Not Good Enough?

November 10, 2013

by Deborah Atherton



Most people I know in the midst of a creative (or in fact almost any kind of) project pause at some moment, whether they have just started or are almost done, to tell themselves, “It’s not good enough.” Sometimes they keep this to themselves, and sometimes they immediately post it on Facebook. (I’ve noticed a lot of posts this month especially, since we’re in the midst of NaNoWriMo.)

Of course, sometimes it’s true—you’ve tried your hardest, and it really isn’t good enough. You started too soon or too late, or with an incomplete vision, and the essential idea, the thing that inspired you, has somehow been lost. But more often, it’s not about your novel or sketch or film or song or poem at all; it’s about the impossible and elusive standard we set ourselves—the standard we can never, ever meet, but one that somehow that guy we once encountered in college or at a party or on Twitter has not only met and surpassed—and has subsequently been rewarded with a bestseller or an Oscar nomination or at least an invitation to a much cooler party.

We won’t go too much into the many evils of social comparison—how we make ourselves unhappy by comparing our lives to those of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues—we all do it, and we all suffer for it. But the question is, how do we know, when we take that moment to examine and ask ourselves—is it good enough—whether we are using our own actual best judgment, or asking ourselves from the depths of our fear of never ever making something good enough—or even as good as what we’ve done before?

Our best bet, I think, is to take ourselves out of the moment, and examine what exactly sparked it. Was it really the way we captured the light, or worded a phrase—or was it that review of our acquaintance’s work that just popped up in our newsfeed or, even more shattering, a casual comment from a passing friend or relative? Are we actually having a dialog with our work or with our own sense—or someone else’s sense—of exactly where we ought to be in our lives right now?

Because really, the only voice in the room should be yours—unless of course your work is talking to you, and we always want to listen to what our work has to say. If your work is begging to be re-booted and re-vamped, then go to it. But if it’s really that everyone else seems to be getting deals and awards and reviews—kick them all out. Because how can they know? Only you had the idea, and only you can see it through.

Photo courtesy of daverugby33 at Flickr via Creative Commons license


Decluttering Your Mind

July 9, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

There are some creative people who live and work in pristine environments,
who can maintain a space where there is a place for everything and everything is in that place.  They function beautifully in these spaces, and sometimes even thoughtfully raise a bonsai tree or two.

I am not one of those people.  

I live in a space that is full of my family furniture and four generations of books, photographs, art work and random Tibetan prayer shawls.  I have my great-grandmother’s tea table, my grandmother’s theater playbills, my mother’s seashell collection, my father’s backgammon set, and the next generation’s collection of comic books and manga, not to mention the entire family genealogical archives in my walk-in closet.

Recently, I participated in a decluttering workshop run by the wonderful lifecoach Sallie Felton, based on her new book, If I’m So Smart, Why Can’t I Get Rid of This Clutter?  I thought I was in it to get the books and files off the floor in my office/bedroom but as it turned out, Sallie, who has a genius for this stuff, addresses not just physical clutter, but emotional and mental clutter.  And in the process of going through her exercises (which I recommend highly to all of you!), I realized that the clutter that was bothering me most was not the physical clutter around me (although that may well be what is bothering my family and friends most) but the clutter inside my head and my computer: the books and stories and songs that were completed, or one intensive edit away from being completed, but not out circulating in the world where they should be.

We all have reasons for not sending stuff out: it’s not perfect yet, or we don’t have time, or it maybe got rejected once or twice and we don’t want to experience any more rejection.  But until I took this workshop, I hadn’t fully realized I had TWO FINISHED BOOKS sitting idly on my computer.

One of them was a collaboration with my sister, friend, and collaborator, Susan.  We had finished it in the last century, but two rejections, and moves, caretaking, and deaths in the family had led us to put it on the back burner.  I called her in the midst of my decluttering effort and suggested we pick it up again, and publish it, by any means necessary.  We are now in the midst of the required intensive edit, and are going to get it out the door and make it stay out there, no matter how much it pleads to come back in.

Another is my literary novel, which grew out of my “dating stories,” and captures a certain kind of New York social life in the first decade of the 21st century (you see I was moving along.) I sent that out exactly once before it ended up back in my computer. And out the door it will now go this fall, after a less-intensive edit, before another century has passed.

