Category Archives: art

The Creative Life: How to Overcome Self-doubt

I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!

Illustration by Jack Spellman (jackspellmanart.com)

Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!

One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.

That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.

Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.

crazy

“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”

Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!

The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.

First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.

Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.

I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.

I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.

The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:

Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.

Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).

Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.

Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.

This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.

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Writing, Drawing & Making Music! An Interview With Rory Mackay!

blogtour

Really loved doing this interview with Rohan from the awesome Rohan7Things blog! One of my favourites. Hope you enjoy reading it too 🙂

Just because

I’ve discovered that it’s important not to lose the fun in our endeavours. At the moment I’ve been busy submitting work, attempting to learn new skills and marketing strategies, editing and proofreading and figuring out how I’m going to publish certain books. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and bogged down by such things, by too much focus on oh-so-serious goals, results and the ongoing process of production. What started off as a joy can all too quickly become a monotonous drudge. The creative spark still yearns to express itself, but instead gets stifled and suffocated.

That’s why, last week, I allowed myself time to sit down and just paint. I had no idea what I was painting (that was part of the fun — and looking back at what I’ve did, I still have no idea! Just delicious abstract weirdness, I guess!). These paintings were for no one’s eyes but mine. Perhaps they might lead into something ‘sellable’, but that wasn’t my intention at all.

I just wanted to transport myself back to that state of mind I experienced when I was a child, where I simply painted, drew and wrote exactly what I wanted to, what I felt like doing, for no other reason than the sheer joy of it. It’s easy to lose that innocent, pure spontaneity of expression and creativity. I found it not only immensely enjoyable, but quite healing as well. A part of my soul felt renewed and refreshed; I felt alive again! That feeling of joy and aliveness is worth so much. All the goals we pursue and everything we do is basically motivated by wanting to feel good. But very often all we have to do to feel good in the moment, is to slow down, take a few deep breaths, feel the stillness inside and then do what our heart compels us to do. That’s where creativity thrives and amazing new ideas and born. If you don’t already, why not try it yourself?

Is art important?

As an artist who hasn’t exactly made it ‘big’ (think considerably less than big), I was recently questioning my future and wondering whether I should be devoting my energy to something else. As the economy continues to flounder and as our esteemed leaders continue to make things worse, people are tightening their belts and luxuries such as the arts are obviously the first things to be abstained from.

Always one to question just about everything, I found myself wondering whether art really matters. Is it really important? Is it worth pursuing? Or is it just a self-indulgence that has no real value to our lives? (When considering this question, I was reflecting not merely on visual art, but also music, prose and poetry, sculpture, film-making, etc)

I instinctively feel that art has importance. But there are two kinds of art, I think. There’s art that’s created simply to make money and is tailored to a specific market or audience and which usually adheres to a specific formula while perhaps simultaneously attempting to pass itself off as something ‘different’. This might sound exceptionally snobbish, but to me, that isn’t art, it’s merely product. Most of the music industry is product and in our X-Factor era that’s a fact that’s hard to dispute. I feel the same about a great deal of the publishing and film industry. It’s driven by profit and the desire to sell; any claims of wanting to find genuine artistic innovation are usually just lip-service.

Product  generally has mass-market appeal and is largely consumed as entertainment. Nothing wrong with entertainment, I like to be entertained as much as the next guy (although maybe perhaps not QUITE so much), but entertainment rarely transcends its function. There are certainly lots of instances where it does, where films, music and books actually do take risks and wholly deserve to be called ‘art’, but in the vast marketplace it’s still the exception rather than the rule. I’m not decrying this, simply pointing out a fact. People need to make money and they do that by selling products to as many people as will buy it. It’s the way the world works.

With regard to the visual arts, it’s a little harder to find the distinction between art and product. It’s a grey area. Artists need to eat like everyone else, so they usually need to have some kind of target market in mind when they create. The quality and importance of the work is entirely subjective and that’s probably the way it should be.

