Last week I wrote this post about why we feel shame as artists. This week we are going to vanquish that shame together!
There’s a lot of shame in what I do for a living.
Everybody else I know who sells antiques (i.e. old crap) seems to feel the same way. We understand each other. We get that visceral excitement of finding something that costs $.50 that we could turn around and sell for $50. We enjoy helping other people find their last bits of yesteryear, we especially love the thrill of the hunt. We are like a modern-day pirates searching the beach for loot. Sometimes, we have to do dark things.
Those dark things include sifting through decades worth of old junk. Sometimes the junk is nasty. Sometimes the junk is common. There are smells.
Still, when we inevitably bring out a prize that is worth more than we paid for and we feel smart. We feel like we did a days work.
If I call myself an “antique dealer” it sounds alright. We are primed as a culture to respect old items because of Antiques Roadshow and Pickers and Pawn Stars. After all, aren’t those people unearthing national treasures?
But rarely do any of us really deal in national treasures. The bulk of what we do is vintage and common. Bakeware from the 1960s, toys from the 1980s, Old crates, old mirrors. If we found George Washington’s wig every single time, you better bet we would get some respect.
But when antique dealers allow people to glimpse their inventory, it can look like junk. While we have the eye for a prize, other people just see a garage sale.
Imagine what this does to the dealer. Suddenly, they are seen as nothing more than a secondhand ferryman. Everything new and shiny is given value and importance in our modern American minds. But the moment something is used, even if it’s only used in the sense that it was purchased, sat on the shelf for 10 years, then donated to a thrift store, it is suddenly without value. Its a cast off.
The overwhelming feedback I get is “I can’t believe other people buy this stuff.”
The message is clear: I don’t value this so why should other people?
Over the years, dealers learn small tricks to keep other people’s shameful words out of their minds. They learn to hide their inventory, they learn to not talk about their latest find. They learn to give no details. They learn to work alone.
Artists do the same thing. Writers do the same thing. It only takes a few eye rolls from a parent, a few dismissive waves of the hand from a friend, to silence you on the subject of your latest project forever.
Other people don’t value this, so why should I?
But how can we overcome this inner feeling of valuelessness and shame?
I have a few practical suggestions.
1 – Mind the Gap
You yearn to be a professional poet, a singer, a writer, but you feel like someone else gets to do that while you are stuck selling insurance or answering costumer service calls about basic cable. In your heart you are the poet, but it hasn’t yet happened in reality. Deep down inside, you feel like a fraud. A sham.
One answer is that you aren’t a professional yet. You aren’t doing the things it takes to become one. In other words, you don’t see the gap between you and Hemingway, Angelou, Spielberg.
The gap is the difference between what you do now and what the professionals of the industry do now.
It is a wide gap.
Most people are gap-blind. We edit what we see to suit our fragile little egos. If we meet someone who has won contests and praises for their art, we rationalize that its a “flash in the pan compared to what I’m going to do.” Meanwhile, we wheedle away at our art with excruciating slowness. We rationalize and come up with excuses. We refuse to do what other, more successful artists are doing because we are “above that.”
It takes years to see the gap for what it truly is. At first, I hadn’t understood that wanting to do something was certainly not the same as doing it, wanting to be something wasn’t the same as being it. In my mind I was as good as the pros I aspired to become!
A few crushing rejections later and I was still as good as the pros, only I was unlucky, misunderstood . . . even persecuted! The market changed! It was everyone else’s fault!
I still couldn’t see the gap.
I finally saw it—thanks in part to an excellent book called “Turning Pro” by Steven Pressfield. I recommend this book for the gap-blind out there.
At first people are tempted to judge the gap with dollar signs. They say “Well, Spielberg makes a ton of cash as a director and he doesn’t have to sell pest control door to door! I should quit my job and start directing! That will close the gap!”
Or they will see it in human accolades:
“Other people LOVE Spielberg’s movies. I just need to get people to love mine and then I will close the gap!”
