Thursday, January 6, 2011

The aftermath of giving up

I was just looking through my old morning pages journal for 2009 to find material for my upcoming FLOW class when I came along this entry, dated August 19- four days after my twenty-fifth birthday. It's pretty amusing. Here it is, unedited.
I'm super jazzed because I just drank a ton of coffee. I guess this week I'm supposed to explore my childhood experiences with creativity. (This was an assignment from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron.)
I remember when I was three, one day I was finger painting and it made me think I wanted to be a fashion designer. I'm not sure how I thought the two were connected, but the thought just occurred to me. (I think I had the idea that I could create patterns for fabric prints via fingerpainting.)
Later, when I was in the second grade or so, I remember we did a project in Art class where we created our own versions of famous paintings. I did a version of the Mona Lisa. It didn't really occur to me to think of it as special, but when the art teacher put all of our drawings out to hang in the hall, all of my friends commented on how good my drawing was. I felt very proud of that. That was the first time I really thought I had any talent for visual art.
For a very long time, all through elementary school and much of middle school, I focused on becoming a creative writer and a musician (playing the viola). Those were the things I thought I was really good at. I know I did dance classes as well but I don't think I thought of them as being a vehicle for creative expression-- I viewed them more as a sport instead.
Writing was probably the most important thing to me back then. I really wanted to become a novelist. In high school, both music and writing totally fell by the wayside as I began to focus more energy on drawing and painting. I don't think I ever made the choice consciously to stop writing, but I did actively decide to stop playing viola.
Now I feel like I probably have little to no facility as a musician or writer, and whatever skill I had in drawing and painting is quickly diminishing. Honestly I dread the thought of attempting to pick any of these pursuits up again. I feel like it would be mostly a waste of time because I think that my growth potential in these areas is really limited.
I guess I am not interested in the idea of continually producing mediocre work and never improving. To be fair, it's not like I have ever made any genuine attempt to improve my writing, so my idea that that pursuit would be futile is largely baseless.
I must admit that it is far more appealing for me to work on dance, where I can really see myself improving and I don't feel so stuck or limited.
I'm not as afraid of mediocrity as I am of stagnation.

This feeling of stagnation and continual mediocrity was the reason I stopped drawing on a regular basis. Despite consistent effort and practice, I never felt I was improving. Over time I grew more and more focused on the technical aspect of drawing-- to be specific, the accurate representation of human anatomy in figure drawing-- and less and less satisfied with my abilities as a technician. Eventually I became so discouraged with my lack of aptitude that I gave up the pursuit. I was twenty-ish when I made that decision.
I have tried several times to start drawing again, because I've started to really miss it, and I feel inspired by different things now as I was then. Unfortunately, drawing makes my neck injury flare up, just as most other crafts do at this point. I can't do it much at all any more.
Pain was the main reason I stopped playing viola as well.

Pain, sickness, frustration, self-doubt and feelings of total failure were all major factors that led me to start writing again. When I started down that path last April, I felt that my health issues were closing off all of my other creative options, including dance, or at least my dream of being a dance professional. Fumbling around in that bleak atmosphere for something creative I could do that wouldn't hurt, I happened upon writing, and by extension, the book.

It's painful to give up. Letting go of something you love is heartbreaking and often terrifying.
However, I believe that in certain situations, it can also be the only way to overcome creative and emotional blocks.

Here's another journal entry, from August 9, 2009.
Prior to finding dance I had spent the last few years feeling incompetent, unaccomplished and unworthy of attention for many years. However, as a small child, I always felt like I was special, talented, and worthy of the recognition of others. For years, as an adolescent, I missed that feeling terribly. Somehow I felt both responsible for its loss, figuring my general slacker attitude was to blame, but also helpless to change due to my inability to cope with my chronic disease, fibromyalgia. I worked hard to become a competent and respected artist, but I never felt like I accomplished that goal.
...Looking back, I remember that I was actually being praised and rewarded and even paid for my artwork, but it didn't seem to matter. Because I was constantly frustrated by my own lack of progress, I never took any of this recognition seriously. I didn't feel good about my work even when other people liked it.

And another, from August 12:
I feel like as long as I keep dancing, I'll still be the same person I am now at my core. I'm afraid that without that anchor I will start to wither emotionally. I am not even talking only about this happening at the twilight of my life-- I'm scared it could happen now if I let it. I think the thing is, at this point I feel like this is my life's work. Were I to stop I would feel like I was giving up and abandoning something crucial to my self.
...I don't know why my emotional attachment to this dance runs so deep. I guess part of it is that I feel like it's the only reason I'm not still totally crippled by my fibromyalgia. But I also know that I have always longed to be really good at something. I'll always feel like that moment is on the horizon with dance, and it's wonderful to always have that to hope for.
...I think my real goal is just to keep trying forever. To never let myself get comfortable or complacent. To always keep pushing myself to do more and do better.

