I'm afraid I'm doing the wrong art

Should I paint, or sculpt, or write? I can't decide.

Published July 17, 2008 10:50AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing with a question that may seem silly given the current state of affairs of the world, but it's something I think about quite often, and has bearing on my own life. I think I may be in the wrong art.

Even writing that, I see there is so much doubt I have about myself. When I was young, I always gravitated toward art (the craft/art kind) as my fun, free, imaginative activity of choice. I never was that good at it, never the art star in class. I was about average, but I did summer programs in art (though when I think about it, I often chose activities that weren't art, to "expand myself," when I would have probably just enjoyed tooling around in the art I already knew), and even studied in some of the most beautiful places in Europe, where I learned that I was better than I thought, if I put time into it. I was praised for my academic skills and writing, though, and even won some awards in those.

I always felt writing was second nature to me, whereas art was something that I judged myself on by myself because others didn't give me the "automatic" positive feedback they did about writing. When I was 12 or 13, I decided to make a massive sculpture in the basement, and worked on it alone for a week or three of a summer. When I think back to that time, I think of myself as someone who was discovering what she was born to do, motivated enough at a young age to work alone in a basement and be blissful. I never finished the project, but I named it, and it remains in the basement of our house. I'm not sure why I never finished it. But it's confusing because I have always felt more at home in writing communities. You know when you feel as if some group is your tribe? I feel as if writers are my tribe, but not the artists. I'm not a crazy, free, liberated person who is in the artist tribe.

I've taken classes at a bunch of schools, and visual language is not the easiest for me to express myself in. But nothing makes me feel more peaceful than visual art and crafts.

Cary, the weirdest thing happened to me this year. I decided to go to a life-drawing session. I had not done that kind of work for a while. I've taken classes over the years. In some I feel totally blocked. I feel so blocked that I don't even admit to the teacher that I've had training. I can't get anything out. In other classes I did eventually produce some good stuff. Anyway, I went to this drawing session. For the first few minutes I felt pretty elated to be there. I was freely drawing with the charcoal. But after about 10 minutes, this wave of exhaustion swept over me and I was overwhelmed. I left.

I was pretty shocked at that feeling. I honestly do not know why it came or what its message is to me. If I'm doing something I supposedly love, why did it drain me so? Is it because I was coming up against some kind of blockage? It's been almost 10 years since I tried painting again (and I don't even really even know if I like painting). I still feel confident about crafts.

People always said I was so creative, I was always the one carrying out creative projects in a group, and I always idolized art school(ers). Yet I never felt entitled, in some way. So over these years I've pursued various literary things, professionally and educationally. It's cool, but there's something that feels uptight to me about it, something I don't even feel comfortable fully admitting that I'm doing.

Maybe it's too connected historically for me with the approval rating from the parents/teachers, and maybe I idealize art so much as the area of freedom. And Cary, I do believe that expressing oneself in any medium, whatever medium it may be, is a blessing, and in theory I don't really care that much which it is. Yet, something needles me, something makes me wonder if (as I consider future graduate work) I am missing the point. Maybe I am on the wrong parallel path; maybe I have chosen the safer route. Yet I get confused when I think that I am in the tribe of writers after all. I was thinking recently how much I love color and texture, and writing doesn't really have these things in the same way. And I know that if I put more time into art, I'd get better.

I just wonder, somewhere along the line, did I give up because I didn't feel good enough? Yet if writing persisted, that's for a reason, too, right? No one is forcing me to do that.

Cary, am I in the wrong art? Could I have been a free diva all these years? I hate feeling as if I could have been good at something else by now. But the funny thing is that I don't even do art anymore. I never felt I had to do it or else I would die. It was just something I really enjoyed doing. Maybe I should keep it as a hobby and it would be less stressful. So I haven't done it now for a long time, and others still ask me why I stopped.

I don't know what I'd do art about, and I certainly don't know why it has taken on this role in my life that is so fraught (I can navigate more freely in the creative writing world, where I've been more accepted). And I also don't know why I am not motivated enough to actually do the work itself, in any medium. I see creative people doing commercially creative work: editors, graphic designers, etc. I feel that I could be one of them, but I also feel that I don't want to make my art commercial; I don't even know if I could. How should I proceed? Thank you, Cary.

Sitting and Wondering

Dear Sitting and Wondering,

Your questions do not seem to be so much questions as sparks and flares thrown off by an anxious mind. That is why I ran your letter at full length. It shows your concerns and worries looping back upon themselves and suggests a maddening labyrinth of uncertainty. In their shape and manner your questions tell more than they ask. You say, I feel this, I feel that, I have this history and that, and ... so ... what do I do?

