Sunday, October 7, 2012

I Have Met the Enemy

When I was in Art School, there was a little red book that was a mandatory reading for all students: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Surprising as it may seem, I never read it. Back then, I didn’t want to waste my time with theory and ideas; I just wanted to paint. One of my girlfriends got a copy of the book, read it and lent it to me. A few months ago, while organizing my book shelves, I found said book. Inside was a receipt from 03/03/95!! (You may remove your calculators and figure out my age now. And for those of you shaking your heads, I promise to return the book soon!)

But aside from an old receipt, I found something else: understanding and enlightenment. Yes, lovely college professors wherever you might be, I finally read the book!

The beauty of this book is that it’s not just for visual artists. It’s also for musicians, writers and anyone who wants to (or has already) dedicated their life to artmaking. Thus, reading this book at this moment of my life couldn’t have been more timely. I’ve replaced the blank canvas for a blank page and my dirty brush for my handy dandy laptop. But the struggle to succeed in art, the self-doubt and the dry spells are still there—the same jewels that are present in all art forms. Isn’t that nice?

Interestingly, all these problems boil down to the same source: FEAR, our biggest enemy. Fear of failing grants us excuses not to write and/or sabotage our own work. This dreadful emotion can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

1. Being too busy 

By mentioning a list of all the activities we must get done every day, we prove that we really have no time to write. But honestly, if we really wanted to do it, we would find the time. (After all, we have done it in the past, right?) But writing means making choices and doing so can lead to failing, which we must avoid at all costs (or so we think).

2. Distraction

We set our work aside and find distractions from the blank page. This can take the form of activities as varied as the artists themselves: internet browsing, computer games, television, sports, visiting with friends, and a big etcetera. Of course, at the end of the day we “punish” ourselves for our distraction by calling ourselves lazy or unmotivated. Soon enough, we get so used to the distractions that the novel we were going to write one day becomes a permanent resident in the back of our minds.

3. Irritation

Irritation ranges from being frustrated with the materials (if you’re a visual artist) to discontent with the quality of writing we see in bookshelves to the heartbreaking process of publication, and everything in between. Anger can sometimes propel artists to create. But at other times it can bring us to a halt (who can concentrate when all you want to do is punch the computer screen?)

4. Questioning our talent

Another common habit is to put ourselves down. (It’s better than letting others do it.) We have a tendency to look at the finished work of others and determine that our own work will never get there, so we assume they must have something we don’t (aka, innate talent). Even worse, we fear we might be “pretending” to make art whereas the others are “the real thing.” According to Bayles and Orland, the idea that “extraordinary people make art” is a myth. (And I agree with them.) Not every artist, musician or writer is a genius (Mozart is an obvious exception) yet art gets made all the time. Books get published, paintings get sold and buildings get made. Pondering about our own talent or lack-thereof is frankly an unproductive exercise and one that will inevitably lead to uncertainty and self-doubt.

5. Perfectionism

One of the things we struggle with as creators is having to reconcile our initial vision of our work with the actual execution. Very often the final version of our piece is different from what we had originally envisioned (which can sometimes be a wonderful thing). But many times we can only look at its flaws and how it didn’t live up to our expectations. Worse yet, when we’re ready to start a new project, we hesitate to do it because we don’t want to “mess it up.” Like Ansel Adams said:

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis.” (Pg. 30)

As artists, we must come to terms with the fact that our imperfection is “necessary” to produce our artwork.

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.” (Pg. 31)

The only way to come close to this coveted “perfection” is to produce more work. The book mentions a case where a ceramics class was divided in two groups. One was supposed to work all semester in achieving “quantity,” the second group had to come up with ONE piece of “quality” to get an A. At the end of the semester, the group who achieved quantity produced better quality than the second group, who had been theorizing about perfection the entire semester.

6. Uncertainty

Creating art requires making decisions (and the more decisions you make, the less choices you’ll have). We might start with what materials to use (if you’re a visual artist) or what POV, genre and length would better serve your novel, to other important considerations such as theme, plot and characters (or subject matter for artists). There is an infinite number of decisions that will shape your piece and make it a reality. But this uncertainty can also lead you to inaction.

Sometimes we can’t imagine that successful artists may have experienced our same doubts, but even that apparently perfect piece was at some point a struggle for its maker. Art & Fear mentions that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace eight times and continued proofreading at the printing press.

“The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse.” (pg. 19)

7. Comparisons

Competition proves positive when it propels us to do our best work, but it can also be devastating if we constantly get the feeling that we lose in comparison to others (be it our peers or established professionals).

