You can’t plan for brilliance. You can daydream about it, angst over it, aim for it, and still it can elude you. Every artist sets impossible standards for themselves, hoping to achieve that vision in their heads that includes everything from a vast body of brilliant work to performing on Letterman or sitting with Charlie Rose to discuss your art.
But if Hope is the thing with feathers (thank you Emily Dickinson), then Fear is the tar it gets stuck in.
Fear stands in the doorway, brandishing doubt and anxiety, and it slays many artists. We all want to be brilliant, and we’re so afraid we’re not.
And so Fear keeps you from picking up your brush, or sitting before a keyboard, or scratching out some notes on a pad. At least that way you won’t fail. And what would failure be measured as? Probably not meeting that elusive brilliance you’re trying to capture.
Fear is a completely anticipatory reaction to something that has not happened yet—like your art. You’ve heard of the fight or flight response, and here it is in the art world. Which will you choose? Too often, people choose the latter, which is why there are so few artists and so many aspiring artists. Each day you face Fear again, and have that same option of turning away or standing up to it. And when you finally do reach right through it to pick up your instrument, you’ll be surprised how quickly Fear just dissipates.
My sister, Nancy Monson (author of Craft to Heal), introduced me to a wonderful book called “Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking,” by David Bayles and Ted Orland that delves further into the dark arena where we all fight our creative demons. It’s well worth having on your shelves to refer to when things stay black for too long.
In Zen terms, it’s called “letting go of outcomes.” You take your eyes off of the horizon of fame, fortune, and adoration, and turn them to the task. Now that you no longer care whether you produce something brilliant, just that you produce something, you become creatively free to go wherever your instincts take you. It’s not your job to prejudge your work even before you start—and once you’re finished, there will be plenty of other people willing to judge you. Your decisions become very simple: what comes next, and then next after that?
In 1983, Madonna was just a badly-dressed girl who couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, and had dark bushy eyebrows.
She had one thing working for her. She was willing to go out and do what she could do, and she knew she had something interesting, even if nobody else did. She auditioned for the TV series, FAME, and didn’t get it. She didn’t get a lot of things. But she performed in clubs in New York and gradually made a name for herself locally.
To say she was fearless is probably doing her a disservice. My guess is she was terrified at times—but to her credit, Madonna kept at it. The bad singing, the bad dancing, the bad outfits.
And two things happened: 1) she got better (see “Express Yourself”), and 2) people started to like her particular “Madonna” brand. And as she continued down her path, exuding large volumes of Madonna, she also racked up a number of songs and performances that could be considered “brilliant.”
My personal favorite is “This Used to be My Playground,” from the movie, A League of Their Own (one of the few films where she gave a very good performance).
So Madonna has sung and danced badly, and she has acted badly, and she may be directing badly in her newest endeavors. But she keeps going and eventually, she does something right, something brilliant even. And most people would admit she has also produced a body of work that anyone would be proud of—all while doing a lot of things badly. Brilliance only comes when you venture far enough into the darkness of creativity to stumble onto something others haven’t gone far enough to see. It’s that light momentarily illuminating the sky above you that helps you see something unseen before. And one day you may catch a spark of it your artwork.
But, you say, what if I fail? Hopefully, you will, over and over again.
As FDR said in 1933 in his first State of the Union speech to a terrified nation in the throes of The GREAT Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Emily Dickenson, 1830-1886
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