I recently attended a panel of women artists at SDSU’s art museum. They discussed the difficulties in making art, and one of them said something that I found especially encouraging, which I will get to later. I have also recently been reading Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I wanted to write this newsletter entry on the fears of making art because hearing the women artists’ fears made me feel less alone, and I wanted to share the wisdom I heard.
Making art of any kind, including writing poetry, comes with trepidation. This fear stems from a variety of sources. First, when you make art, you might reveal something to yourself that you had not yet come to terms with. You might discover something difficult. This has happened to me multiple times in the last year or so. I have been writing a poem or a creative nonfiction piece about something important to me, and as I write, some words come that I do not expect. Putting the words on paper can sometimes make my situation, emotion, or difficulty more real.
For example, I recently wrote a poem called “The Scan” about a CT scan I got this last February to follow up on last year’s diagnosis. I didn’t anticipate that the scan would show anything growing or changing, but the last time I had a PET/CT scan, a whole slew of medical difficulties and fears followed. While this technology is incredible, it’s always unnerving to have these detailed scans of the body. At the end of my poem, I wanted to land on an image, so I described how I was laying on the table and I ended with “my arms stretched above my head, / wrists touching. A hostage awaiting fate.” This metaphor hit me hard; it felt heavy in my chest because putting these words to the fear solidified it. This metaphor recalled movie scenes where someone is tied up and waiting for their captor to come back. And I couldn’t help but think who is the captor in this situation? Sickness? Death? While I found this surprise difficult, surprises are one of the main reasons I write. Bayles and Orland write “making art is chancy—it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding” (21). I never know where a poem will end until it gets there, and this is both nerve-racking and thrilling.
A second reason poem-making is fearful is that when you go to share said art, you want critics to accept it. I have been submitting more poetry in the last couple of months, and those rejections, while I tell myself that it’s fine and whatever, still kind of sting. And those acceptances feel like the whole world has become kinder and softer around the edges. This process is tough because my poems are so important to me, and I want people who love and write poetry to appreciate them.
Third, you want your work to be accepted and enjoyed by people close to you. I love sharing my work with people in my life, but certain vulnerability exists there. There’s always a fear of someone not liking it or not agreeing with it or just dismissing it outright. I do feel incredibly blessed in this regard; I have supportive family and friends, but I will say that my desire to write acceptable work does sometimes dictate what subjects I breech. And poets often explore religion, politics, personal values, social justice, and anything else important to them. It can be tough to share poems about these topics. Admittedly, sometimes, I step back from a page and wonder if the words represent how I really feel or if the poem just brought me there. This can be when the distinction between the author and the speaker can be especially helpful in stepping back from the work. Most poems I write do not relay how I will feel about that topic always and forever. Sometimes I write in a certain mood or I write from another person’s perspective.
The women artists discussed their fears in art-making. Many of them voiced their lifelong passion for making art, and the economic instability of majoring in art. Those who do pursue their passion take a financial risk. One of the questions that I found most interesting was when the emcee, Jodi Lundgren, asked the artists how they defined success. One woman, an art teacher, said that she discusses this with her students frequently. She tells them that every person must define success for her/himself. Perhaps one person wants to produce in mass quantities and perhaps another person wants to have one showing that year. Thinking of success on our own terms is much more productive than always comparing ourselves to one another. We should all consider other responsibilities in our lives, and define how we want to create.
Here is what I personally found so compelling: another woman said that success is in the process. Success is growing as a person always, when your work is accepted and when your work is rejected. Success is knowing that there’s a million reasons for you to not share your work with the world but to share it anyways, facing this fear. Facing this possibility of rejection is its own kind of success. I found this incredibly empowering. Just putting words on a page, just confronting yourself, just pouring yourself into each image, sound, word, just reading it to one person, just pushing “submit:” these actions are a way of confronting the fear inevitable in art-making.
Photo by Markus Spiske, sourced under a Creative Commons license via Flicker. Post by Jodilyn Andrews.