Being Creative While Avoiding Outsider Status

When someone asks you, “What do you do?” what is your answer? If you’re like most of us, context matters. You might say one thing at a professional networking reception and quite another at a neighborhood block party. But how often do you answer, “I create art?”

Part of living an art-committed life is fully owning the identity of a creative. It isn’t always advisable to proclaim yourself as such in every social situation. Yet we need to be able to say it out loud at least occasionally.

If you want to be alone, try driving north on Idaho's I-84 on the way to Boise. At times during that part of my cross-country U.S. road trip I was the only car in sight. (The police officer who ticketed me for going about 90 miles per hour was also out of sight, hiding in a ditch between the northbound and southbound lanes.)

If you want to be alone, try driving north on Idaho’s I-84 on the way to Boise. At times during that part of my cross-country U.S. road trip I was the only car in sight. (The police officer who ticketed me for going about 90 miles per hour was also out of sight, hiding in a ditch between the northbound and southbound lanes.)

My last post, about the challenge of maintaining an art-committed life, prompted me to return to the author from whom I stole that marvelous phrase, Dr. Eric Maisel. I skimmed again this week his book Creativity for Life, in which he discusses the progression from an artful life (enjoying creative works) to an art-filled life (making the enjoyment of creative works a central part of your life) to the art-committed life. 

Each chapter presents a challenge to living that life and the possibilities that exist when the challenge is met. I was struck in my return to the book by Chapter Eleven, “Social Interactions and Community.” He examines the isolation creatives often feel, and “the important topic of whether or not artists can find community among themselves.”

Artists can feel like outsiders for many reasons, Maisel writes. Part of it is the mythos of the lone artist, but that mythos rises from the fact that much of a typical creative’s process involves work in solitude. He also discusses how, as one becomes immersed in her creative path, she can find it difficult to articulate her life and work to someone not so immersed. I see that when I am at one of my MFA residencies and a late-night discussion will drift into the role of extended metaphor in prose; that is not a typical topic of conversation at a Capitol Hill reception here in D.C.

I will only have one more MFA residency. But social media produces its own communities. I’ve experienced that here with The Artist’s Road, where I can confess to feeling creatively stuck and receive not confusion or mocking but empathy.

Many commenters to my most recent post here cited the importance of joining a writer’s group, or going to open mic readings, or finding an online partner with which to share work. And yet the universe decided to provide additional input. Yesterday, two artists found their way to a post I wrote a year ago on whether our own insecurities drive our creativity, and if we can truly support another’s success if we view that as a failure on our part.

The first new commenter said other artists “will prevent others to succeed and are unable to give you friendly support and instead will hide opportunities from you.” The second said “I feel this is a new era – that of the ingathering of humankind, where everyone is recognized for their qualities. If one artist or writer succeeds, then I do also.” I think the truth is somewhere in between, that our reptilian brain–trapped in zero-sum thinking–sees anyone else’s success as a threat, but that as we grow as human beings, we can learn to celebrate another’s success without personalizing it as our own failure.

I believe a key element to maintaining an art-committed life is being able to share your artistic fears and triumphs with someone you can trust. Perhaps it’s a spouse who isn’t artistically driven but knows how to listen. Perhaps it’s a creative mentor or peer. But when I think back to times in my past where I left the creative path, it was in part because no one was there to tell me I needed to stay on it.

How do you find ways to talk about your creative passion with a trusted other?

About Patrick Ross

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

30 Responses to “Being Creative While Avoiding Outsider Status”

  1. Patrick – this is important. Community strengthens our creative spirits. I have several photographer friends to share with. But I think we need to meet up more often!

  2. Reblogged this on artslogic and commented:
    creativity is living in good harmony between mind and body, as creativity is the key to a longer life a longer existence, and moreover happily ever after.. just like eating food is a pleasure not an exclusive energy need, eat things that give you pleasure to enhance the taste of the inner contempt of perception.

  3. Hi Patrick,
    I try to connect with other writers, share ideas and learn. Sadly, some of them act like creating art is a competition.
    …now I often feel that †ђε greatest support and validity ƒόŕ our creativity may not come from †ђε expected places and circles…and I try to create ƒόr passion’s sake.

