I'm Not A Terrible Person!


So it's been a little over a year since I wrote my Whiplash post, and I wanted to continue the conversation with an update about some things I realized about myself. As much as I love those hard-ass teachers, I've found that when I teach or coach my creativity clients, I'm not quite like that. I think (I hope) I tell it like it is and am not afraid to push or say the hard thing, but I've discovered that I'm naturally nurturing. THIS IS HUGELY SURPRISING TO ME. As I said in the original post, I’ve always had a deep passion for encouraging artists, especially hurting artists and those on the brink of really going for it. I’m also super interested in working with people who honestly don’t know if they’re artists and they need someone to help them process it all. Reaching out to artists in need and doing my own writing go hand in hand as my vocation. I found that, despite loving those mean teachers, I catch myself gently pushing those in my tribe (as opposed to kicking them in the face) who are talented but don't believe in themselves. Surprisingly, I don’t act as though I’m taking cues from a Marine drill sergeant. So while the tough teachers work best for me, it doesn’t work for me as a teacher or motivator or mentor—unless I’m working with someone like myself who is looking for some serious ass whupping.

It kills me to see talent wasted, to see lives that seem, from the outside, to be a breeding ground of regret, dissatisfaction, and sorrow. There are few things that break my heart more than an artist who doesn't give herself the permission to create, an artist who believes the lies of society that says pursuing your creative passion is not a legitimate lifestyle. I've spent my entire life--no joke, my entire life--doggedly pursuing my love of art and my refusal to buy into the Man's idea of what success is. I've made lots of sacrifices and I'd make every single one of them again if that's what it takes for me to be a writer, to live my life intentionally as an artist. I think about this all the time, about the challenges and joys of living a creative life every single day. There have been dark, DARK days and ones so full of light I could scarcely breathe. And it just hurts me so much to see the brokenness of some of my fellow artists, to know that their dark days are far outnumbering the light ones, where they get to do what they love. We're up against so much, we're so sensitive because you have to be in order to do what we do, and life just loves to beat us down (let's be real, it loves to beat everyone down). And sometimes it seems impossible for them to follow their souls’ calling. Some give up. They don’t let themselves do what lights them up.

It's agonizing to behold.

I'm just starting out my side work as a creative coach, a decision born out of nearly twenty years of puzzling through what it means to be an artist, to live as an artist, to study and train as an artist, and to work as an artist. It's borne out of studying how the greats do it, and encouraging others on this crazy life path. The decision to nurture the creativity of others is also inspired by nearly a decade of bowing at the feet of Julia Cameron, of The Artist’s Way fame, who completely changed my life and gave me the courage to finally call myself a writer. I've been working hard these past few months thinking about the ethos of my coaching and exactly who I want to be working with. My Whiplash post has often come to mind because it has been, in many ways, one of my guiding principles. An essential part of my Artist Statement. But it’s only a part of who I am, both as an artist and a coach.

There is such a need for nurturing and compassion in the field of art instruction and therapy and coaching and mentoring. I recognize that and am happy to see that I naturally give what my people need—at least, I hope I do. I don't put it on and pretend to be sympathetic when I’m really thinking nasty things about them. Relief! I'm not a terrible person! But at the same time, I don’t go all ooey-gooey, let-me-hold-your-hand or say just-do-your-best (I did once, because there was a serious extenuating circumstance). Your father died? Write. You’ve got a long-term illness? Write. You’re going through a divorce? Write. There are very few life situations in which I would advise a writer not to write. Because if you’re really a writer, then getting words on a page—no matter how shitty they are—is what’s actually going to get you through the shit times. When my grandfather died, I was nearly inconsolable. I love the hell out of that man. What got me through was writing his eulogy.

A quick side note here: my husband mentioned to me that sometimes I come across as though I believe a creative person who is not goal-oriented (as in, a writer whose goal is to be published versus a writer who writes simply for herself) is somehow living a small life, an inferior life. There may be the impression that I seem to view a non-goal oriented creative as a kind of failure. I want to be really clear about this: when I get on my soapbox about what makes someone a writer or an artist, and when I advise them to give it their all, I'm not talking to the people who are happy to have a bit of creativity in their life. People who sometimes paint or take a dance class or sketch or write a story. They are creative people who veer toward creative acts. I would call those people creative people. But I wouldn't call them artists (and this is totally my own opinion here). And I don't - I repeat, I don't - think their lives are small or less worthy than those who believe art is an essential part of who they are. Many of us have talents we choose not to explore or proclivities that only go so far. I know many people who enjoy doing artisitc activities as part of their life, but it's a hobby or done for relaxation or spiritual reasons. That's the gift of creativity that we all have and can choose to use or not. I think living the life of an artist is the greatest adventure there can be and I certainly think it's a pretty freaking cool life path, but that's because it's my thing. I find all kinds of jobs and lifestyles fascinating. I also don't think that being particularly goal-oriented is necessary for calling yourself an artist, although those are the artists I most connect with. Artists who work hard and want to get their work out in the world, who are hardcore, are my people. BUT, they are not the only kinds of artists and they are not *better* than other artists, though I clearly have my bias.