I was at an exhibition just last week and it reinforced my feeling that in order for art to be taken seriously as ‘art’ it helps if it’s grim and bleak. In order to be a ‘cool’ artist the general criteria seems to be that your work has to be edgy, dark and a little depressing or — even better — repulsive! Now this could all just be in my head, and I don’t even take my own thoughts and opinions that seriously any more, so I urge you not to, either. But it’s possible that even some of the most fiercely independent and ‘out there’ artists are still just creating stuff that they consciously or unconsciously think fits a formula of ‘cool’ and ticks the right boxes.

Myself, I really don’t care what’s cool or not. Generally I’m drawn to create things that inspire people rather than nauseate and repulse them. I mean, life is difficult enough, why should art confound that by making us ever more miserable? But that said, when I view someone’s work, even if I don’t like it, I still usually respect it as a creative endeavour, as an expression of the artist and an artistic statement — whether or not I agree with that statement.

So why is art important then?

It’s not important simply for making statements. Anyone can make a statement and like anything that’s mind-generated, it ultimately doesn’t mean that much. A lot of the time it’s straight from the ego, and there’s already enough of the human ego stamped over this world of ours. Art in service of the ego may still be art, but it’s not, in my view, important art.

I believe art is important when it has a transcendent quality; when it points us beyond the surface-level miasma of humdrum human existence — what Buddhists refer to as samsara — and hints of the possibility of something greater, something beyond. I believe art, in its highest expression, serves to remind us who we are. Through images, stories, narratives and sound, it reflects back to us what we truly are. There’s a place for examining the surface-level world of maya, but we don’t really need art for that, we simply need to look around us or turn on the six o’clock news.

But it’s possible for art to take us deeper into ourselves, inviting us ask questions about ourselves and life itself. Who are we? Where did this consciousness come from and where is it going? What is the world? Where did it come from and where is it going? Is it everything we’ve always assumed it to be, or is it possible we’ve somehow misperceived the universe, ourselves and our relation to it?

I’ve come to learn that the answer is never in the answers. It’s in the questions.

At best, I believe, art can make us reflect upon these questions; questions that serve to bring us back to ourselves. Just about everything else in the world is pulling our attention outward and distracting us from OUR SELVES (which is actually the very thing we’re truly seeking in life — direct, conscious awareness of our own being).

Some time ago I was sent one of those email questionnaire things and one of the questions was “do you prefer art or technology?” and I was amazed at the number of people (practically everyone) that said technology. I probably shouldn’t have been, for nowadays technology is almost like a drug or religion for many people. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but what can technology do but distract us from ourselves? It’s never going to compel us to venture inward and perhaps, in time, stumble upon the in-built but long-dormant self-realisation mechanism — which is the only legitimate end to the cycle of suffering that drives us to seek out distractions in the first place.

I still feel compelled to create art, to write and create music because I feel something within me wants to be born into the world. I don’t think it’s in service of the ego or just to express emotions or viewpoints (although the latter point I suppose you could debate). If there’s any purpose at all behind what I do, it’s because there’s some element — and it’s not really on a conscious level — that would like to use this channel to spark something in others. A spark of inspiration, of remembering, of insight? Or just an opening that might prompt further questions? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t feel it’s entirely ‘me’ that’s controlling the process. It just is. It’s unfolding as it wants to.

I first had an inkling as to this when I began my first novel, a number of years ago. I thought – “yeah, my novel is going to change the world and make people happier and more enlightened.” I think my ego crept in, in the nicest and kindest possible way. Now, I have no such expectations. I don’t know if what I make will sell or interest anyone, much less whether it will enlighten them. That’s really not my business and I no longer have any investment in the outcome. I just do what I feel compelled to do, because I have to and because a little part of me would wither away if I didn’t. A rose doesn’t bloom in order to make people happy and get some kind of a reaction. It doesn’t hold itself back, either. It just does what it does, because…!

