I'm restless and creative but don't know where to begin

I see this dazzling world full of art and fun -- how do I connect to it?

By Cary Tennis

Published November 14, 2008 10:49AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

I will be taking three days off next week to spend some time with my anesthesiologist. He wants to administer some relaxing and numbing drugs so the surgeon can cut something off of my ear, and do a full-thickness skin graft, and have me rest up. Ever the obedient patient, I will comply. The column should resume Thursday.

Dear Cary,

I'm 24. I graduated from college two years ago, moved to another state to pursue my career in graphic design, worked for a year and a half and was in a serious relationship for a while, broke up with the boyfriend, moved back to the state I went to college in, and now here I am. I have no regrets, even though I have been mostly unemployed for the three and a half months I've been back. It's still one of the best and most fulfilling decisions I've ever made. So I'm more at peace with where I am than ever before and happier than ever to be single, but now my other haunting thoughts are bugging me more than ever.

I'm always, always, always yearning for more in my life. My life and I have always been just plain mediocre. I don't want a "simple life," and my longing for more has grown steadily over the years. When I try to think about what exactly it is that I want, I can't figure it out. To name some things that are somewhat tangible -- I browse the social Web sites and see people who have/do things I'd like, such as involvement in the local music community and events, fun and creative friends, trips to fun places, interesting lifestyles, successful and happy relationships, talent in music, art or languages, etc. And I have these strange feelings all the time, like I want to sit down and write a song or a poem or create something, but I don't know where or how or what ... or why.

Maybe if I meet new people, I can be introduced to new, exciting things. But meeting people or making new friends scares me. It makes me exhausted just thinking about having to get close enough to new people to be myself around them ... and then they might sense my mediocrity and not like me anyway. Strangely, I'm a shy introvert who craves social community, similar to what I see in churches (minus all the stereotypical problems that come with that). But the process of meeting a group of people makes me want to hide.

I feel guilty, because I know I am lucky/blessed to have the life I have. I have good health, good friends and family (although most of my friends are married now and I don't see them much), a roof over my head, and all of the basic important things that some people don't have. But every time I put aside this feeling of longing as disguised greed or silliness, it doesn't go away. It comes back. Often.

I've started to write this e-mail about 20 times over the past two years, and I've always stopped. I don't know if it even makes sense, but this time I decided to finish it and send it. Hopefully you can give me some perspective. Am I just being a self-centered whiner? Maybe these are common feelings? Is there something obvious I'm missing about myself that is evident in what I'm saying? What can I do to feed this hunger? I'd really appreciate hearing your opinion. I really need to start moving forward.

Thanks, Wanting More

Dear Wanting More,

To answer your questions, I don't think you are a self-centered whiner, and these are fairly common concerns. But the artistic temperament is often restless. Your friends and family may indeed not understand some of your restlessness. They may think that you should just chill out. Well, I'm sorry, but creative people do not easily chill out. All you can do is accept that you have to be working on creative projects and you have to be among other creative people, and there's nothing wrong with that, and set about to do it.

This may be the "something obvious" you are missing about yourself that is evident in what you are saying. You say it here: You want "involvement in the local music community and events, fun and creative friends, trips to fun places, interesting lifestyles, successful and happy relationships, talent in music, art, or languages, etc." You also say it here: "I have these strange feelings all the time, like I want to sit down and write a song or a poem or create something, but I don't know where or how or what ... or why."

So there you go. That's the situation. You know what the situation is. But you have not started taking the necessary actions yet.

So what you need is a method of getting from here to there. What you need is a way of taking action.

Taking action requires you to be kind of stupid. Well, not stupid, but obvious. It's so simple it sort of surprises you. You just go and be where the creative things are happening and you talk to people.

It's not that hard. But you have to be systematic and do a certain amount of not-so-fun drudge work, or footwork, or baby steps.

Say you want to be involved in the local music community. OK, so maybe you don't live in Austin. Too bad. I don't either. But most places have musicians. Music is made by people. So you have to go where the people are making the music and then you have to see how you can be involved. Many music organizations need volunteers. Bands need all kinds of help. You can help, in a humble way, if that is possible for you. Or, if helping a band put up posters and move their equipment, or taking tickets at the door of a festival, or doing any of the other million things that volunteers do in order to be connected to the scene, if none of that works for you, then you'll just have to take the step to start doing your own art. Become a net producer of artistic things.

You can form a band. That is one way. Forming a band is not that hard. You just put notices up and talk to people and start playing. At least, that's how I did it.

It helps to be driven, to want to do this really, really badly. It sounds like you do. It sounds like you want this badly enough to just do it. So do it. Do you need permission? I will grant you permission to do everything you need to do creatively. Permission is hereby granted to go forth and bother people and be creative. Whatever you have to do. That's why I moved to San Francisco, actually. I thought if I lived here it would sort of be understood if I was desperate to do creative things and embarrassed myself. It worked out for the most part, although I'm not sure you can still roll into San Francisco on a hippie bus like I did in the 1970s and get a flat at Fulton and Baker and just sort of wing it. You kind of have to have a job these days, sorry to say. But you don't have to live in San Francisco. Heck, if I was going to do it now, I'd find someplace really cheap to live. But I needed to be around people who would not kick my ass for being weird, and I wasn't sure how many places there were like that. In Florida, at that time, you sort of routinely got your ass kicked for being weird, which was why I left. But anyway, you're in a place you like, so just go start doing things. The activity will alleviate your anxiety. Just stay busy. Hang paintings. Help position sculptures. Pour wine at art openings. Learn to set up amplifiers. Hang out with people like yourself. Your activities will take an organic shape. Go for it.

It would be nice, actually, if there were more formal organizations, like support groups, where creative types could just plunk themselves down and say, Hi, I'm a creative type and, uh, I'm not sure what's going on but I have to do something. I think there is something to be said for the A.R.T.S. Anonymous program, especially the idea of having an arts buddy, and making commitments to your art, and doing some kind of art in every 24-hour cycle. Of course, I'm comfortable with the whole 12-step thing, and am OK with taking what I can use and leaving the rest, but it may not be for everyone.

My main message to you, to repeat, is just to spring into action. Do not worry too much about doing it perfectly. Just begin doing things! Take concrete action in the visible world!

Terrified of the blank, white canvas? See p. 164

Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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