We talk a lot about rejection on this blog, and I thought I was at least mostly over it, and in terms sending out my short stories, maybe I am.  But apparently the novels are another story, and one I somehow shut out of my mind and pushed to the bottom of the pile.  With Sallie’s help and encouragement, I am on it.

And, you will now ask, how about those piles of books on the floor?

Well, some of them have gotten into boxes, but apparently, I am not yet ready to clear the decks and bring in the bonsai trees.  But that’s okay—there’s obviously another decluttering workshop (or maybe ten) in my future, and another thing Sallie will tell you is that you have to start where you stand, and change is always incremental.  I’ll keep you posted.

Are you your worst naysayer? A Mindfulness mindset can help.

June 18, 2012

by Leslie Zeigler

We  often talk on this blog site about naysayers  –  you know who they are  –  the  people in your life, either from your past or your present,  who are are ever-so-skilled in delivering that  critical message.   The message  that has the power to be worse than a bee sting in its lingering sting.  It may not matter how confident you are about your  creative endeavor –  this message feels like just the opposite of an encouraging  comment.  It can make you doubt your own talents and abilities.  The person  may even think they are being  helpful  by saying:  “Perhaps you are wasting your time trying to write.  You must know you will never win a Pulitzer.”

Another form this naysaying might take  can be silence about anything you do that is creative –  a complete absence of comment, as if these people had selective amnesia when it comes to your creativity.  Sometimes this type of naysayer style can hurt even more than the overtly negative comment.

But what about the naysayer inside of you? Are you aware that you might be your own worst  naysayer  – the one who has the greatest power to stop you from pursuing your creative dream?  It can occur in a very subtle way  –  a brief occasional   internal message  that you may barely notice, like  “Are you sure you write well enough to keep working on that short story?”   Or perhaps you tell yourself you are wasting your money on those  workshops you are taking  to become  a better writer or classes to become a better painter, photographer,  actor, etc, etc., etc.  Or maybe it is not subtle at all –  maybe it a a loud, repetitive,  internal voice that says  you are really a fraud,  you really should just stop whatever passion you are directing towards your creativity and give up and focus your energy on anything else but being creative.

So what can you do?  First of all, understand that you cannot easily get rid of   this kind of  internal message.  Just trying to order it to stop it does not usually work.  It is rare to meet someone who does not struggle to some degree (the operative words) with self-doubt and harsh self-critical messages.

But there are things you can do.  The first step is to become your own detective of your internal naysayer  messages.  As you do this, begin  to raise your awareness  that the message is negative and just that – an  internal message –  not a fact.

In the book  The Mindful Way through Anxiety, by  Susan M. Orsillo, PhD,  Lizabeth Roemer, PhD, the authors say “The human mind is like a movie theater that never closes -always prepared to show films of what we fear.”

This is a beginning step to take in using mindfulness as  a way to help cope  better  with these understandably upsetting messages.  In my next blog post I will describe Step 2 in using mindfulness.

The Creativity Blockers

April 6, 2012

You know them. You probably live and work among them. 

If you say to one of them, “My photograph just won an award!” Or, “My poem just got published!” Or, “My film just got accepted into a festival!” they may manage a “How nice.” More likely, their eyes will glaze overand they will start telling you about what THEY did last weekend.

Did You Get Much Money for That?

Or they may say to you, (and this is my personal favorite), “Did you get much money for that?” Please notice the “much” here, because no matter what sum, from 0 to 1,000,000, that you received for your hard work, it is clear that it isn’t much at all, in the creativity blocker’s scale of things. Sometimes they offer comments like, “I don’t know why you work so hard on that (painting, blog, musical).” “How many years have you been doing that?” Or better yet, “Do people still do that?”

Are You Famous?

And of course, we’ve all heard this at parties or events: “Should I have heard of you?” “Are you famous?” Once upon a time, I thought it was all innocence and ignorance.  Maybe they really did think that people no longer wrote books, or painted pictures, or (in my case) wrote operas.  Somehow these things were generated from a Great Computer in the Sky, and descended full blown upon us.

But now I realize that it’s not that, or it’s more than that.  Many people aren’t comfortable around poets, or playwrights, or musicians, because even in this age of YouTube and America’s Got Talent, creative efforts are not perceived as something regular people do. And if you are successful at it: if you make a living, or part of a living, at it, you’re even odder.  Somehow, you’re cheating. You’re taking a step away from the way most people live their lives; you’re going into a back room, or out on the street, or even to the bar around the corner with your band, and creating something brand new in the world.  And if there’s one thing people aren’t really comfortable with, it’s change. (There does seem to be a gadget exception to this rule; everyone loves their new cars and smart phones.  I do wonder, however, how much they’d have to say to the person who designed them?)