So that’s basically why I feel art is important. There are many artists (not necessarily mainstream ones or ones with great followings and publicity) whose work serves as kind of opening into something greater. It can serve as a catalyst that makes people stop, reflect and open themselves to new possibilities and new ways of seeing life. It can pierce the dream bubble and spark something quite wonderful, enabling the viewer/experiencer to blossom themselves. Maybe they’ll then bring that same essence into the world where it will have a similar effect on others, whether it’s in the form of art, behaviour, actions or simply BEING.

No motives though. It just happens — or it doesn’t. And it has an effect on others and the world — or it doesn’t. Art is alive and when it comes from a place beyond the ego and beyond consumer concerns and market pressures, it has the ability to change us and to change the world. Not change us in the sense of making us something other than we are, but simply removing the clouds of illusion that currently obstruct so many of us from being what we are. Art then can be a great wake-up call, which will resonate for those that are ready for it and go straight over the heads of those that aren’t.

For now, if I’m able, I’ll continue to respond to the creative impulses that compel me to create art in different forms, knowing that the impulse to create is there for a reason, that I’m not truly in control of it and that the reasons and outcome are way beyond my control. Some artists fall into the trap of ego, mistakenly believing it’s them that is responsible for their creations. But for me, it’s the humblest job in the world. I don’t own creativity, I can’t control it and I’m fully aware that it’s not really me that does anything (and frankly I don’t even consider myself particularly talented).

It just happens and I’m very cool with that, because it feels good. I’m really very clear on that point — and it’s a strangely liberating realisation!

The Invisible Artist

Look Within

The Winter months, I’ve decided, will be focused on research, marketing and sales. Sounds horrendously dull, doesn’t it, but it’s all necessary. I’m not exactly sure how, but I’ll hopefully find ways to make it fun.

My reluctance to embrace the sales and marketing aspect of things got me thinking. I realise now that I’ve always been something of an invisible artist (I’m here using the word ‘artist’ as a blanket term that includes writing, music and pretty much anything creative).

I remember one day in school, when I was about 11 or 12 years old. We all had to write stories and the teacher decided to read my story to the entire class — something she’d never done before or since. I was beyond mortified! I sat with my head buried in my hands, wishing I could just crawl out of the room. I don’t know why I was so embarrassed. I suppose when I write, I’m in a private place where I feel able to invest a lot of myself into the story. It’s not as though it was an overtly personal piece of writing, or some kind of confessional, but it was nevertheless a private world I’d created and I wasn’t ready for it to be shared with other people.

I was a very creative child, yet I was always very careful with whom I shared my work. I usually only entrusted it to adults, such as parents and teachers. For some reason, aside from my closest friends, I didn’t like my peers looking at my work too closely. I suppose I was wary of the possibility they might rip it to shreds — figuratively or literally! Kids can be cruel enough as it is, but for me the greatest cruelty would have been for someone to enter my inner world, the world of my imagination and dreams, and to bulldoze it to pieces. So I was always very careful who I invited into that inner space, and in many ways I still am. It’s a private — and in many ways even a sacred — space.

I’m still something of an invisible artist. Creativity is something that’s quite solitary to me. I like to hide away while I create things and there’s a large part of me doesn’t really care how many people see, much less buy, what I’ve done. I don’t have many skills, or even much interest, when it comes to marketing and sales.  All I want to do is move onto the next thing I want to create.

This is all very well, but obviously it doesn’t result in the sales necessary to generate a sustainable income. At the moment my health is such that self-employment is my only feasible option, as I need to be able to set my own hours. So I really have to take my abilities and make them work for me! I’ve now committed myself to creating from my inner world and it’s still a rather personal and delicate process, but it’s time to push past my old comfort zone and courageously invite others to share my dreams and vision.

The only way I can do that is to learn to market and promote my work, including my upcoming novels. This goes against my natural inclinations, as I have a very zen-like approach to life and in the past have operated under the belief that whoever’s meant to see my work, will. I would never want anyone to buy anything I do unless they’re going to derive enjoyment from it. But I now realise it’s my job to ensure that as many people as possible know that my work exists, and have that option.

