I self-medicate by making art. When I mentioned this recently to an artist friend, she responded that making art stresses her out. Her work isn’t up to her standards. And isn’t that the game we are all playing? My Muse inspires me, drives me to create. I try my best with the materials and skills at hand to give material form to that inner stirring, to share that non-material vision / impression / idea. Its only chance of being seen, of touching others, is to emerge through my hands into the light of day.
And it never—and I do mean never, ever—comes out the way it shimmers in my imagination. On rare occasions, it may surprise me with being far better. Or delight me in some unexpected way. It’s like doing Improv with myself: I make a move on the paper; I catch myself off guard; I respond with “yes-and,” and make my next move. Eventually, a scene evolves.
When I want to quit in the middle (or even, not infrequently, at the beginning), I remember to stay with it. To be as present as I can. To follow with diligence wherever the muse is leading me. If I can stay present this way, I will be led to a new place. Make a move, respond, offer, counter-offer. Fill the empty space, the empty page, with this conversation.
Or, as it often feels, reveal what’s there beneath that veil of white. Strip away bits of the All to reveal something Specific. Michelangelo spoke of his sculpture this way, of liberating the form sleeping deep within the stone. His Slaves are eloquent on this point.
Years ago, I heard the maxim that Enlightenment is a terrible disappointment—for the ego. Maybe that’s what’s going on each time we are disappointed by one of our creations. It’s not so much that we have made something objectively mediocre / banal / ugly / useless. Micromanage as it might, the ego simply wasn’t able to fully control the outcome.
And yet, without ego, I wouldn’t be able to make art or write a thing. It’s a fascinating paradox: how to bring ego to a project and still remain open to what unfolds. Enlist ego as a solider without allowing it to take command.
Improv shows me that I have other, hidden, faculties. It’s possible to tune so deeply in to multiple dimensions as they unfold, that you lose all sense of time passing. There is only now, and now, and now. Which comes with a heightened awareness of other people’s nuanced emotions and movements and only secondarily, their words. The exhilaration of feeling that connection and wholeness, the relational truth of reality, can be addicting.
The same thing is operating during creative work undertaken alone. Psychologists call this the “flow state.” This may give insight but it’s also like trying to trap smoke in a cage.
The mind-chatter of harsh criticism that I experience when writing a new scene is my ego being disappointed in the outcome. Yes, the scene comes out watery thin on first pass. It’s an act of humility to recognize and appreciate the few parts that show promise. This may be why I sometimes want to show my work to a trusted friend. Yes, their validation or gentle criticism mostly feeds my ego, but it’s more like a peace offering. It quiets the ego so my creative self can get back to the work of tuning in to the Muse’s guidance.
When I come back to that new scene the next day from a place of receptivity and trust, as I would a scene partner in Improv, I seem to know just where to tweak, what words will convey a moment’s hesitation or the longing of a wounded woman hiding behind cynicism to push her lover away.
Why do I care about all this? It feels relevant, tied to new ways of being in the world. Of balancing expectation and openness. The dance of ego and intuition points to a way forward.