No Point. No Time. No Good

It’s discouraging.  We’d all like a little acknowledgement for our efforts.  We’d like the people around us to be thrilled with our success, and sympathetic to the disappointments that line the road to any successful creative effort.  We try hard to get them interested in what we’re doing, and sometimes their disinterest seems like a global rejection.  We’re not just hearing “no” from the people who could open doors for us, we’re hearing it from our friends and colleagues and sometimes even our families. “No point.” “No time.” “No good.”

So what do we do?

We find other people to talk to.  We’re lucky, in 2012, that the world is open to us through the Internet. But we can also seek out other people in our communities, even in our workplaces, whose eyes actually spark with interest instead of dulling with dread when we start talking about what we love to do.

And we don’t try and interest people who we terrify with our love of what we do.  The more you succeed, the more you keep going, the less happy they will be.  The jabs and disinterest might turn to something more hostile.  Ever notice how fast people turn on performers who don’t meet their expectations?  (Just try a half hour of any celebrity reality TV show.)  Deep down, they may not feel really normal people are out there acting and singing and making movies and games.

Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends

We get pretty good at insulating ourselves within circles of friends and fellow creative people as we get older, and find ways to hold some of this at bay. But for those striving to create something in a hostile culture or community or family situation, this can a life-long problem.  And the best solution is finding the people who will support you, even if they are 8,000 miles away and can only IM you at midnight.  Creative people do their best when they can ignore (or go around) the blockers, keep working on their projects,  and get a little help from their friends.

Many thanks to Eric Ember, the Intuitive Edge Photographer in Residence, for his portrait of  Sam suspiciously eyeing Murray, the Intuitive Edge Creative Cat in Residence. And thanks also to Claudia Carlson for the idea.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Almost) Love Reviews

June 14, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Once upon a time, in my ever-more-distant youth, I longed for reviews. Reviews meant someone out there had noticed that you existed. And at that time of my life, I also loved reviewing things, and saying exactly what I thought about them, in the most clever way I could. I particularly liked it when authors wrote back, explaining why I DIDN’T GET IT, giving me the opportunity for a second go round. And sometimes, I admit, even when I review things as a grownup (or as grownup as I am likely to get) the old impulse to be snarky overcomes me, and I write down something I know I really shouldn’t.

These days, I’m less excited by getting reviews. Bad reviews remain disappointing, and good reviews still inspire some elation, but I’m far enough down the road to realize it probably doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference in the long run. Yes, in this day of the Internet, everything you have ever written, and everything anybody has written about you, remains ever-present. But the truth is, nobody much cares. (Unless of course, you are the producer of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, when presumably whomever provided the much vaunted $65 million dollars wants some return on their investment other than media indignation over the mounting body count.) But I’ve had bad reviews, and I’ve had good reviews, and I’ve had no reviews – I’m beginning to sound like a Sondheim character – and I’m still here. I’m not famous; I’m not infamous. I’m a mid-career artist with a day job which, while it does not make use of my ability to create rhyming couplets, accomplishes some good in the world.

What the young authors who wrote to me, the even younger reviewer, did not understand at the time was that I didn’t have to get it. I might even have been right in my judgments; it is too long ago to remember exactly what prompted them. What I remember today is the thrill of getting a real letter (because in those days, of course, there was no email) from a real writer. And I try to remind myself, when I read reviews good and bad and indifferent, that it is all communication between creators and audiences, and whether I am on the receiving end, or the judging end, what matters is the excitement in that flicker of acknowledgement. Somebody read my work, or watched my work, and whether they liked it or not, they thought a little bit about it and wrote something down in response. And that, in the end, is what it is all about.

And all that being said, if you’d like to read one of my recent reviews (and yes, of course, it is one I liked!) check out:  New History Operas on the Way: Monsters and Wars.

