Teaching by Personal Example

It takes a brave soul to educate others by revealing your own shortcomings. That is the admirable approach taken by creativity expert Douglas Eby in his new book Developing Multiple Talents, a comprehensive overview of many perspectives on creativity, from scientists to creatives themselves. The book’s title is an area of fascination with me, and I was flattered that in the book Eby cited one of my blog posts on the subject, “Creatives with Multiple Talents.”

Anyone who has spent much time researching creativity online has likely come across Eby’s writings. He’s the man behind a site filled with information and profiles of creatives, Talent Development Resources, and he shares resources on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been reading Eby’s works for some time now, as my fascination with creativity is surpassed perhaps only by him, and a few others we both like to cite, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eric Maisel.

This is the parking lot of the Hormel Spam Museum, taken on my cross-country road trip interviewing creatives. Those spaces are empty, a reflection of my resistance to spamming readers with my own story.

I find Eby’s writing style to be direct and informative, but I’m not used to him sharing himself in his writings. The insertion of a personal narrative is a pretty common approach for a lot of writers on creativity, however. The iconic works of Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) and Anne Lamott (bird by bird) are as much memoirs as instruction manuals. Interestingly enough, Eby in his introduction insists his book “is not designed as a how-to or self-help book, so much as an overview of some of the key aspects of our personality and inner life that can affect how we understand, access and express our different creative talents — and be able to do much more than one thing.” But in fact there is plenty in his book that one could make use of in living a more creative life.

Eby is subtle in his inclusion of his own story. Cameron, for example, devotes pages on telling the story of her struggles with her marriage and her career. Eby, by contrast, teases us with brief insights. We learn he began Talent Development Resources after asking himself some pretty significant questions, such as “Why haven’t I ever ‘settled down’ into a specific career?” and “Why have I been so self-critical?” As for the former question, I too have held an odd assortment of jobs, but perhaps none as unusual as his stint as a glue tester. As for the latter question, I think Eby is sharing a question all of us who strive to live creatively ask ourselves.

If I am honest with myself, I must admit that my passion for the study of creativity stems from my own insecurities about my own creativity. Eby’s passion comes from the same source. Where I am not like Eby (yet) is my ability to share my own weaknesses. Eby shares that he is “vulnerable to dark moods like depression and anxiety.” When quoting actor Edward Norton on creativity as a compulsion, Eby shares “[f]or all too many years, I have been self-critical about focusing on creative interests instead of, for example, socializing.” When explaining how we often assume only geniuses can be truly creative, he says “I have often felt held back in writing, such as this book, by self-limiting ideas related to how I identify myself and my writing talents.”

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am on a newly dedicated path to an art-committed life. They also know one of my biggest challenges on that path is learning how to share my vulnerabilities and my struggles. I’m a journalist by training,and keep myself out of the stories I tell. If you watch the video interviews I’ve conducted with artists, I am never seen nor heard.

Eby’s book was written to inspire other creatives, but he inspired me by helping me see my own study of creativity can help me with my challenge. He writes this: “For most of my life I have struggled with unhealthy self-esteem and high self-criticism–but reading many books on giftedness and creativity, and interviews with talented and accomplished actors, directors, writers and other artists, I have come to realize that I am far from alone.”

I see that now too. Thank you, Douglas.

Do you wrestle with “dark moods” and “high self-criticism”? I invite you to share as well.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

25 Responses to “Teaching by Personal Example”

  1. I have been wrestling with a dark mood ever since I completed my last novel. I am in the query stage right now and I obsessively check my email. I know I should be moving on to the next work, but it’s proving stubborn in revealing itself to me. I have the characters, but the plot is just a vague whisper right now. It’s driving me insane and I keep thinking, “If you would learn to relax, then maybe you could figure it out.” I’m self-critical even when I’m NOT writing. It’s such a vicious cycle. I don’t know exactly how to get out of this current dark mood, which, I suspect, is partly due to finishing the novel and is a sort of grief, if that makes sense…

    • Melissa,
      The idea of grief makes perfect sense to me.
      Do you have another medium that you could use your creativity in for a little while?
      I often find that I need to write after I finish a theatre production (especially when I direct and the show is still running after my job is done).
      Sometimes, painting after I finish a writing project helps me process the transition into the next piece better than a project that uses words.
      And sometimes I am just fallow for a while.
      Kate

    • Melissa, thank you for the courage to share your struggle. Kate has some good advice here. I too find it’s helpful sometimes to completely shift focus; that whisper might just start shouting once you’re no longer straining to hear it.

