When I reconnected with my ability to immerse in visual art, it was like I filled up an empty place. I hadn’t even realized how much I’d missed that side of myself – the side that loved art and loved museums – until I had it back.
Museums were like church for me when I was in my early twenties. It’s still often like that. Meandering through a museum, especially when I’m by myself, is an experience of contemplation and reflection and connection that I rarely felt while I was growing up and going to actual church on Sundays with my parents – but that I sensed I was supposed to feel. The feeling comes naturally to me in museums. The colors, the lines, the tangible remnants of creative actions. It’s hard to put into words how important art is for my sense of connection.
Connection to…what? Everything, I guess. History…humanity…despair…joy…dreams…creativity…possibilities…potential. Light and life and energy. Love and hate. Desire. Lust. Fear. Beauty. Just…everything.
I feel that sense of connection sometimes when I listen to music. I feel it almost all the time when I’m taking pictures. And I often feel it when I’m wandering in museums.
Which makes it such a sad thing that I ever allowed myself to feel cut off from that – from something so edifying! I owe such a debt to The Artist’s Way – and to the two books which helped to put me, I believe, in the frame of mind that allowed me to properly absorb The Artist’s Way. (More on my experience resulting from The Artist’s Way here, and on the other books here.)
I loved my Art History classes as an undergrad. (Not grad school.) But yet I never considered that I might possibly have the stuff within me to actually create art myself. I had it firmly in my head (and I don’t know exactly why or where this came from) that I wasn’t an artist…that I wasn’t good at art.
The exception as a kid was acting. I loved playing parts, especially on a stage – just immersing into another life and letting myself embody it. I still remember so clearly what that felt like! It was exhilarating. It made me feel alive.
Play-acting was my favorite, favorite game. “Being People,” we used to call it. When I couldn’t commandeer anybody to do that with me, I acted out scenes with my dolls – or, even more fun, I made paperdolls and cut them out and all manner of dramas ensued. I loved those paperdolls even more than my three-dimensional dolls. (I wish I still had them to look at now!)
But by the time I hit junior high, that awful pre-teen self-consciousness had kicked in full-force and I’d abandoned all things drama. More precisely, I’d relegated all things drama to “little kid-dom” and could scarcely bear to imagine myself doing such childish things.
Which is such a shame!! To thrust aside an outlet like that, right when my emotions were changing and tangling and life was getting really complicated on multiple levels really hurt me a lot. I can see that now really clearly. Seventh grade especially was a very, very hard year for me – and how much better it would have been if I’d still had that outlet in my life.
But we didn’t live anywhere where there were opportunities for me to join groups (drama clubs or anything like that) that would have helped me get over the feeling that what I was doing was “lame.” And I certainly wasn’t going to play with dolls anymore or playact. So it all just fell away.
I did let the drama bug in again briefly in college. On a whim, when I was in a period of flux, I answered an ad for a community theater audition – and got a part. That was a somewhat strange experience. It was an odd group of people I was acting with…no one I really connected with or felt I could learn from. After that, I took two college acting classes – just to see what that felt like.
It was fun…but to my surprise, I realized my feel for drama was gone. It wasn’t the same as when I’d been a kid. It wasn’t that I felt so self-conscious anymore; that wasn’t the problem. And, unlike drawing and painting and other hands-on acts of creativity (like music; I have no ear whatever!), it was never that I felt that I was bad at acting/drama. It’s that my heart just wasn’t really in it, as it had been when I was a kid. It didn’t feel right anymore.
It was right at this same time, though, that I took my first Art History class – and the world of painting and architecture and sculpture opened up to me. That might have hastened my realization that acting wasn’t touching me the way it used to – because visual art really, really was.
As I said, I wasn’t producing art at that point. It never once occurred to me that I might have the means within me of participating in that world in that way. I was part of the world of visual art from the sidelines – studying. Just absorbing. Immersing myself and just sponging it up.
That was enough for then. That was a lot.
One creative thing I always did, from childhood forward, was writing. I used to write plays for my dolls to act out, and I’d write stories as a kid. Usually magical, fanciful stories – about time travel and the like. (I never cared about setting my stories in the mundane regular world. Always I wanted the exciting, the magical, the amazing.)