Real Artists

February 24, 2011
by Deborah Atherton
If I were a real artist. . .
  • I wouldn’t have to sit behind this desk and stare at spreadsheets all day.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand behind the information counter at the bookstore and direct mothers with screaming toddlers to the ladies room.
  • I wouldn’t have to go over the wine list with this idiot ordering roast beef who doesn’t know a burgundy from a bordeaux, anyway.
  • I wouldn’t have to stand up in front of this blackboard and forget what I was going to write next, because Joe in the second row just jammed his Transformer into Jill’s ear.
I wouldn’t have to. . .
Well, that’s the fantasy anyway.
But most of us do have to add up numbers, or hand out information, or serve customers who don’t know one red from another but pretend they do, or teach students who would much rather be playing Mario Conquers the Universe.  A few of us manage to be full-time artists all the time; some of us manage it for years at a time, then have to go back and pick up a day gig.  Most of us are full-time artists in our heart, but by day (or night) spend 6 or 7 or 8 or more hours doing something else for somebody else.  And even if we’ve managed to find jobs that engage (or semi-engage) us, in our hearts we are somewhere else.  In our hearts, we are sitting in our studios painting or performing, or with our laptop in Starbucks, or on the streets shooting a film.
So are we still real artists, even though we can’t do our art all the time?
Who decides? Who determines? Who rules on who is “real” or not?
Well, you’ve got two options here.  You can ask everyone you know – or who knows your work – what they think.  You could include former teachers and mentors, relatives, critics, neighbors, friends, colleagues, and random people at parties. This could be quite a substantial survey group, although probably not statistically viable.
Or you could just decide yourself.
Personally, I have to revisit this decision on a regular basis, because I am always trying to talk myself out of it.  And it’s not only because I have a day job. “If you were a real artist,” I tell myself, “you wouldn’t have to do the laundry.”
I am not sure who does the laundry of real artists, in my mind.  Apparently, in my idealized version, real artists do nothing at all but their art.  Presumably they have legions of servants who make their beds, and go to the dry cleaners, and serve them fabulous organic dinners every night.  It sounds like a nice gig, being a real artist. Kind of like being a movie star. Or one of those guys at Goldman Sachs who get the 50 million dollar bonuses.

Of course, I know many full-time artists: writers, composers, actors, painters, musicians, ballet dancers, and the odd video artist. Most of them have to go pick up their own dry cleaning, and not one of them has a personal chef.  So my picture of the burden-free life is completely made up by me (although I’m hoping a few of you out there share this fantasy, because it would be very sad if it really were just me).  But wouldn’t it be nice? Kind of like living forever in an arts colony, always supported, and with someone else serving you dinner every night.

However out of touch with the real world it may be, I think we have to honor this little screaming artist’s ego inside us that doesn’t want to be bothered with anything WHATSOEVER except our art.  It doesn’t want to pick up the children, it doesn’t want to cook dinner, it doesn’t want to pay the bills or kowtow to the boss or paying customers.  It just wants to paint or write or draw or dance or direct. We can’t let it rule our lives, because as human beings, we have to eat and buy clothes and live under a roof, and most importantly of all, perhaps, live with other human beings.  But however much it may frustrate us, and make us doubt our own commitment and reality, it does prod us to hang in there and keep our eye on the prize.
Because what creative people really live for is the opportunity to create, and next to the joy of pursuing our work, doing the laundry is bound to be a bit of a come down.

It’s Okay to Fail

January 23, 2011

by Leslie Zeigler

In light of the fact that today is the first day of the new year,  I wanted to blog about something that would be both inspiring and supportive to anyone who is yearning to be creative but afraid or for someone who is afraid to go to the next level in their creative process. I decided to be counterintuitive.  I listen so often to many people who report that what stops them from bringing their creative dream out of hiding, is somehow related to a fear of failing.  It may not be explicitly stated in that way, but that is what it relates to.

I was actually moved to write about the value of failing after listening to an interview Oprah had with J.K. Rowlings. In that interview, J. K. Rowlings, in a humble and earnest tone of voice, revealed  that it was when she hit rock bottom that she experienced the freedom  that really helped her to begin to write. And we know the rest of the story from there. Now it is not likely that any of us will  achieve the level of creative and commerical success that she did.  But that is not the point.

We live in a culture that dramatically emphasizes product over process. Being creative may never lead to external success or exposure.   But wouldn’t you feel freer to at least try to begin to write a poem, take a photo, ponder an idea for a short story, novel, non-fiction book, sign up for a singing, pottery, or dance class if you could accept that failure is an essential ingredient  of the gig?  And it really doesn’t have   to be so scary.  It does mean that you will have to learn how to strengthen your muscles of resilience and persistence.