What does it take to count ourselves successful? It’s a hard, sometimes agonizing question to those of us for whom creativity is the central aspect of our lives. For artists, the art school experience most often teaches—wrongly, in my view—that success means finding a gallery, having a show, selling art, eventually making a living off one’s endeavors. And then, of course, we have to ask: What kind of a gallery? Are we content with some hole-in-the-wall? Or do we seek prestige? From there, it is on to considerations such as: Who buys the work? A friend? An unknown? A couple who happens in off the street? Established collectors? Better yet, museums.
Yet how many art school graduates in fact are likely to ever arrive at these criteria? We know all too well that it’s miserably few. And what about those who will never be represented by a gallery? Never have a show? Perhaps never even sell a single art work? Whose day jobs or family commitments threaten to take over their lives and stunt the creative energy they started out with? Are they any the less artists than those whose names, by whatever means—whether by special talent, accident, or sheer guts and persistence—ascend into the stellar spaces that most of us can only dream about?
Let me be honest: I have a stake in this. This is my issue. As a writer, I have achieved a modicum of success. A couple of novels, a memoir, two books of poems, a well regarded monograph, as well as scores of essays and reviews in various, some prestigious publications. By some standards—by those of less-published writers—I’d have to count myself an enviable success. I’ve been lucky to enjoy the support of people I respect, sometimes their praise. My desires and expectations, though, keep insisting that nothing I’ve done so far is quite enough. There’s that recently-completed novel still sitting on the shelf. I haven’t even found an agent for it yet, let alone a publisher. And money? Monica Lewinsky earned far more for a few seedy revelations than I’ll earn in a century of Sundays.
My bet is that the vast majority of creative people live their daily lives in this predicament. For them this is familiar territory. We are taught that, in order to respect ourselves and achieve the respect of others, we must be “professional,” and we feel some inner shame if we don’t perceive ourselves according to that specious standard. Some of us spend a good deal of time moping and groaning about the injustice of it all. Some of us grin and bear it, get a teaching job, get tighter inside over the years, and end up in our sixties, bitter, disappointed in ourselves, and envious of others. Some of us make the best of it, struggle with what talent we believe we have, and settle for less than the fulfillment of our youthful aspirations. And more than a few give up.
So how do we live our lives as creators even as we fail to achieve a collective notion of success? The question has been much on my mind in recent years, as I’ve worked with artists and writers in the midst of dealing with this predicament. I’ve evolved some coping strategies that work for me. These do not work all the time, and certainly not when I allow my vigilance to slip. That’s when the negative voices take over. The voices of bitterness and envy. The voice of the “editor,” who second-guesses every move I make. The voice of the “critic,” who sees nothing but dreck. But some of the time, at least, they do help. For what they’re worth, I offer them for consideration by anyone to whom this particular agony sounds familiar.
First, and perhaps most importantly, I try to be clear about my intentions and my sense of mission, and to revisit them periodically to be sure that I’m on track. The mission is a big one. I understand it to be no less than the reason for which I was granted this particular span of time on earth: What did I come here to do? It’s the one that puts everything else in perspective. If I get that straight, a lot of other things fall into place.
One part of the mission is the goal, the dream that may seem unattainable: to mediate harmony in the world, let’s say, as one example. The other part is the method. For an artist, this might have to do with individual creation: making artworks that clearly reflect my vision, for example. Finding the mission is a first step toward clarity and a sense of purpose. Once that is in place, intentions help to create short-term goals along this larger path, and to measure our progress along the way. Intention, as I see it, is a kind of focus, a way of paying concentrated attention to my work.
A next step for me is to detach myself from outcomes. No matter what my intentions, I might not get the result I was expecting or hoping for. This notion is borrowed from the Buddhist dharma, in which we learn that all attachment leads to suffering. If I make my painting attached to the outcome that it should be shown in a gallery, for example, or sell for a million dollars, the process of its making will already be tainted. If I write my novel attached to my shabby need for fame, I will indubitably suffer sorely when the novel is not published, or is dismissed by a reviewer. To detach myself from outcomes, then, is to open myself to the flow of spontaneous thought and action, and to involve myself healthily in the process rather than the product.
Important, too, is the need to keep pushing forward with the inner work, from which it all proceeds. Just showing up at the studio is half the battle, but showing up counts for nothing if I don’t bring with me the stuff I need to work with. Inner work can take a variety of forms. For myself, the most useful happens to be meditation. For others, it might be psychotherapy, discussion groups, or workshops. But whatever form it takes, it will involve going down inside to the places we might not normally want to visit, where our ingrained patterns of behavior and belief lurk in the shadows, manipulating our lives without our knowledge or consent. The more light we can bring to illuminate these shadows, I believe, the greater freedom we attain as artists and as human beings. This, to my mind, is the stuff of all creative work.
It is in one of these dark places that we store the conceit of the ego that somehow validates us as creative individuals. We have much vested in the sense of self that we create, project to others, and like to see reflected back to us from them. And yet—this is a very hard one—another part of the work I’m offering is precisely the letting go of ego. I’ve come to understand how much “Peter Clothier” stands in the way of my achieving the very success I’m striving for. He has, as I see it, so much baggage to carry around, to prove his identity and his worth, that he easily gets bogged down in the myth of who he is, or who he’d like to be, and loses sight of his infinite potential. To the degree that I can free myself of ego, I can pursue what is truest to me.
And finally, a way I’ve found to live my life more happily as a writer is a simple one: to keep talking. In the past few years, I have facilitated a number of different groups and am constantly amazed and awed by their powerful and empowering dynamic. In Buddhist thought, the “sangha,” or community, is seen as one of the three great refuges, where a person finds comfort from the vicissitudes of the world in the company of like-minded people. Meeting on a regular basis with a group of artists or writers to explore such issues as the ones outlined above can provide a forum in which we talk out whatever has come to challenge us at this moment; and, listening to others, find common ground with them. For me, talking is the important counterpoint to the silence of inner work, leading me into insights and inspirations even as it offers the comfort of not being alone.
In short, it takes constant work and vigilant attention to be an artist. It’s easy, by contrast, in a world which often seems alien or insensitive to our talent, to feel insulted and excluded by “the art world,” and to end up feeling mightily sorry for ourselves. I catch myself doing this all too often. The trick, at such moments, is to see self-pity clearly for what it is, to acknowledge the truth of the feeling without self-judgment, and allow it to pass on, as feelings do. For me, in time, it never fails to dissipate, and leaves room, in its place, for the genuine pleasure of a little gratitude.