As I grew toward the teen years, writing wasn’t tainted by pubescent anxiety and self-consciousness – because I could write in a notebook in my bedroom, totally privately. So writing, unlike acting, remained always a part of my life – and for long stretches of time was my sole creative outlet. When I got into high school and acquired my own little Kodak point-and-click camera, I fell in love with taking pictures. But I never took photography the slightest bit seriously – despite the fact that I enjoyed it so much and spent many happy hours engaged in it.
Maybe that would have been different if I’d been exposed to serious photography? I’m forty, you understand – which means that when I was in high school, we didn’t have, say, 500px or Flickr or Instagram or any of those other places where you can go now so easily for inspiration and tips. We didn’t even have the internet!!!! As nobody in my family, or anybody else I knew, was into photography, or was even particularly artistic, it was just never something I thought about, except as a game.
Writing on the other hand I could take more seriously. I was a voracious reader. And every book in my hand, I knew, was written by a professional author. I didn’t actually know any writers – but writing was something we did in school and talked about in school. Writing was an artistic path I could wrap my head around easily as a teen.
So I wrote.
The point I’m driving at here is that I’ve engaged in writing for my whole life. In the last few years, I’ve consciously taken the pursuit of it seriously and have devoted concentrated time to improving my skills and utilizing them to pursue paying work.
And to my surprise, the more I’ve embraced writing, the more conscious I’ve become of a dissatisfaction with the act of writing that has always hovered beneath the surface for me. It’s perplexed me. I’ve thought a lot about it – and blogged before about it, too (here, for instance) – but haven’t been able to fully understand the problem.
I think, writing this post, that I might actually understand it now though, for the first time: It’s because, while I like to write, and while writing can be a satisfying outlet for me, I’m not really a writer at the heart of it.
I’m a fairly good writer…competent. Just talented enough and competent enough to do some things with it…or at least to make a solid attempt at doing things. And I’ve certainly devoted a great deal of time to the craft.
But the thing that is suddenly crystal clear to me is that: I never devoted the time because I loved to write above all other artistic forms. I never devoted the time because writing “fed my soul,” or anything like that.
No…I devoted time to writing because it was safe. Because I could engage in it unobtrusively. Because it didn’t demand anything of me – certainly not full immersion (as visual art does, and as drama did.)
Not that I never feel when I read or write…because I certainly do. But it’s just…different. It’s a different experience. And, for me, it’s a lesser one. It doesn’t compare in the slightest way with a moment (any moment) when I have my camera in my hand. It doesn’t compare with walking through a museum and contemplating what I see. It doesn’t compare with being on a stage as a kid. There’s a detachment that comes with writing, for me…something to do with the limitations of language and words for expressing ideas.
I see further (as I type this, it’s unfolding) that it’s that very detachment that, paradoxically, makes writing such a valuable exercise for me, too. I do really love to write! Look what I’m doing with this post series, for example: I’m using writing to untangle my thoughts. I’m using it as a means of digging in for some deeper self-awareness, for some answers that I need and I’m not finding myself able to get to. Writing, for me, is such a great, great tool for weeding through the muck in my head.
But that’s the difference, I guess: For me, writing is a tool. Writing helps me make order out of chaos, to shake out dust. But it’s ultimately just a means to an end for me.
Baron Baptiste writes of yoga that it:
“…ignites your spirit. When you are free from the constraints of a weak body and the limitations of emotional reactiveness, you live in a higher place. You begin to dwell in spirit, and from there, all that remains that is not authentically you falls away.”
~Baron Baptiste, in Journey Into Power, pg. 21
I can’t say that writing exactly does all of that for me…but it serves something of the same purpose. It helps me to clear away the chaos and garbage. It frees up pathways to the place that is “authentically me.” And it’s from within that place that art (and just generally a better life) emerges.
Whether it’s writing or yoga or remembering to breathe or something else, the greater your arsenal of tools for reaching that authentic place, the better off you are.
I never fully understood until right this second that that’s the category writing fits into for me. That’s why, when I try to make a standalone piece of art from my writing, I wind up frustrated and dissatisfied.
So when it comes to art, it seems I had, for a lot of years, some serious blinders on.
That’s important to acknowledge – particularly as they were the worst kind of blinders: being the kind that are put on as a form of self-protection. I put them on when I was like eleven – and, with the exception of a few moments here and there when I peeked out from under them (like, say, when I auditioned for that play in college), it wasn’t until I read The Artist’s Way in late-summer 2013 (on the heels of reading The Alchemist and Baron Baptiste’s book – both of which paved the way) that they really came off for good.
And wow…the world looks really different without them.
To be continued…