    • You know, I was watching the Spurs-Grizzlies game last night, and Stan Van Gundy said the Spurs play well because the players are actually happy when one of their teammates succeeds. He said that is rare among athletes, and I fear it is among creative as well. Yes to creating for passion’s sake, and a further yes to being open to support from unexpected places.

  4. An interesting post and an enjoyable read. This is something I’ve certainly struggled with, and still do, really. I’m fortunate to be able to write full time. Yet when someone asks what I do, I cringe on the inside and tell them I’m a writer. It’s kind of a strange reaction. I mean, I love writing and I’m so happy to be doing what I love. But even so, it comes with a healthy dose of insecurity. That ever-present, nagging feeling that I’m an imposter, that my writing isn’t good enough. I’ve battled with quelling those insecure voices for some time and while I like to think I’ve gotten the upper hand, they’re still there.

    I’ve also come to realize I don’t talk openly about my writing with others. Even among people I trust. I’m not sure why this is. Insecurity probably plays a part, but I think it’s more than that. Writing is personal for me, and my natural instinct is to keep personal matters close. It’s something I’m currently working on. I try to give more than a bare-bones synopsis of the book I’m working on when someone asks. I also try to share my daily progress/struggles with my boyfriend, even when I think he won’t care or find it interesting. I think it comes down to having faith in others as well as ourselves. Believing that we do have what it takes and that those who care about us really do want to support us in our endeavors, and aren’t just listening out politeness or a sense of obligation.

    • Oh my, Sara, I resonate with everything you’ve written here. Know that all creative struggle with insecurity, including feeling like they are an imposter, even when they achieve great success. Also know that there is nothing wrong with holding back a little bit when talking about your writing. I give a very bare-bones description about my own creative writing at times; I consider myself very open on this blog about my memoir-in-progress, but I have still held a great deal back, in part because it’s personal, but in part because I ultimately want to let the words tell the story, not me. Yes to having faith in yourself.

  5. All work done well is about passion and art. Yesterday I met an artist who
    is a nursing assistant taking care of my father-in-law while he’s been hospitalized. I could trust her with Joe and also with the story of my writing work. You said it all in the last line of your valuable post. It’s about trust.

  6. First of all, I tell everyone that I am either an author or comic book artist or I create comics. You get the idea. So does my husband, because he is proud of the work I do.

    While it took me a while to find a supportive group of writers, it really is wonderful feeling to share my progress, the places I am stuck, or just my insecurities with my group of friends. When competition or snideness rears its ugly head (and doesn’t it sometimes in every group of people?) we just talk about it openly.

    If someone is constantly breaking you down, often the offender isn’t even aware he or she is doing it until it is mentioned–and you can literally see the light go on in their face. Trust your friends to act like friends to the best of their ability. We all falter, I get competitive at times too, but if I acknowledge it to myself and go out of my way to help another author/artist, the jealousy slips away.

    • You use the word jealousy, and note that the practitioners of it often aren’t aware of it. That is true. And sometimes after the light goes on in their face, they adjust. Sometimes they don’t; they have to keep dream-killing. That is something Julia Cameron wrote about, the toxin that is someone in your life who deals with her own insecurities by tearing you down. The topic for another post, perhaps.

      Nothing wrong with being competitive; it’s a way to spur us to improve. The key is competitiveness with graciousness, methinks.

  7. It’s important to find community. If for nothing else than to have someone to keep you on the path, as you pointed out. But it also provides a yardstick, by which we can judge our struggles, and (most of the time ) see that it’s not an instant or easy process for other creators – and that this is entirely normal. It can feel like a very looong road. But, when we see others traveling on it, sometimes skipping, sometimes trudging, sometimes faltering, it tells us ‘this is the way it is’. We see the daily work—inspired, yes, fun too, at times, but work nonetheless—and know we are not alone.
    Seriously, most ‘regular’ people simply do not understand. That becomes more acceptable when we have friends who do!

  8. “How do you find ways to talk about your creative passion with a trusted other?”

    #1: At 5:00 p.m. my wife and I meet in the living room for a glass of wine. I’m always bouncing ideas off her till she’s sick of hearing about it. Because she’s smarter than I am, I pay close attention to when and why she’s sick of it.

    #2: I phone up a particular friend for a coffee date. He always expects an update on my progress. Because he’s smarter than me, I’m always ready with pen and paper to note his reactions. He wishes he was me, because he has a job.

