. . . . . continued I humbly plead, admit, that yes, I thought I was special, somehow, that I was going to be some kind of star. To tell the absolute truth, that insidious and misleading feeling still persists at some level, despite my attempts to root it out. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that there are a lot of smart, talented, funny, amazing people out there, people with interesting stories doing cool things, people who probably actually are special, more special than me, anyway, by any kind of objective yardstick. And I recently realized that either this would eat me up, or I could decide to become an appreciator, to cultivate a genuine appreciation of other people’s talents and worthy accomplishments, so I didn’t curdle into an unwarranted and unbecoming bitterness. To remind myself continually that life is really not a zero sum game — really — and that the achievements of others don’t reduce our own chances of achieving success someday. And this may sound terribly obvious, especially if you haven’t spent your life laboring under the delusional burden of incipient greatness, but if, like I have, you’ve spent your whole life with an internal monologue which is constantly running down/picking apart/criticizing other people and their works, all to maintain the ego’s fiction of specialness, well, this notion of appreciation is pretty fucking revolutionary. (N.B. This does not mean surrendering the use of one’s critical faculties altogether, and mutely accepting the mountains of shlock and crap in the world, just actually acknowledging when stuff is good. And maybe even trying to find something positive in things that aren’t.)
Try this: put an activity at the center of your life and work very hard at it without satisfactory results. Have no community, make no money, remain very isolated, and see how long you still feel like doing that activity. Not so much.
I was reading a New Yorker article a little while ago on solitary confinement and how it literally makes people lose their minds, and while I’m not seriously comparing myself to a prisoner in solitary, it did make me reassess how lonely my daily routines are, how empty my life feels. And how unhappy and bored I am. Maybe that’s why I can’t finish any work: I just don’t have enough input in my life to be able to put anything out. A simple equivalency problem. My equation isn’t balanced.
The studio has come to feel like work, like a sort of dreary duty that I dutifully perform, but am only too happy not to do on the weekends. I’ve lost that joy in paint and all its possibilities by heaping such a heavy load onto it — the desire to succeed, the fear of failure — that it’s too freighted to do anything fun or quirky or unexpected or playful.
What to do? Well, first of all, clearly I need a job. Hopefully an interesting, challenging job, with community and variety. Something that requires me to take painting out of the lonely center of my life and push it a little to the side. I honestly think I’d get just as much done as I am now, if not a lot more, if I were busier. The more you have to do, the more you get done, you know? And the less you have to do . . . well, in my case, I get nothing done. When you have nothing but time, nothing seems to matter very much. There’s always tomorrow, so why force yourself to finish something when you could just go home and have a cocktail? Also, and equally importantly, if I had something that I HAD to do (like a job), painting could again be the thing I WANT to do. The exciting thing, not the dire thing.
We moved to Portland in January 2008 because Dave got a job at the public radio station, so I left my adjunct teaching gig at BU and moved to a new city where I had no job, network, family, or friends. In retrospect, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve had a hard time, but in the beginning I thought it was going to be great, thought I was going to get what I’d always wanted: Dave could support us for a while and I’d have lots and lots of time to paint. I’d always thought a social life was overrated, anyway. (Until I didn’t have one!) My plan was to kick ass in the studio, finish a body of work — say, 10-12 paintings — and then shop them around to galleries in the hopes of getting representation.
That was the plan. The reality is that I’ve slaved over 4-5 small paintings for over a year — and haven’t even managed to finish them. And so I’m forced to confront the fact that I have failed, failed at the goal I set myself.
I have a dear friend who says that embracing failure has been the most liberating thing in her life. She, too, is an artist with fancy degrees from from fancy schools. And so I’ve been asking myself recently if I can be brave enough to embrace my failures, to get over this reflexive need to “succeed” at things, and even if I actually want to be liberated. If I can realize that the model of success I had envisioned for myself maybe isn’t particularly interesting, anyway; that there might be weirder, richer, more complicated, wholly unexpected successes out there in the universe. Or even the possibility that I might not be successful . . . but that I might actually be happy. (And if I can shed my Ivy League mentality that happiness is the consolation prize for the losers who just couldn’t hack success.)
The question I am continually asking myself now is, Am I flexible enough to change: my paintings, my mind, my life? To realize that if success or failure is always relative to how you define the goal, that maybe instead of beating myself up all the time, I should just redefine my goals?