not nearly as good as theirs, though.”
“That’s why you’re starting off so slowly.”
“That’s why they’re not accepting your submissions.”
“Your voice is unrefined, generic, uncompelling, and basic.”
“And that’s why
You’ll never be good enough.”
That was a little unnerving, but the articles told me I was going to hear these voices eventually. This was normal. I was prepared. I pushed them away. I wasn’t worried. I told them I knew they were there. I told all my friends I knew they were there. I felt them digging at my mind. I was ok, though. I was more prepared than anyone. I knew that they’d done this to so many people. The voices are the blight of the artistic life. “But they wouldn’t get the best of me!”, I said. I declared. I demanded. I shouted. I begged. I cried. And I almost broke.
Wow. That was fast.
It’s like reading a set of definitions anew. No one could have prepared me for just how backbreaking the corrosiveness of doubt truly was, just as no one could have prepared for the depths of the color red by calling it “the long-wave extreme of the visible [light] spectrum”. The quiet voices I thought I could control had slowly but surely scratched their way to the front of my mind, weighing down everything I did with an oppressive acridness. I knew exactly where they came from, I knew exactly how they got there, and yet there was no way to prevent them from waking me up in the middle of the night, jaw clenched, throat tight, fully convinced that there was no way I was doing enough work even though I had already worked for 11 hours that day.
Did I know the solution to this problem? Of course I did. Believe me, I had done my research, and taking care of doubt was definitely on the checklist of things I prepared for; “When things get too stressful, don’t be afraid to take a break when you need it.”
And yet considering the solution in the face of this massive hurdle was an entirely different story. I knew I had to take a break. I knew that was the correct path to force the now roaring doubts to rescind. But the voices had seared their own version of wisdom right over that path; “If you take a break now, that’s it. You’ll have given up. Everyone will forget about the work you’re doing and stop caring altogether. What little you have accomplished will rescind into nothingness. You can’t let that happen. You have to keep working.”
That’s the cycle I was stuck in. Knowing I had to take a break, but too chained to the voices to do anything about it. Knowing my doubts were silly and that so many people have told me so, “But what if the doubts are right?”
This is what all those articles I read truly meant when they continually covered the topic of “doubt”. They didn’t just mean “to call into question the truth” or “to lack confidence in” one’s art. They meant a deep, visceral well of tearing emotions that can’t be described with words or sentiments alone. A guttural cracking of the artistic soul that is painful, heart-wrenching, and unavoidable, no matter how precisely you memorized the dictionary definition. There are just some things that are impossible to know outside of personal experience.
To be honest, I’m still in the thick of this conundrum even as I write this article. I did manage to get sick a few weeks ago, which forced me to rest a bit. But outside of that, my feeble attempts to take a sustained break keep getting overrun by the guilt-fueled drive to keep working. I have no doubt that these heavy feelings will plague me for the rest of my artistic career, as it has for so many people who walk this path.
Preemptive knowledge can do little to emotionally prepare you for the experiences you choose to cultivate for yourself. It certainly hasn’t helped me in that regard. But in an entirely different way than I expected, I’ve found they still have their place in my artistic career, especially in my current state of intense doubt. There is some preemptive knowledge that I can trust, even though I haven’t experienced it yet. Something that I can hang onto in the midst of my doubts. Something that I learned in my research from the very beginning;
“You’ll be ok.”