writer + artist

Is Doubt Getting in the Way of Your Work?

with one comment

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”

– Lao Tzu

I feel like I need this reminder this week, and maybe you do too. Let things be what they need to be. Tell the doubt that you don’t have time for it today. Let your words and mind go where they need to go. Get out of the way of yourself. Stay with what needs you but let yourself move on to whatever is next when the time comes. Allow yourself to flow.

Why is it so hard to exist in that flow space though? I came across a 1973 lecture by Agnes Martin, titled “On the Perfection Underlying Life” that begins to get at the answer to that question.

When we wake up in the morning we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.

I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient – short of what is expected or needed. I would like somehow to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work.

Fear. Failure. Defeat. Doubt.

So many of us struggle with this. Perhaps it’s because this has been on my mind, but I have seen numerous references to doubt pop up in the last week. I saw the writer and illustrator Emily McDowell tackle the question on Instagram (I loved her answer), I saw a comic about impostor syndrome, after reading an article about Gabriele Münter I thought about how much inspiration someone can give someone else, and how quickly that can turn to doubt.

I even had my own doubts, and expressed them to an artist friend over text. He texted me back: “doubting is a part of being an artist. I just acknowledge it (“hey, hi there doubt!”) and then ignore it.”

I responded. “Yeah, ‘hi there doubt, I don’t have time for you today, kindly fuck off.” You could opt for a less crude choice of words for the doubt in your life, but keep the sentiment the same. There is a balance of course, and if we never listen to that voice in our head, we might not acknowledge some of the things that we need to change in order to do better work. Come back to the doubt later, once you are done doing the work. Assess where it’s coming from, perhaps what it’s trying to say. Acknowledge it, hear it out, maybe change your course depending on what you discover, but do not let it become an obstacle in your process.

Where is that doubt born? It bubbles up in some of the most courageous, inspiring people that I know, which is why it’s even more important to talk about it, to remind ourselves that we all experience it on some level. We are all afraid. We work in spite of it. We do the best we can.

There is another element at play that holds us back: perfection. Striving for perfection tends to keep us dangerously close to doubt. I think of Anne Lamott’s treatment of perfection in her book Bird by Bird.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Run. Keep moving. Literally and physically.

That is in fact the best that we can do. That flow state comes from when we are moving forward and we have dropped the expectations of where we will land.

Towards the end of her lecture, Martin has this to say about perfection.

Perfection is not necessary. Perfection you can not have. If you do what you want to do and what you can do and if you can then recognize it you will be contented. You cannot possibly know what it will be but looking back you will not be surprised at what you have done.

Scrap perfection. Honor the doubt and move on. Push forward. Make the work that you believe in.

We do what we want, and we do what we can, and if we do, we can enjoy the process, savor it, appreciate it, and we can work to erase our expectations of perfection.

Written by Anna Brones

July 13, 2018 at 08:38

One Response

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  1. Good:)


    July 14, 2018 at 08:17

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