I have a really good friend who is, hands down, the best singer I've ever heard in my life. His voice is out of this world. Like, he could be on Broadway tomorrow, if he wanted to be. He took voice lessons as a teen and was in lots of shows in high school and college. He even had a stint in college as a vocal performance major. But, he decided ultimately that pursuing a career in the arts wasn't for him. His priority is his family, the job he loves, his faith. He's very active in the community, helping to vocally direct shows at the local high school and leading worship services at his church. He doesnt want the big city, uphill battle of a Broadway actor. It would have taken the joy out of singing for him. He's an artist, period. You can't think of him and not think of singing. It's a huge part of his identity. It's a gift he uses daily (I wonder how many people have heard him belting along to Hamilton on his ride home from work). Just because he doesn't want to be famous or get his paycheck doing his art doesn't mean he's not an artist. He's literally the most talented person I know.

Another few things I want to add. First, I haven't really talked about the sleeper artists. There are some people out there who are wildly talented, but choose--either on purpose or subconsciously--not to pursue a life in the arts. My friend I talked about above isn't a sleper artist. Everyone knows he sings. Sleeper artists are people who are secretly artistic, so much so that even those closest to them might not be aware of their talents. Sometimes someone is a sleper artist because they're struggling with fear: they've been told that being an artist isn't a good life choice, or they don't believe in their own self-worth and talent, or they're absolutely terrified of ending up homeless and stark raving mad. Sometimes they're sleeper artists because other things are more important to them, or life is just too hard: single moms come to mind. They just don't think they are allowed to make time for art in their lives. Or they think they don't have time. These people are artists--they just don't know it. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to say, hey, you've really got a gift. Talent is something that needs to be nurtured and affirmed--it's how most of us who are card-carrying artists ever came to be that way. Most people don't wake up one day and feel empowered to make art. They need people from when they are a young age encouraging their creativity, praising their efforts, applauding. They need to win second-grade art contests and have their story in the school newspaper and get an A on a photo in photography class. There are so many little things--and so many people--that go into the making of an artist. Maybe you're a sleeper artist. Maybe it's time to wake up.

Also, and I think I said this at one point earlier in the Whiplash repsonse post, but I don't equate time you spend making your art with your identity as an artist, although, again, if you never work on your art or do it, then you probably aren't an artist. Again, my singer friend. It's not like he's in a room for four hours a day doing vocal exercises. But he sings ALL the time. He's always lisening to music, playing music, thinking musically. It's just an integral part of his day. So if you only have time to write for half an hour a day, but you're always jotting down little notes to yourself and thinking about your story and reading and all that, then don't sweat it. It probably goes without saying, but who the fuck am I to tell you that you are or aren't an artist? Own your shit. Prove me wrong.

I have seriously gone on a tangent here. The whole point of adding onto my Whiplash post was to say that that while I stand behind everything I said in the post, I've found that I myself am not like the teacher in the film, although I bet I could get closer to that with the right student, with someone like me, who says, Girl, give it to me straight. And I will delightedly, joyfully, tell you that you suck but you won't always, so keep sitting in that chair and writing. But I will also love the hell out of you and do everything I can to help you be the artist you want to be and live the creative life you want to live--if that's what you want.

I thought this update was in order because I realized that I might seem to be totally contradicting myself. How can the Heather who writes gentle, encouraging emails to her friends and students and clients be the same Heather who's like, Fuck you, you're not an artist? I’m learning to just accept that I am both of those people. I can both admire the Whiplash teacher and adore Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Cameron, both of whom nurture the hell out of their readers. If I come across as superior, please know that I don't feel that way. I am proud to be an artist, yes. But I don't think I'm better than you if you're not. The spirit in which I do any of this writing is to inspire. Sometimes that comes out as sweet and uplifting and other times it's more a kick in the pants. I don't want to be wishy-washy, not with something this important. Sometimes I think there's far too much of that when we talk about creativity and it leads to artists who have no clue how to come into their own.

You also might be wondering why I insist on dealing with the thorny issue of art and artists at all. Like, why bother? Can't we call ourselves what we want to call ourselves? Isn't this an era of completely being who you say you are, despite appearances or assumptrions? Isn't it intellectually weak of me to try to pin something so subjective down? Perhaps. But, you see, I have all these FEELIINGS. And because I'm in a position where people seek me out for advice about their path as an artist, I really want to get to the heart at what I think about all this.

Finally, and this is maybe the most important part of the whole post: if you want to be an artist you can start being one RIGHT NOW. No one can stop you if it's what you want. Paulo Cohelo didn't choose to really go for it with writing until he was forty years old. It is never, never, NEVER too late. And don't listen to anyone who tells you it is. Go pick up that pen, that paint brush, that sheet of music. Say yes.


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