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Standing at Water's Edge by Anne Paris, PhD
Anne Paris : Standing at Water's Edge Book Excerpt

Standing at Water's Edge

The Need for Others

By Anne Paris, PhD

"For not only young children...but human beings of all ages are found to be at their happiest and to be able to deploy their talents to best advantage when they are confident that, standing behind them, there are one or more trusted persons who will come to their aid should difficulties arise. The person trusted provides a secure base from which his (or her) companion can operate. And the more trustworthy the base the more it is taken for granted; and the more it is taken for granted, unfortunately, the more likely is its importance to be overlooked and forgotten." — J. Bowlby, MD, Separation: Anxiety and Anger

To begin my discussion about the importance of others in supporting the creative process, I would like to present an interview I had with Loren Long, an accomplished artist who has illustrated many books, including Mr. Peabody's Apples by Madonna, I Dream of Trains by Angela Johnson, a 2004 edition of When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer by Walt Whitman, and the 2006 redo of the classic The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

I met with Loren at a very comfortable and homey small coffeehouse. He seemed right at home there, casual and easygoing. "Everyone thinks that I am so laid-back and relaxed. But my wife will tell you that I am actually quite intense when it comes to my work."

I told Loren that I wanted to get a feel for his internal experiences as he works on a project. Specifically, I said, I was interested in the role of other people in his process. He quickly said that his wife is his biggest support. "She's not an artist, but she has great taste. I run everything by her, sometimes daily as I'm working on a project. She is my first level of screening. If she likes it, then I feel the confidence to proceed.

"My publishers' opinions are also very important to me," he continued. "Not just because they determine if my work is adequate. I admire and respect them a lot. I want them to like what I've done. I guess that, in general, I always need someone to like my work. If they don't, my self-doubts come to the surface. You know, like I'm not living up to the grand fantasies I have about myself or about what my work should look like. Although I generally have a pretty good sense about the quality of my work, if the publishers don't like it, sometimes I feel like I have been found out. Like the show is over; others have finally realized that I am not so good.

"I need ongoing feedback of all my work. Sometimes I need to protect it until I get it to a certain point — a point good enough for show — even for my wife."

Loren made a point of describing the decision he made years ago to keep his life and time balanced between his work and his family. "My wife and children are very important to me. I have artist friends who either are single or devote all of their time to their art and miss out on good relationships with their families. They are much more productive than me — more prolific — they put out a lot of work. But I didn't want to be an absent husband or father. My dad was always there for me — that's how I was raised. I am careful to prioritize time with my wife and kids. They make me feel good and they keep me grounded. Like when I got the deal to do the Madonna illustrations. It is hard to get too carried away with yourself as a big-time artist when you're picking up dog poop in the backyard. I dream about being the greatest. It gives me motivation to keep on swinging, but I keep myself in check by living a normal lifestyle. I remind myself that I am a working artist — like a blue-collar artist —and that keeps me grounded and more able to handle the frustrations that come up.

"I don't get paralyzed in drawing but I certainly have highs and lows throughout the process.

"I suppose that I have sacrificed my career somewhat by choosing to prioritize my wife and kids. Maybe I would produce more art if I isolated myself into my work."

"Loren," I said, "maybe you have chosen to prioritize your family because you have the strength to connect with them as well as with your art. Some artists seclude themselves in their studios because they are unable to immerse in relationships. They are too frightened of intimacy. I view your lifestyle as a sign of your strength, and I believe that your relationships with your wife and children support and enrich your ongoing capacity to create."

We all need relationships with others to be at our best. When we are surrounded with support, we are more productive, happy, and energetic. Positive relationships help to move us forward and help us to grow. Positive relationships also help the artist along in his creative process. Good relationships can bolster our courage to take the plunge into creativity. And likewise, not-so-good relationships, or a lack of relationships, can inhibit our dive. What kinds of relationships do you need to sustain your creativity? And how do you develop these kinds of relationships? This section will address this dimension of the creative process, which has been woefully ignored.

Although most people will agree that relationships are an important part of their life and that relationships help them to feel strong and capable, many people have a difficult time developing and sustaining these supports. In fact, many, many people I see for psychotherapy live with the illusion of self-sufficiency. Our Western culture has placed so much emphasis and value on independence and autonomy that many people feel ashamed and weak when they are not able to handle everything by themselves. "I should be able to do it by myself," "I shouldn't be so reliant on others for my self-esteem," and "I should be able to help myself" are typical statements by the majority of people I see in my office (and that I know personally!). The epidemic of self-sufficiency is so widespread that it has infiltrated our marriages, our schools, our friendships, and our psyches. Not all cultures share this perspective. In Japan, the concept of the self-with-other is at the opposite extreme. In that culture, independence and individuality are viewed as negative traits. Japanese culture, instead, views connection and belonging to the group (family, marriage, collective society) as the highest state of being.

I believe that we are at our best when we find a middle ground between these two extremes of independence and dependence. Mutual relationships, where we respond to the needs of the other while maintaining our own sense of self, are optimal. In addition, relationships are the fertile ground in which our uniqueness and strength grow. From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate how relationships with others are a critical part of initiating and sustaining the creative process.

I have described how relationships with others are an important alternative realm of immersive experience that we can turn to for strength and rejuvenation when we disengage from creativity. But I will go even further to argue that our creative activity is undertaken in the first place in the hopes of generating certain kinds of relationships. Therefore, I believe that our experience of self-in-connection-with-others is so vital that it lies at the heart of most of what we do. •

Next: An Interview with Author Anne Paris, PhD »

Excerpted with permission from the book Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fears, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion © 2008 by Anne Paris. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. or 800-972-6657 ext. 52

Dr. Anne Paris is a clinical psychologist who has helped artists along in their creative processes for over 20 years. More »