      Know that the grief you feel is normal, and that there are others out there, like Kate and me, who want the best for you.

  2. I certainly struggle with dark moods, high self-criticism, and the question of how much of my own story to reveal. I’m working on a series of posts right now that I am not sure will ever see the light of day because they feel so revealing.

    • Interesting you say that. I’m working on something right now where I first wrote EVERYTHING down, all the gory details. Then I put it aside. Now I’m writing it anew, and realizing I can share of myself and generate the emotional connection I need with the reader without all of that detail. Writing it down helped me decide what could be excluded. Not sure if that makes sense, but it’s working for me.

  3. Thank you both. :) Means so much to know I’m not alone! I may get out my collaging stuff and have a go at some mixed-medium pieces. Haven’t done that for ages and it’s something I really enjoy. That may get the ol’ brain moving again. :-)

  4. I got very absorbed in reading this. First, you’ve made me want to read the book. And second, you’ve made me realize how much I’ve changed.

    I was subject to depression, self-hatred, dark moods, lack of self-belief, severe self-criticism, lack of creative passion and deeply-rooted guilt. Most of the time, I was better at helping other writers unleash themselves creatively than I was at giving myself the gift of acceptance. And I had way too many blind spots about recognizing what I’d already achieved.

    Then I took up a form of journaling called soul writing. Over many months of pouring out my inner wounds on paper, I somehow regained a great deal of self-belief. And I began following some of the very simple advice that came through as guidance (from wherever). It told me things like, “Just write a lot – it doesn’t matter what you write, just write a lot.” That’s almost too simple and I normally would have dismissed it as obvious. But something about it compelled me to follow the freedom it was holding out to me as a writer.

    I’m now a much happier and more productive writer, with writing goals that motivate me and make me very excited to get to my writing. I resurrected two things I love – my travel writing and my screenwriting – and now I put my own writing first on many more occasions than I used to.

    Thanks for this post. Good stuff!

    ~ Milli

    • Milli, what a great comment. Thank you for sharing. I can really relate to this: “Most of the time, I was better at helping other writers unleash themselves creatively than I was at giving myself the gift of acceptance.” I’m glad you found a way to honor your own muse.

  5. You’ve made me want to read the book, too! It was a revelation to me as well to discover that all the inner turmoil I’d felt all my life was actually very common and much of it a predictable part of the creative process (and since most of life is a creative process, it affects most things you do.)

    As far as “spamming” readers with your own story, I’m sure you know now that people love stories and want to know about you. Just as you related to Eby, your readers will see themselves in your story. And is Mr. Bacon okay with you making derogatory remarks about pseudo-pork products like that?

    • Hi Sue! Thank you for your vote of confidence, and yes, I’m working with my MFA instructor on learning to share, and what makes me okay with it is the very idea that others will be able to connect with and appreciate in their own lives what I’m writing about.

      As for Mr. Bacon, he makes derogatory remarks about all pork products that are not him, so no worries!

  6. I can relate to Eby. It’s not just social pressures that hamper the art-committed life, you also need a livelihood. Sometimes it’s hard to turn a passion into a source of income.

    Art is a tricky business in that you start with a handicap: to begin with, nobody wants what you have to offer. Now, let me qualify that statement. They want it in the abstract, because everyone wants to be entertained, surprised or delighted… they just don’t want your stuff, specifically, because there’s so much available to them already.

    So you need to prove yourself again, and again, and again. For most of us, carving out a niche in the market will be a lifelong pursuit. While we would like to put our artistic endeavors at the very center of our lives, putting food on the table is the #1 priority. This frequent disconnect between day job and creative goals can be really stressful.

    The number of ‘overnight success’ stories don’t help a bit, either. There is no overnight success. Take rock bands, for instance. Some receive Best Newcomer Awards after a 10-year gigging & recording career. There was this one band that had already cut five records. Are you still a newcomer then?

    Yet people read about these artists that ‘exploded’ onto any given scene. Yesterday, they were all but anonymous. Today, they’ve got half a million fans. How does that happen? It doesn’t.
    But aspiring creatives internalize these narratives of instant success and blame themselves for not succeeding in the same way. One of the most lucid messages about success that I have ever read was Hugh MacLeod’s, “If your plan includes ‘being discovered,’ your plan will fail.”

