Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Overcoming Artist Block: Shame

When I was in high school, I told my school counselor that I wanted to be an art director. She handed me some pamphlets for technical schools around the city and with pity in her voice, suggested that I should consider nursing or being a mechanic.

I tried not to listen. I took my very first film class at city college and made my very first film project. Looking back, it was the beginning of my experimentation with cinematography and the bud of my love for storytelling. The film I made was a 10 minute clip of a "cat-and-mouse" chase between a spy agent and ninja thief.

Granted it was my first film, the editing was a bit crude,  and I was on a steep learning curve. . .but
I was very proud that I had created something out of nothing. I had created a story out of 8mm tape and a camera. I showed it to my boyfriend at the time.

He laughed. He rewinded the tape and laughed again. The sound from my film was drowned by his laughter. My film wasn't supposed to be funny at all. "You've got a long way to go," he added.

I tried not to listen. My film teacher acknowledged my camera skills. He wanted me to help him with his storyboards for a commercial pitch he was putting together for "famous tv executives." I thought it was my chance to break into the field and learn from someone who was a professional. Then I found out that he was fired from his last studio, had to take up a gig teaching at city college, and was desperate to break in again. He also made a comment about the color of my skirt. Was it my talent and help did he want or was it something else?

I tried not to listen.

Though I kept getting back up, each incidents chiseled at my budding young artist self. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. I was blocked. I hadn't picked up a camera in seven years.

Most artist blocks are grown from toxic shame. As artists we are often shamed into silence. "You think yourself an artist? Don't make me laugh." "Just who do you think you are?!" "How dare you disturb the lineage of doctors, bankers, lawyers, etc in our family?" "How dare you write and paint stories about your own life, think of your parents!" "how dare you make that? (it's awful, lacks substance, it's kitch)" "How dare you make anything at all?" "How dare you make monsters? That's creepy and no one will want it hung in their living room."  "How dare you paint in that weird style when James Jean is what's in." "What will the neighbors say about you going to art school?"

Being artists often means being visible. We are bringing to light stories about ourselves, our cat, our mom, our neighbors, about our country, the state of human beings, the world, things that people don't want to hear. Don't want to see. And being visible scares people. We "draw from our own experience and we draw our experience" (Julia Cameron) and people often don't want to face the truth of what we are projecting in our art. So they try to sweep it under the rug. With a smirk, a scoff, a pity, a laugh, with some under-the-breath words that are painful to feel.

So we hide ourselves. For our own safety, we bundle up our artist self and hide her under the bed until it is safe to come back out. We lock her up and throw away the key for until when we think society will be ready for us. And so we wait.

We wait. The artist self knows the waiting game all too well. Wait until I make that big break, then people will recognize me. They will value me. They will not dare treat me like that again. Wait until my parents accept my art, then I can become an artist. Wait until the kids are old enough, then I can take some classes at city college. Wait till I have more money for a better art equipment, then I can finally tell my grand story. Wait till I polish my skills in secret, so that he may never laugh at me again.

But the problem is, it is no one's job to give us the signal that it is safe now. The power is in our hands. We cannot wait until our mothers, uncles, lovers, teachers or the art world recognize us and allow us to make our art. The signal may never come. Your artist self may be dead by the time we open up the closet again. So it's time to take her out. Give her a big hug. Assure her that she is safe to make art now. She will be protected from nay-sayers. That she has the power, right now, to choose yes to life. Yes to art. She has the power. And she does dare disturb the universe. She dares to make art.

And you can too. Shame can be broken when the experience is brought to light, in full honesty, to supporters, therapists, or artist-friendly people like Monkey + Seal who understand the pain of creating. The doubts and the intimacy of making art needs to continually be nurtured. Take a step forward today, even if it is awkward, even if you've forgotten how to draw, write, knit, make one small commitment to re-awaken your dreams within. It is never too late. And you are not alone. You can do this. You have the power to step forward.