Standing at Water's Edge

The Need for Others in Supporting the Creative Process

from Standing at Water's Edge By Anne Paris, PhD

Posted 4/12/08 | Updated 5/12/21

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.

"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."

Interview with Anne Paris, PhD

Q: What do you want readers to get from your book Standing at Water's Edge?

A: I hope readers come away from this book feeling appreciated, understood, and less alone. I hope they feel strengthened, inspired, and comforted and that they gain a new awareness about how their internal world is affected by both real and imagined others. I hope they are left with a new appreciation of how the power of certain kinds of relationships can help them to grow as artists and as individuals.

Q: How did writing your book affect you?

A: It was a wild experience because I felt I was living the book as I wrote it. Because I was involved in the very creative process I was writing about, it was an incredible mirror of my own internal states. Right along beside the artists I wrote about in the book, I experienced similar highs, lows, self-doubts, and grandiose fantasies. My family, friends, and colleagues were incredibly supportive. Throughout the long road to publication, I was confronted with my deepest hopes, dreams, fears, and dreads. I feel like I've stretched myself into many new horizons — professionally, artistically, and especially, interpersonally.

Q: What does it take to be creative?

A: It takes feeling "connected in", or immersed with the artwork. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to allow yourself to dive into that state of creative immersion — that state of being merged with the art form — because the whole process is very unknown and uncertain. I think that connections with others, whether in reality or fantasy, are what give us the courage to take that dive.

Q: Is this book only for fine artists?

A: No! It is for anyone seeking to be creative, whether that is in fine art or in any endeavor that requires creativity, ingenuity, or scholarship.

Q: You say that our sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency are illusions. Aren't we all trying to be independent? Isn't independence a good thing?

A: I say that self-sufficiency and independence are illusions because there is a dimension of interpersonal experience within us that is operating all the time but generally outside of our conscious awareness. When we tune into it, we see the powerful impact that our sense of connection with others has on our internal life — it can be good or bad, but when we pay attention to it, we discover that it affects our day to day, even moment to moment, behaviors, feelings, and productivity. Even when we're alone, we have active imaginations and fantasies about longings and hopes for connection. This deep, even primal, longing for connection often goes unrecognized, or is dismissed as weak, needy, or defective. But I argue that we create in order to feel connected. We want to be seen and understood, to engage with and have an impact on others, and to have something valuable to offer. Although we have been taught that being strong and "grown up" means becoming independent and separate from others, this new perspective argues that we gain our independence, individuality, and self-confidence through our connections with others. Self-growth happens within connection, not apart from it.

Q: These are bold statements that challenge our society's emphasis on being independent, strong, and self-sufficient. What is the basis for your radical argument?

A: I was trained in contemporary psychoanalytic theory, which has been coming to these conclusions over the past 30 years. The training that a therapist receives will certainly affect what kinds of things they tune into and "hear" when listening to a client. Because of this framework for understanding people, my clinical experience in talking with many artists naturally involved empathizing with, and inquiring about, their deeply felt hopes, fears, and dreads. Over the last decade, a plethora of scientific findings in neuroscience, primatology, and child development are supporting this new direction and are highlighting the power of interpersonal experience in propelling psychological development forward. I have applied these understandings to the artist involved in the creative process.

Q: You say that connection with others is crucial in the creative process. Many of the artists I know are very private people who are most comfortable being alone. What about the isolated artist who produces a lot of work?

A: There are most certainly genetic and personality differences in how much connection we need to feel comfortable and at our best. Isolated or introverted artists often have a vivid and alive fantasy life of connecting with others that plays a powerful role in their creative productivity. Also, these artists may be turning to other types of connections (spirituality, play, pets, and other's artwork) to sustain their work. For some artists at certain times, creative immersion may feel like the safest and most comfortable way of connecting with others, so their creativity flourishes even when they are isolated.

Q: You argue that nowadays people have a much more difficult time attaching with others than being independent. What about people who attach too much and seem to lose their independence?

A: Healthy attachments involve mutuality — a give and take between people. When this give and take is relatively balanced, both people are strengthened. However, many of our struggles in life are about finding this balance. People who tend to give more than they receive, or putting the other person's needs and feelings consistently ahead of their own, are likely to lose their sense of individuality and independence. It's not that they should be less connected — it's that they need to become more aware of their own needs and find ways to equalize the balance in the relationship.

Q: You describe how all artists struggle with fear, vulnerability, and self-doubt. Many of the artists I know are arrogant and don't seem to care what others think. How do you understand these people?

A: The bigger the fear, the bigger the defense. These "arrogant" types are often the most sensitive and most insecure — they are emotionally fragile on the inside and cannot tolerate any hint of criticism or injury. They must hold tightly to their protective shell of grandiosity because negative responses from others are deeply threatening to them. The level of their arrogance equals the level of their internal fragility.

Q: I've always thought I was supposed to be self-confident enough not to care what others think about me or my work. Isn't it unhealthy to be reliant on the approval of other people?

A: No! We are social beings that constantly gauge what others think of us. It is normal, it is natural, and it is ok! When we can accept that we need others to be at our best, we can turn our attention and energy towards building mutual, give and take relationships with others that will propel us and them forward! Now we view "mental health" as the capacity to create and maintain relationships that will gratify and sustain us. Strength, inspiration, and confidence do not lie preformed in a person, covered up and waiting to be found. They are found in immersive connections with others, with the art, and with the audience.

Q: What is the basis for blocks in the creative process? How does connecting with others help us along in our solitary creative endeavors?

A: Fear and a lack of connection with others are the basis for creative blocks and procrastinations. Developing and sustaining relationships with mirrors, heroes, and twins actually gives us the psychological nourishment — which we take in and make our own — to risk taking the dive. Finding support, inspiration, and comfort with others helps us to feel worthy, confident, and hopeful. These are the feelings that propel us forward.

Dr. Anne Paris is a clinical psychologist who has helped artists along in their creative processes for over 20 years. Her approach, which is based on cutting-edge psychological understandings and research, appreciates the inner world of the artist in a new way and points to the importance of connections with others throughout the creative process. Through this revolutionary approach, she has helped famous, professional, and hobby artists start and sustain their creative process so they could complete a work of art. Visit her online at

Standing at Water's Edge by Anne Paris, PhD

The Need for Others is excerpted with permission from Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion ©2008 by Anne Paris. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.