According to the book, we should ideally compete with ourselves but not by determining which is our best piece of work, but by understanding the differences and similarities of each one. This understanding will lead us to create an extended body of work where all our pieces (even the “crappy” ones) play a part.

8. Fears about others

How will your work be perceived? Will people understand it? Will they consider it “art” and if so, will they like it?

Many artists need public approval to value their work or themselves, but this is a slippery slope if we consider how subjective taste can be. Like Bayles and Orland say, giving the audience this much power can be dangerous. Artists may find themselves trying to please everyone or compromising their vision of their work in order to “fit.” But not being true to ourselves may lead to unhappiness. Like the book suggests, in the history of art the audience didn’t always “get” what the artist was trying to say. Sometimes it took a whole new generation to grasp new concepts and appreciate them.

In conclusion, understanding that our fears are normal and identifying the particular source of our inaction can help us fight it and move forward. Remember that:

“Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again—and art is all about starting again.” (pg. 10)

I’ll leave you with this final thought:

“You have a choice between giving your work the best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot—and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy.” (pg. 118)

Do you see yourself in any of these behaviors? How do you overcome your fear of failure?


  1. Lorena,

    Good article. This topic doesn't just apply to artists either. I have seen a lot of people fail to reach a goal before they even start for the same reasons that you cite.

    Major H

    1. I concur Major H !!!! Fear is a powerful adversary when followed by inactivity . Great article

    2. "Fear is a powerful adversary when followed by inactivity."

      Well said!

  2. Interesting book. Shame is not mandatory reading for novice writers. Being a certified “quitter”, perhaps I am not the best person to comment on this post, but I quitted fiction writing, not writing altogether.
    I would like to stop in point 6 as I consider it the major cause of fear among new writers. My advice is not to show your work around. In fact, aside from critters and beta readers, nobody should see your MS prior to the query process. Then be very careful in your selection of critique groups and b. readers. Not everyone is qualified to review fiction, especially in the drafting stage.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Malena: I think #6 may be the most damaging source of fear. People do need to be critiqued -- it's essential -- but in most cases, not until their MS is polished as much as the writer herself can polish it. During my last workshop I saw a writer being emotionally destroyed on the spot ... by the instructor herself. She was so frightened to submit her work, and was clearly (to me) only ready for strongly encouraging feedback. I tried: my heart was breaking for her. I could see her hands shaking like crazy. The instructor, cluelessly, went straight to all the mistakes, and was not gentle. The student never did return to class.

      The rub here is: it's difficult to spot your errors on your own. Only so much polishing you can do before you need outside eyes. Again to echo what you said, Malena: be very, very particular about whose eyes see your work.

    2. It´s worse when criticism comes from someone of authority, someone “who knows” like an instructor. Fear #6 also affects those who write non-fiction. After years of having my articles under scrutiny, I live in fear of being misunderstood, of words taken out of context, ect. It makes me sort of defensive. I don´t know where to draw the line when it comes to advise since most of it (even stemming from experts) is so subjective.

    3. I agree that criticism that comes from the wrong source (or even from the "right" one) can be devastating for a writer. But the point of this book is that we should not let that destroy us and our dreams. Take some time off to "recharge", but start again. Everyone has, at some point, received negative criticism, but we shouldn't let the opinion of others dictate our paths.

  3. I had heart palpitations reading this, Lorena -- it felt like you were writing it just to me! But of course, fear is such a common enemy of creativity that probably everyone can resonate with this on some level. Which makes it a perfect blog topic: thank you!

    Although I have not overcome my block yet, I find it really comforting that so many writers, including successful ones, have been in the same boat, and for the same reasons. Knowing you are not alone, that others have faced the same demons and many were able to push on, is a powerful antidote.

    I am reading a biography of Lady Caroline Lamb, most known for her affair with the poet Lord Byron. She was a writer as well, and in 1814 was trying to work up the nerve to submit her novel for critique to fellow novelist Germaine de Staël. At the last minute, after de Staël agreed to look it over, Lady Caroline balked. She wrote to de Staël : "I looked at the novel as you were so good to say you would read it ... I [reread] it with difficulty & found by erasing all that was bad & all that was dull -- and all that was unnecessary that I reduced it to 3 pages -- one if which was borrowed from an old author the other was beautiful but too poetical for the present taste and the 3rd is still at your service & may eventually serve equally for the beginning middle or conclusion of an work whatever whether tragic or comic." She concludes that she "is at least being candid" with herself.

    She went on to publish Glenarvon two years later, so she did overcome her fear! Of course, it helps that she was personal buddies with Byron's own publisher...

