In last week’s blog post I recommended Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a short book of advice from one established artist to another at the beginning of his journey. There are many threads within his letters, but Rilke, in particular, seems to advocate cultivating inner strength and a sense of purpose that can only come from yourself, not from others:
Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking after the rewards that may come from outside. For he who creates must be a world of his own and find everything within himself and in the natural world that he has elected to follow.
I have been thinking about this notion, of gaining inner strength and through that reconnecting with the purpose to your creativity. I don’t think I know any creative person who does not have doubts about what they do. Sometimes it is only in small ways, when a particular piece of work isn’t working, other times it can be far-reaching when a crossroads is reached and the inevitable ‘what am I doing with my life?’ question appears. These doubts are natural. So, if we accept that, what can be done when we feel them? How do we find a way through the worries and out of the other side, to a place where we can continue?
I have observed, in myself, and through talking to artists and makers, that when these questions of doubt arise it is often because the connection between our creative impulses and our creative purpose has been lost, or is growing faint. When we forget why we are doing our work, who it is for, the value of it for others (as well as the value for ourselves) it’s easy to feel a bit lost. And, then, when we try to reconnect with our purpose, unhelpful inner critics jump in casting judgement on our motives. We feel that the reasons we have come up with, before, for doing our work, don’t seem as valid somehow. Or that they aren’t ‘good’ enough. At this point, the shifting sands that we built our entire creative practices on could move at any time, and it’s essential to firm things up.
Which is where other people’s wisdom can help. Recently I’ve been turning away from finding answers in self-help books or guides for artists etc as the advice they offer is never, really, specific enough. What I have realised is that there is more to be learnt from other artists who are on this journey with us – to hear how other people see their practices, how they deal with their work and their inner demons. They are not claiming to have the answers, they are merely sharing their understanding.
One great example of this is the talk author Zadie Smith gave at the New Yorker Festival in 2006 called ‘How to Fail Better’. In it she describes writing as an act of failure, because the books that are written are never the books that writers set out to write. And yet they persist. To her mind, ‘the art is in the attempt’. It’s not about the outcome, necessarily, it’s that the writer tried her best to communicate her experience of life through her work:
For writers have only one duty, as I see it; the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. … That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person’s truth as far as it can be rendered through language.
Now, imagine Zadie Smith isn’t talking about writing. Imagine she is talking about your particular discipline. Your duty as an artist, designer or maker is the same – to share your own unique viewpoint with the world through the materials and techniques that you know best. That’s all. It’s not your duty to make works of genius, that is incredibly rare in any artistic field; it’s your duty to show up and to make your voice heard:
…this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you’ll ever do.
It’s going to be hard work, but that is the point.
Realising that your creative purpose is mostly to just be yourself and do the work is both liberating and challenging. On the one hand, it means that whatever work you do is fine, it’s enough. You get to choose what your subject matter is, what you engage with. As the writer Annie Dillard says in her fantastic book The Writing Life:
Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made to set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
But, on the other hand, if your artistic purpose is to share your own voice, it can also feel like any criticism or lack of engagement from your audience is a judgement on you, personally. It’s vital to hold onto the courage to be true to yourself and your own artistic point of view, not to take the easy roads of making work that is like others’ or has no emotional basis. In writing this is most apparent in the use of clichés, but I know each discipline has its own clichés of material or aesthetics. In her talk, Zadie Smith says:
With a cliché you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange.
Again, it’s a matter of inner strength, of knowing what is right for you and for your practice. That means not only resisting clichés but also resisting the temptation to become a cliché of your own work. I recently read a lovely account of the creative process of a man who creates perfumes for a living. So many of his thoughts seemed relevant to other crafts, especially this passage on ‘style’ which also rather handily touches on doubt:
Having worked hard to define a style for my compositions, a way of writing perfume, I know that there is a danger of being overly faithful to myself. Repetition leads to caricature, stagnation and even exhaustion. By restricting myself to one premise I run the risk of no longer being heard or watched with anticipation. Conversely, if I listen too much and am too influenced by trends, I rapidly condemn myself to being part of the ‘contemporary scene’ and losing my individuality. … With the balance of a tight-rope walker, I have to hear without necessarily listening. I may be acutely aware of what I am doing, but I also value doubt, and I nurture it: I know no better aid to the creative process.
The words of other creative people soothe me. They remind me that I am not alone when I question or doubt my creative practice, but most importantly they re-frame ideas I may have already known or they show me new ways of thinking. It’s invaluable to keep looking outwards, to keep engaging with the process of learning about yourself and your own work.
Next week I’m continuing to explore this idea, of learning about our own creative practices through the words of others. I’ll be taking a look at those challenging emotions – Fear and Courage.