    Everyone wrestles with dark moods and self-criticism. What happens is, before you reach a certain plateau of achievement, your taste and critical capabilities will keep telling you that you’re not good enough. How do you measure up against your idols and masters?

    I find it useful to remember that my masters had masters themselves, that they too learned by making mistakes and that they are merely excellent, not perfect.

    An artist should go after excellence, not perfection. Excellence admits flaws, while perfection is non-existent. The more I remind myself of that, the better I feel.

    Going back to Hugh MacLeod, the key motivator for any artist is to ‘Ignore everybody.’
    This is his website. http://gapingvoid.com/

  7. “An artist should go after excellence, not perfection. Excellence admits flaws, while perfection is non-existent.” This is a wonderful, wonderful quote. I need to remind myself of this, too.

    Last night, while journaling, I realized that the way I was treating myself – mainly horrible thoughts of “You SHOULD be writing, you lazy dolt!” and “You’ll never get published because you don’t have what it takes” – would be considered emotional abuse if I did it to someone else! Why are we so unkind to our inner spirit? This just fuels the dark mood and the self-criticism. I want to try and be kinder to myself.

    Thanks so much for this discussion, Patrick. I’m really enjoying your blog. :-)

    • Thank you for the kind words, Melissa. Sometimes the tonic for that hateful voice in our own heads can be reading about others who fight the same demon. There’s strength in numbers. Keep believing in yourself!

      • When I was on seminary, we talked a lot about the wounded healer. Essentially, we meant that the most powerful counselors, beakers, spiritual guided, etc. were often powerful because they had been wounded and could empathize, but they had healed their own stuff so they could be present to others’ struggles without making it about themselves.
        And now, writing that, I realise that that self-healing is what I am doing by writing all the gory stuff and the helping others has to wait until I can write about it without the sting to myself.
        Holy insight. Thank you all for this conversation
        Kate

  8. I often feel sure that no one can really be that interested in what I have to say. I mean, it’s just me, and I’m not famous, a philosopher, expert, etc. I’m just me, and that can’t be that interesting. But then, I find people are interested, and I’m always surprised.

  9. Are there any creatives out there who are not insecure about their own creativity? Somehow I would doubt it… I know I struggle with insecurity and “dark moods” nearly every day. Yet, the lightness that living and working a creative life brings outweigh those feelings every time, ultimately.

    I’ll definitely pick up this book and add it to my arsenal. The Artist’s Way and Bird by Bird being two of my current favorites.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Found this quote in a screenwriting book I’m reading:

    “If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough.” ~ Maxwell Perkins

    This puts self-doubt into a whole new, somewhat healthier light. :)

  11. Thanks very much, Patrick. I appreciate, among other comments, your candor about feeling “insecurities about my own creativity” – I keep reading that insecurity is an ongoing experience of even highly accomplished artists, e.g. Meryl Streep. My own candor in the book was encouraged by a psychologist who reviewed a draft – it certainly wasn’t something I was going to do originally; I wanted to stay “objective” and out “out of the picture.” But I have found it positive in various ways to include more personal stuff. Thanks again for such a thoughtful review.

  12. Insightful post. I have read Anne Lamott and admire how she weaves her story together. We all have our story; some seem to write it better (I guess that was a self-criticism!). Creativity is an art of trying as much as it is an art piece to read or view. We expect, I guess, those “Rudy” moments where we get our time on the playing field for all to see what we can do.

    Good thinking to continue to do…

    Thank you!

    Jon

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Teaching by Personal Example | Developing Creat... - July 9, 2013

    […] It takes a brave soul to educate others by revealing your own shortcomings. That is the admirable approach taken by creativity expert Douglas Eby in his new book Developing Multiple Talents, a comprehensive overview of many perspectives on creativity, from scientists to creatives themselves. The book’s title is an area of fascination with me, and I was flattered that in the book Eby cited one of my blog posts on the subject, “Creatives with Multiple Talents.”  […]

  2. Teaching by Personal Example | Creativity | Sco... - July 9, 2013

    […] It takes a brave soul to educate others by revealing your own shortcomings. That is the admirable approach taken by creativity expert Douglas Eby in his new book Developing Multiple Talents, a comprehensive overview of many perspectives on creativity, from scientists to creatives themselves. The book’s title is an area of fascination with me, and I was flattered that in the book Eby cited one of my blog posts on the subject, “Creatives with Multiple Talents.”  […]

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