I understand the blessing of laughter better than I used to, having — I hope — outlasted some of the portentous solemnity to which, when I am tired or frightened or insecure, I am sadly prone. A light heart has more virtue than romantic agony. — Anne Truitt
It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.
— C. K. Chesterton*
I must do the work that I am best suited for . . .
— Edward Weston*
So I had been working up to a really melodramatic post about how I had realized that I had FAILED as an artist, and was humbly trying to embrace my failure and learn from it and move on to other things after renouncing my art-making career, but then I put off writing the post for long enough that things changed and I didn’t feel exactly that way anymore. One of the biggest things that I realized was that I was — understandably — depressed after being unemployed for a year and a half, and what I really needed was a fucking job. So more on that in a bit, but here’s the post I had been writing, in two parts, to give you the flavor of my misery.
Confessions of an Egomaniac, Pt. 1
When I look at images of my past work, I feel a heavy weight descend onto me, inducing a thrashing, panicky feeling, like, how can I have so little to show for all these years of struggle? Everything I’ve done so far feels labored, tortured. I long for lightness, less effort, more playfulness, yet can’t seem to shed my burden. I feel within me the potential to make serious, good paintings (necessary self-confidence or misguided megalomania?) but cannot seem to figure out how to bring this intuition of my own potential to fruition; mere “talent” never sufficing but always being subject to a myriad of other factors: timing, will, luck, sheer cussedness, the vagaries of moods. My greatest fear is that I do have everything I need to make it happen . . . and still will somehow manage to fail myself. That I am, deep down, secretly just lazy.
Failure has always been anathema to me, as an uptight, overachieving, upper-middle class girl with no sense of humor about myself. I always had to succeed at things, and not only to succeed, but I wanted to be the best at whatever-it-was, a tendency so innate it has to be genetically wired. And I have been good at things. And have worked hard, I think, although never hard enough, in my personal accounting. Painting was the thing I actually had very little natural aptitude for. In my first college painting class, I was both completely seduced by the materials, and completely stymied by them, utterly frustrated at my incomprehension and incompetence. I still remember crying in class over our first still life assignment. My set up had a yellow background, and gray rubber mice on a plate. As my canvas dissolved into a smeary mess and I dissolved into tears, I felt as though I had landed in another country where I didn’t speak the language, so I couldn’t ask anybody for directions, and furthermore, had no idea where I was supposed to go, anyway. I simply had no clue how to translate what I was seeing to the canvas, or even how to SEE what I was seeing. But I nevertheless wanted so badly to make something beautiful. I was so determined that I was going to be able to paint that I threw myself into it, and worked very, very hard in my twenties to acquire the skills I lacked on my own.
So my history with painting has been one of effortful striving, and insecurity, and fear that I would be unmasked as not particularly good at this thing that I desperately wanted to be good at. And now I’m 32, and I have my fancy MFA from Yale, and I’ve made a few paintings I was briefly kinda happy with, but for the past two years I haven't been able to get a body of work together, literally can't seem to finish a fucking painting, and I’m wondering many things, among them WHAT the hell is wrong with me, WHY I’ve been working so hard with so little in the way of results, and HOW LONG I can keep this up. Did I think a career in the “art world” would make me happy? So I would finally get some kind of validation from the world, validation that yes, I was “good at” painting? As though the artist’s ego were not a black hole that swallows validation like a guppy and goes on ceaselessly vacuuming the universe in search of more?
How have I gotten myself into this state of confusion? What is this painting thing all about for me? The only thing I do know right now is that it isn’t making me happy.
In her excellent blog about her search for the principles and secrets of happiness, Gretchen Rubin writes that one of her revelations was that her happiness is not the same as other people’s happiness. I recognized the truth in that, but thought immediately, "But I don’t even KNOW what my happiness is!"
to be continued . . .
*Thanks to Gretchen Rubin's site also for the Chesterton and Weston quotes. So apropos I could not resist them!