It's Not What You Create, It's That You Create
By Kate Quinlan | Updated July 7, 2018
Everyday you are subjected to attitudes and notions that influence your life, your thinking, your creating. Some of these attitudes are necessary cultural norms. Some are encouraging and liberating. But unavoidable are the damaging notions and opinions that can undermine your confidence. Whether a quick comment overheard, or firmly ingrained dogma, it is too easy to take on attitudes that do your spirit harm. It is paramount that you resist these notions and fortify yourself against the opinions that are not true to your thinking. They will not enhance your creating. In fact they will stifle your creative exploration. Think of it as damage control and resist taking these notions on as your own.
As you nurture your creative self, you will often feel the nag of self-doubt. When you are in this vulnerable state, it can be easy to assume that the creative work of others is better than your own. You see the creative accomplishments of artists and crafters in the media, in galleries, on the Internet, at exhibits, workshops, and classes. This constant exposure to a variety of art and artists can lead you to assume that others have been blessed with bountiful creative abilities and you are fooling yourself to think you have any.
The assumption that the creativity of others is better than yours is false and must be resisted. In fact, the creative accomplishments of others have no reflection on your work. Discovering and exploring your creativity is not a competition. Your creative work stands alone as your creative work.
When setting out on your creative path, determining whose is better is a false destination. Your goal is to learn about your own abilities and limitations, discover and play with materials, and to thoroughly enjoy the process. When you completely engage in these moments of creating, your work is as worthy as any other. Don't make assumptions about your creative work based on the works of others.
When you've worked hard putting your resolute spirit into creating, it feels good to be received with resounding praise. But showing your work to others can be unnerving. Sometimes when you reveal your work to family or peers or to public view, the reception is mixed. But if you let even a single disparaging remark even something as banal as "What's that?" undercut your confidence, it hinders your willingness to try again. Echoes reverberate from childhood telling you to stay in the lines or that the sky should be blue.
Plentiful is the advice to just ignore what other people think (yeah, right!). It can be very difficult to ignore the reaction of others, but it is worth objective analysis. Opinion about your work will always come from a variety of sources. Ask yourself: Is this opinion coming from someone you know or respect? Do you know from where this person's attitude about your work comes? Is it experience? Ignorance? Could it be envy?
It may very well be that a dubious opinion emanates from someone who is herself intimidated by your work, and is simply responding critically in self-protection. I am not suggesting you become defensive when someone's opinion of your work is less than glowing. But I am suggesting you keep in mind the possibility that the reactions of others are not always about your work, but rather about the person voicing the opinion. This may sound like an early chapter from your Psych 101 textbook, but it is nonetheless valuable to remember. You are in a vulnerable moment when you seek compliments and get something less. This can bring on unpleasant emotional and even physical reactions. What you interpret as negative criticism can scare and intimidate. You must process others' perception of your work carefully and not let them wound your creative energies.
On the other hand, constructive criticism, critiques from peers or a master, is a wonderful gift to seek, albeit carefully. You can gain from the expert whose work you admire and whom you trust to give valuable feedback. You must trust yourself to resist being intimidated when someone is willing to risk delivering an honest appraisal.
Ironically, praise can also be intimidating. You've worked hard, all the while yearning for recognition and praise. And when the adulation arrives whammo! Regardless of how much you wish and hope and pray for it, favorable judgment can be daunting. With acclaim can come self-doubt about the authenticity of your work or the ability to reproduce the same quality next time. A looming deadline, should your work be in demand, can intimidate anyone into a dandy of a creative block. The long sought praise, when it finally arrives, can be a double-edged sword.
It may take some personal soul searching and coaching to get you past your feelings of intimidation. Whatever it takes, you must resist intimidation and find better ways to process reactions, negative and positive, that others might express.
Sometimes those who are near and dear to you will invoke their ideas about what you "should" be creating. Comments like: "How about something to match the sofa?" or "Can you draw / paint / write something like what I saw on television or in a magazine?" These implications of how you should be doing your work, suggestions that clearly come from outside your creative exploration, are best ignored. Politely and firmly, ignored. I'm not referring to feedback or assistance you might ask for from a mentor or coach or fellow artist who knows you and your work. I'm referring to the so-called advice from someone who cares enough to offer their ideas, but has no clue what your work is really about. You need to be familiar, comfortable, and grounded in your work, and not be vulnerable to implications otherwise.
No doubt even the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock, and other groundbreaking artists received well-meaning comments implying that they really ought to make their paintings a bit more realistic. Probably many more unknown artists endured creative lives of frustration as they let themselves be influenced by well-intentioned suggestions about their work or the trends of their time. It takes practice to develop skin tough enough to resist such advice from others, particularly when it comes with sincere amenity. But once you allow yourself to be influenced by errant implications well, that heavy thunk you just heard was the door of a creative adventure slamming shut. Offer a simple thank you. They were, after all, just trying to help. Then stop listening and continue your creative work.
The visionary work that occurs before getting your hands involved can take you into imagining all kinds of wonderful possibilities. A vision of what you're going to create is necessary to the task. However, expecting a singular result can obliterate your view. If you are rigid in what you are working toward, you will bypass the process and miss out on the exploration of options.
Think of all the creativity lost when an assignment is given with the words, "It should look like this when you're done." If you've heard these words (haven't we all?), abolish them from your thinking. It is the side-winding and veering off the path that takes you to new creative places. Perhaps what you thought was going to be a painting becomes a collage. What you started as an embellished piece of clothing becomes a tapestry to hang on the wall. Or vice versa. You could end up taking on a lead role in the play when you thought you were auditioning to be in the chorus. Maybe your family expects you to complete your training in architecture, but you've discovered animation to be far more exciting. Don't charge forward hell-bent on getting to one place fast. Meander. Notice where you've been and where you might be heading. Having a single pre-defined destination reduces the many possibilities that could take you further than you expected.
It can be tempting, particularly when your ideas are not flowing or your confidence is teetering, to look at someone else's creative accomplishments and endeavor to do the same. Sure, you might come up with something to show for it, but if it's meant to be like the work of another, it's lacking in your true and unique creative input. The effort will probably also lack in personal gratification. If you're only striving for praise, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but it's a nasty business to fool yourself!
Viewing the work of others is certainly a wonderful source of inspiration, motivation and stimulating ideas. We all study artists past and present for an overview of possibilities. It's exciting when the work of other artists spur you to explore your own creativity. But you must translate your exploration into the realm of your own creativity, doing more than adding your mark to an imitative effort. Your creative work needs to come from your inner core, your mental imagery, your exploration. In your yearning to create, you only trip yourself up by duplicating the creative efforts of others. Bypass the personal creative journey and you cheat yourself of the personal gratification, and you cheat the world of your potential.
©2005 Kate Quinlan. All rights reserved.
This collection of insights for successful creating is based on Rick Benzel's anthology Inspiring Creativity: Powerful Insights and Practical Ideas to Guide You to Successful Creating and published with permission in collaboration with the following authors.