There is no shortage of talented artists and writers out there, and everyone’s clambering to promote and sell their work. I maintain a naturally humble outlook on my work and my abilities. I know I’m not the most talented artist or writer out there, but I remain convinced my work has merit and it’s own special quality. The overriding principle behind all my work, and the reason I do what I do, is to bring more inspiration into a world with a clear inspiration-deficit. My work is usually about transcendence, deeper understanding of life and opening to the beauty of what is, beyond the obstructions that tend to blind us. This is reflected in everything I do, and I offer my work in the hopes it will benefit the recipient in some way, however subtle.

If that sounds in any way self-aggrandising, it’s truly not meant in that way. I simply do what I do because I want to make the world a better place in some slight way, and to positively impact others. That’s my real motive and it’s genuinely from the heart. I’m certainly not in this for fame and fortune (I’d rather remain an invisible artist, frankly), but I would like to believe that the act of bringing some new piece of art or prose into the world, makes the world a slightly better, brighter place. For me, creativity is something that should be used positively, to offset some of the suffering and pain that fills this tough little world of ours.

So the invisible artist is making moves to make some of his work a little more visible. People will either like it or they won’t, and I’m fine with either. People will either buy it or they won’t, and that’s wonderful (why would I want someone to buy something unless they wanted to?). Perhaps in Springtime I’ll get back to the fun stuff (writing, painting, etc), but for the next few months, I’m going to work on developing some skills relating to marketing and suchlike. As with anything in life, it’s important to balance the yin with the yang. We’ll see how this goes. Stay tuned 🙂

That strange no-man’s-land

The strange no-man’s-land I speak of is that awkward place between projects. I’m sure most artists/writers/creative people will know exactly what I mean.

I’ve recently completed a novel that took two years of my life, as well as finishing an expanded series of artwork that took nearly as long. I’m ready to draw a line under all I’ve done so far. I’m filled with ideas for new stories and art. Yet I don’t feel it’s the right time to initiate anything new. Because first of all I actually have to DO SOMETHING with the work I’ve created!

I know it’s time to take my babies and get them out into the world. They weren’t created just to sit hidden away in drawers. I don’t know how they’ll fare in the big bad world, but I do know it’s time to nudge them out of the nest in the hopes they’ll spread their wings and fly. It’s an exciting, scary and disorienting time.

I must confess, I’m in no way a salesman. The art of marketing and selling is totally alien to me. In an ideal world I’d have someone else to take my creations and market them, someone whose passion and talent lies in this very field. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So, it’s really up to me!

Question is: what am I going to do?

More on this to come…

My artist statement

A lot of art is created to express or elicit certain emotions or thoughts. Whether I’m writing, creating visual art or music, my main intent is to explore and express the deeper, subtler aspects of reality. I try to point to the inherent beauty within and beyond all visible forms of life. I rarely just depict the outer form as perceived by the eyes, but try to express the energy behind it, the life force that animates and sustains it.

There is so much more to life than we can see with our eyes or perceive with our senses. I believe that everything is alive, interconnected and infused with a subtle life energy, without which nothing would have cohesion or life. My affinity with Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, Buddhism and nondualism has inspired and informed my work, as well as my approach to life.

A lot of the time we plod through life with our eyes closed, lost in a tangled web of thoughts and living life as little more than a conditioned reflex. It’s a lofty goal, but the intent of my work is to gently nudge people out of this state, encouraging them to see life with a new set of eyes and a fresh perspective.

We live in a society of excess, yet one of the few things we lack in excess, or in any great measure, is inspiration. I feel that art should redress that imbalance. Of course, art is created for many different reasons, all of which are valid in their own way. But personally I feel that if art isn’t inspiring then it is, by its own definition, uninspiring.

I like to express the beauty of life. No matter how much we plaster the planet in cement and cover it in neon lights, beneath the surface, beyond all the conflict and suffering we inflict on ourselves and others, life is a thing of beauty. And so too are we, because we are not separate from life. We are life…living itself, exploring, expressing and coming to know itself.