    Great post. I will have to check out that book.

    1. Sister Steph, I did think of you and Sister Malena when I was writing this article. It makes me sad that such talented writers as yourselves are so harsh with your own work. (But I trust you guys have only "stopped" and not "quit" ;))

      I have experienced all of these behaviors (in fact, this year I wanted to start a new project and I find myself going from one behavior to the other). Right now it's uncertainty, perfectionism and of course, distraction.

  4. I'd say I struggle with #5 the most. I'm constantly comparing novels I read to the way I write. And it doesn't matter what genre I'm reading. If it's a crime novel, I think, "Wow! Why can't I write a death that descriptively?" or if it's a biography, I think, "Huh. I need to make good use of some of the phrasing the author uses." Sometimes I drive myself crazy.

    I do agree with both Stephanie and Malena when it comes to choosing the right people to read your work. I went through a phase where I had all these people wanting to read my novels, and so I sent them copies. None of them were writers. Do you think they found the time to read me work? No. I received all my copies back, unread. It was very disappointing, but I'm also glad they didn't read the book, because it was not at a good stage. I've recently had a couple friends ask to read another of my books, but I politely say no. When they ask why, I try to explain, but I don't think they get it. I suppose they would understand when they're handed 400 pages of loose leaf printer paper. It's just not the same as a bound book!

    Good post!

    1. I've always been very hesitant to let non-writers and family members read my work, but I've been happily surprised with their insight. It's a very different experience from having writers critique your work, but one that turned out to be very positive for me.

  5. Okay, wow, there is so much wisdom and insight in this post that I had to read it twice. All of these points depicted an artist's struggle SO well. I love the one about perfectionism. Someone once told me that art isn't finished, just abandoned and that theoretically, we could edit our work forever if we really wanted to. Learning the appropriate stopping point is crucial. I book marked this fabulous post!

  6. Lorena, an excellent post. The only good thing that comes out of my anger is I take it out on the housework, lol! Saw a great quote by Margaret Atwood this morning: 'Best writing advice? Finish the book. A lot of people have trouble with that.' Amen.

  7. Uncertainty is a big problem for me, not doubting my ability to finish but trying to decide what to do next. I guess I don't fear failure because I'm not dependent on success, I just write because I want to write a book, so I have to finish the book. Stopping would be failure.

    Wonderful post, I love the sound of this book.

  8. @ Saumya: You are so right. It's necessary to learn when to stop and consider a work finished. I keep going back to my first novel (which already has four complete drafts) and every time I start reading, I find things that I want to change!

    @ Denise: Love Atwood's quote. And yes, anger can be a good energizer for housework (but be careful with those dishes! :))

    @ Charmaine: Uncertainty in the way you describe it is the biggest problem I'm facing right now with my current idea. There are so many directions this book could go and I can't decide (yet) which one would be best. [big sigh]

  9. Thanks, Lorena, for initiating such an interesting discussion, especially regarding showing your Ms to relative and friends. My wife, who is not a fiction reader, has given me good suggestions on points unrelated to the plot, but has been suspicious as to how I could write intimate scenes so realistically, without having actually had the experience. I have a good imagination, and I've read a lot, but I'm not sure this satisfies her. Other relatives have been excluded for now, because of their religious opinions, but if the novel is published they will see it. I do not intend to change it. Two relatives by marriage have been very helpful, one is a professor of languages, and the other an avid fiction reader, (who advised me to read more Nabokov). My 21 yo grandson, also 'into' fiction, has made many useful suggestions. Even if they read your book, friends and relatives won't make critical comments because they don't want to hurt your feelings, or they don't want to encourage you in what they consider a foible, or a lost cause. Regis

  10. Regis,

    Good to hear from you again!

    You've pinpointed the exact problem of showing our writing to family members/friends. They tend to immediately see you (the writer) in your stories and wonder if you've actually have some of the experiences and thoughts your protagonists have. It's hard for them to grasp that you are a separate being from your main character!

    In the case of my first novel, my husband has said he liked my protagonist BECAUSE she reminded him of me (so in my case, it was a positive experience) but many times I find myself self-censoring my writing because I'm afraid my family/friends will be indignant with what I've written. I guess this is something we must overcome if we want to make the best of our novels, right?

    Thanks for stopping by and don't leave us again!

  11. Great post, so inspiring. And I loved the quotes. Um, to overcome it? I might rant about it with my close friends, and then I laugh because I'm being so whiney! lol
    But seriously, good quotes! Thanks!


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