But the gap isn’t made up of things you can’t control. Money, adoration, sponsorships, awards and accolades are the prize you may be after, but those aren’t within your control. For every Brad Pitt, there are a thousand Ryan Reynolds—guys that just never quite crack the top tier. Luck plays its part.
But Ryan Reynolds is an actor. Go look him up on IMDB. I can prove he’s an actor because I see movies he has acted in. He has gone to auditions, put himself out there. He has done work that people can see. At Thanksgiving dinner, he can report to his great uncle Harvey that he just finished shooting a film in Australia about Dingo Demons. He’s doing it. In my mind that means there is no gap between him and Brad Pitt. Ryan Reynolds is in the same universe as Pitt. The wannabe actress who lives in Milwaukee and is afraid to try out for the community play: not in the same universe.
Is this too obvious?
I see a lot of writers who don’t write. Ever. Yet, they are going to be the next big thing. I see painters that don’t have portfolios. I see dancers who danced ten years ago in high school but have now let their bodies go. These types of people everywhere. And I am not just talking about beginners. I am talking about those who have twenty years of not being something under their belt.
That feeling of “not being” can induce serious shame.
But what would it take to be?
2 – Have the Stuff
This is another suggestion that seems a bit obvious but has huge implications. Where is the stuff? Do you have stuff?
To me, someone is professional if they have work to show for it. And not just a few things, a whole heck of a lot of work. If you want to be an illustrator, do you have a Deviant Art account? Instagram? Pinterest? Are those accounts filled to the guts with your awesome illustrations? Why not? Do you have a website? A portfolio? How about a studio filled with techno-drawing pads and fancy non-photo blue pencils?
Where’s the stuff?
Imagine someone tells you they are a passionate horse breeder, but they live in downtown LA in a two bedroom apartment and they haven’t ridden a horse in eight years. Would you giggle a little?
A breeder needs a horse—well, two of them, ideally. He also needs things that make horses comfortable like a place in the country, a stable, etc.
Otherwise, that breeder is going to feel slightly ashamed when you or I arrive at the dinner party asking about how many foals he bred last year.
Having “the stuff” isn’t the same as going out and buying a bunch of junk at the art store and then letting it sit there. We are all familiar with the haunting image of the basement treadmill that sits folded up next to the chip-eating family of four on the couch. The stuff has to be collected over the years. It has to be bad sometimes, because you are trying to make it good. It has to be visible! You have to be able to point to it and say “Hey! Look at this thing I did, not once, but ALL the time!” You must be able to show others in reality. Not just tell them about it!
Which brings me to my last point.
3 – Be Visible!
You are what you repeatedly do. Moreover, you are what others repeatedly see you do. Shame hides in the dark. If you want to feel less shame about your art, you need to get into the light. People need to see your work! If your work is hard to see, you have to make it as visible as possible. And when you make it visible, make it pretty!
If you are a writer, hire an illustrator to draw a cover and frame it in a prominent place. If you do podcasts, have your logo printed and place it above your corner recording studio. Send links to people. Tell the world!
I like to keep my coolest pieces of inventory in my house, where visitors can admire them. I like to tell others about them and share their stories.
Being visible allows you to own what you are. It shows others that this art thing you are doing isn’t going to go away. People can respect that. But little secret novels in little hidden drawers? Those are hard to care about, let alone respect.
Being visible also means that you have the chance to get rejected. This can be painful, but stick around this blog long enough and I will share with you my bullet-proof method of handling rejection in a way that makes you that much stronger.
If you are no good at being visible (for years, I wasn’t!) then practice becoming visible. Put in the work every day to build that visibility. Level up sometimes by taking huge leaps. If no one knows about your art, no one can care.
Taking the three above steps is a huge step in the process of becoming. Becoming can lead to beautiful things. Clear out the shame in your soul and let those beautiful things in!
Have you sliced up shame? Made your work visible? Share your story in the comments below!
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