    #3: I give speeches at our local Toastmasters Club. I speak about writing, the hero’s journey, how fiction works, why heroes must die, the “secret centre” of a novel, why we read, etc. I think they must be sick of me by now. But that’s okay because I’m the one reaping the benefits of expressing my ideas and my passion. lt’s a good opportunity to sound smarter than everyone else.

  9. My husband would also be considered an artist. We were both so dubbed years ago. Maybe that’s why we seldom use words like “art” anymore. When we take walks, he tells me what creatures/scenes he sees in the clouds. I read him a few lines of prose here and there. Maybe sing him a song and ask if it’s pitchy. I think it’s just so intrinsic now that we don’t think about it much. If anything, I think were shedding a lot of our perceived “artistic uniqueness.”

    • I interviewed an artist couple in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The husband was a painter and the wife was a jewelry maker and knitter, among other artistic pursuits. They spent years as artistic friends before they finally decided to date/get married. When I asked how they knew so quickly they should marry when they had been friends for a long time but hadn’t dated very long, the husband said “We knew each other’s art.”

  10. You know– you make a good point about having a spouse or a friend that you can talk to about your work who is not a writer. My husband is my biggest supporter (and not just financially)! I also have a few close non-artist friends who will discuss ideas with me and help me brainstorm. Their insights are priceless.

    • Hi Nina! Yes, I know from your blogging how important you have found your husband’s support; that is certainly the case with my wife. Having a trusted person in your life, no matter what the formal relationship, is so helpful.

  11. Since my father was a musician, it was expected we would create something including music in one way or another. Growing up, I thought this was the way people lived as our friends lived similar lifestyles. My husband is a lapsed musician who is a businessman but he does make time to read and talk about my writing. But, truly, I have not felt like and do not now feel an outsider. My friends love the arts and are engaged in creating, and my extended family and children, as well. I also have enjoyed your other suggestions of sharing/working more with other writers. But I realized long ago how fortunate I have been to have been surrounded by people who love the arts and writing in particular. I will continue to search out other writers/artists/musicians/dancers because I so appreciate their work–we are a huge community in my city, as in most larger cities.

  12. That’s a really good question. Mostly I get blank stares when I talk about writing so I don’t talk about it a lot. WP has been incredibly helpful. Anytime I get feedback from a writer I admire it helps a great deal. My missus tries but mostly she likes to ‘proof read’ and it is difficult to get an opinion from her. She is an excellent writer who does not write and that might be part of the problem.
    I enjoy your stuff very much………. only found you a short time ago so I’m having fun reading your entries.
    Thank you.
    Terry

    • As to the missus, I suspect you’re right about the writer/not writing part; my wife is a professional editor who is a great writer but doesn’t write much; she is reluctant to critique or edit my work. But I think it is a spouse issue. She is phenomenally supportive of my commitment to writing. Michael Swanwick, a successful novelist I interviewed in Philadelphia, told me he now only has his wife read his writing when it is done; that way she feels no pressure to critique, she just has to be supportive. I now do that with my wife.

      Welcome to The Artist’s Road, so great to have you here, Terry!

      • I’m having fun being here, thank you.
        I used to give everything I wrote to my good lady to ‘edit’ before I sent it off or whatever but that was causing problems. As I said she is a good editor but she seemed stressed by the process (don’t get me wrong she really doesn’t mind telling me if she does not like something). I guess I lacked the confidence to edit my own work but in the end it was such a hassle that I taught myself to go back and do the editing myself. This way if it’s good it was me and if it was bad it was me also. I’m learning a lot faster this way.
        Now she reads my stuff when she comes across it online or if I ask her to listen to something I’ve done that I like.
        She believes that I don’t read very well, so that’s fun! But the tension seems to be going, and that has to be good.
        Thanks for the reply.
        Love your work.
        Terry

  13. Helps to have some family members who know you well and understand one’s artistic/creative passion. A lot of my family members don’t always understand what I produce or even like it (they are polite by saying nothing) for some paintings. But they acknowledge other stuff they like. I know they read/look at my blog occasionally…

    I know that this part of myself as well as cycling lots, forms part of how my family perceives my “gifts” to the family skills pool.

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    […] When someone asks you, "What do you do?" what is your answer? If you're like most of us, context matters. You might say one thing at a professional networking reception and quite another at a neigh…  […]

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