I can't tell you what to do. But I can suggest ways of enduring the many strange and frightening sensations that arise in creative work. I hope you won't think I am kidding around when I do this. I sense that you are a very talented, ambitious and bright person, who is caught in a web of anxiety and fear. But I have an unorthodox way of responding. I hope you do not think it too cheeky.

You say, "I think I may be in the wrong art."

Let's make this more concrete. Let's say you are in a museum and you look around and realize, I think I may be in the wrong room. So you go to a guard and you say, "Excuse me, I think I may be in the wrong room." And the guard asks, "What room did you want to be in?" And you say, "I'm not sure. I just think I may be in the wrong room."

Now say the guard is Wittgenstein. So he says, "I think you are in the wrong word."

I am in the wrong word? you think to yourself. I am in the wrong word?

"What word did you want to be in?" asks the guard.

"I wanted to be in the right word."

"Pick a word," says the guard.

"Fabulous," you say.

"Right this way," says the guard.

"I meant that sarcastically," you say.

"Oh," says the guard. "So you want to be in the word 'fabulous,' but sarcastically. So what will you wear?"

"I will wear a sarcastic gown."

"Very good," says the guard. "You are now free to go."

Does that make sense? Perhaps not. OK, let's approach it like this:

Maybe this condition of worry and uncertainty is not connected to doing art or not doing art. Maybe this condition of worry and uncertainty is just a condition of worry and uncertainty. If we approach your condition of worry and uncertainty as a phenomenon in its own right, perhaps we can come up with some remedies.

Maybe, you say, I am an artist prone to worry and uncertainty, and sometimes paralysis, and difficulty making firm decisions and deciding on a course of action. So maybe I will work directly on the behavioral problem, by seeking ways to lessen the symptoms of anxiety. Maybe I could meditate to regulate my breathing and heart rate. Maybe I could learn to manage my time so that I do not feel so rushed. And maybe that would help me get back to work.

So try this. Try turning your questions into statements of fact. Try saying, OK, this is what I feel. I feel grief, and now I will get back to work. I feel left out. I feel doubt. I feel uncertainty. So I work. I work to give shape to my uncertainty. I work to find some voice for my doubt. I act it out. I chisel it into something. I find a form for it. I feel these things and then I get back to work.

You are flooded with awareness of things that are unknowable. As if to stop the flood, you ask a question. But unknowable things are the ground we walk on. They are the air we breathe. They make up the conditions of life. It is as if you say, I am alive and I breathe air. Now, therefore, should I draw or should I write?

The answer, as always, for an artist, is to pick something and get to work. If you have a piece of marble ready to work on in the basement, and you have your tools, then go to the basement and start working on the sculpture. If you are sitting at a desk and you have paper in front of you, start writing. If you have tubes of acrylic paint in your taboret, and there is good light, and you have a canvas stretched on your easel, then paint.

What happened to you in the painting class interests me. As we work we are often flooded with uncomfortable feelings. As we work we learn to know these feelings and use them. Creative work is exhausting. You must train for it. You must stay in shape. Life drawing is hard. At first you will feel exhausted. You are using a part of your brain that has not been exercised lately.

So be careful not to misinterpret your exhaustion as an indicator of your talent or lack of it, or of an innate disposition toward this or that medium, or as a mystical sign. It is more physical. It is more about the work. Your exhaustion and fears and technical limitations are just hurdles to overcome. The vision and the determination are what count. So focus on what you want to create. Do not focus on your technical ability or lack of it. Focus on your vision and work toward it. As you work toward your vision, let it show you what technical skills you need.

The problems to which you must apply your talents lie in the material and its resistance to you. It has its own answers. Your job is to work on the material in front of you. The answers are inside it. It will not disclose its answers to you unless you do the work.

There is always the risk of failure and always the risk of being wrong, and as you work nightmarish phenomena may occur in your mind. What do you do with those things? Do you paint them? Do you stop to write them down? Do you call a friend and talk about those things? That is up to you. The point is that you just work.

How do you know if you are doing the right work? Please, my friend. Let's have a laugh about that. That is the big joke that is played on all of us. The artist decides what is the right work. It involves some faith: I may not know what the fuck I'm doing, but I'm doing it.

I like to pretend. Let's pretend I'm the sculpture teacher. I walk around looking at what people are doing. "Why are you sitting on that block of granite, not working?" I ask. "Are you tired?" "No," you say, "I just don't know what to do." "What to do?" I say. "The answer is inside the stone. You chisel away, looking for the answer in the stone."

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