And yet another, from August 13:
Why am I so afraid of giving up?
It makes me feel like a loser. I have the idea in my head that if I give up, I'll never accomplish anything important, thus be a loser. Also, I tend to feel like giving up negates the value of what you've accomplished in the past because the future potential is wasted. Wasted potential is one of the things I fear most.
I know you can't go through life without making decisions which prohibit you from achieving your potential in a certain area, and I accept that to some extent, although that idea still makes me a little upset.
...I think I've felt since I was young that I really could do anything as long as I really tried. This is almost certainly untrue, but I probably hold it as fact anyway. Thus, when I fail, I feel it is an indication not of my lack of ability but rather of my shortcomings as a human being.

So right now some of you are probably thinking "wow, she needs therapy", while others probably see themselves reflected in these words. My point in posting this stuff is not to elicit sympathy, but rather to demonstrate something no one ever told me when I got into the business of doing art, and that is: sometimes it makes sense to give up.

It's hard to know where to get your sense of self-worth from. Some people base it on their social lives, some base it on their work performance, some on their appearance or their participation in an organization or group.
Most of the artists I know tend to base it on their work-- and often, by extension, the commercial success or failure of their work, or the critical feedback they receive about their work, or both.
By last year I had learned that people are fickle and so is the market; you can't use either as an accurate barometer of the value of your work. So, instead, I had decided to associate my self-worth with how much I was progressing as a dancer, and by extension how hard I was working to progress.
The result was not fun, and it was not a good mental working environment. It was impossible for me to fully enjoy working with so much riding on the results. The pathways to creativity were blocked with too much baggage.
The spectre of my physical limitations loomed over everything I did. Instead of being mature about handling my limitiations, respecting my body and avoiding things that caused pain, I pushed myself as hard as I could in an effort to prove that I could overcome (or ignore) my chronic illness.
I'd devised a battle in my head, with me and my dance on one side and the fibromyalgia on the other.
The fibromyalgia won.

I don't imagine that your creative struggles are the same as mine, but still, most of us are at war with ourselves over something, placing one part of ourselves on the side of Good and the other part on the side of Evil. Some of these fights are worthwhile and reasonable (i.e. struggling against addiction) but many, like mine was, are pointless and self-defeating.

Here is my advice for self-flagellating artists like myself:

Give up.
More work is not better work.
There is nothing sacred about working yourself to death.
Your work is not you; your worth is not the worth of your work. You're worth infinitely more than anything you could ever accomplish or produce.
The things you hate about yourself could be fuel for your creative efforts if you learn how to work with them rather than against them.
None of us can do everything. We can't even do everything we're good at.
Don't be afraid to stop doing something, even creative work, when it stops making sense. The work will still be there; time doesn't diminish it.
Get used to asking yourself what makes sense for you and what doesn't; what you need and what you don't.
Look inside and figure out what you need to do and then do that-- and only that. Anything more will just get in the way.
Love yourself for who you'd be if you had to stop working tomorrow.


  1. Thank you for this, Sara. Right words at the right time.

  2. That really resonates with me. I had a really hard time deciding to stop teaching weekly classes, because I put a lot of value on my class attendance as a reflection of my ability as a dancer. As if moving away from Ansuya & Bozenka weren't emotionally crippling enough, my classes were the last thing that I had for calling myself a 'professional' dancer.

    But since I had to choose between being a dancer and taking a real food science position (the reason I left Florida to begin with!), it had to be made.

    Since stopping regular classes, I've felt amazingly free. Not just the time, but also the creativity and inspiration that comes with working on what I want to, when I want to. Or not worry about it if I can't fit things in. Now, I only dance because I love to (with the odd private lesson / workshop / gig on the side).

    Now, balancing that against 'ass-momentum' is the next challenge.

  3. I have recently been learning the same thing. I have always been a perfectionist and have agonized over minute details because to me, performance equaled value. My identity was long based on being good at something. Since I was a child, I was always being praised for being smart and I was always told I would grow up and be a doctor or a lawyer. Instead of motivating me, it was actually more crippling and I always had a fear of failing and disappointing everyone. Failing would mean that I wasn't worth anything since my value only came from performance. Once I identified the error in my thinking, I have been able to do as you say and give up when I need to. Give up the unachievable expectations. It is still a work in progress as it took 27 years for me to get this way, but I am trying to internalize that worth does not come from performance and that I can't be expected to be perfect at anything and that is just fine.