My crazy creative acts don’t add up

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Dear Cary –

My creative doubts have been simmering like a mild poison in my heart and mind for years and I’m starting to hate myself. I need to do something about it.

Nine years ago I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By age 31 I had accidentally become a loudmouth, performance-arty, punk-rocky type person. I say accidentally because as a dull-witted, privileged, Southern Californian white girl, I wouldn’t have chosen that life. I wouldn’t have believed myself capable of thriving on the grungy, diversified, kaleidoscopic roller coaster that is (was?) New York City.

I was a quiet adolescent with vague aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, though I had no aptitude for science and was a poor student; I just liked Sea World and wanted to ride around on the whales. Then in high school I found the drama kids, in college I majored in theater and went on to get an MFA in acting; even though acting is an impractical profession, the path was well defined. I went on auditions, tried to land an agent, took head shots and even started a theatre company of my own. But I wanted to run wild and so I did.

I raced around New York on my bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, having sex with random creatives and cursing loudly into microphones. I would do anything as long as I considered it to be “arty.” I wasn’t accomplishing anything real, though — nothing I could point to and say, “If only I’d kept doing ‘xyz’ I could have made it.”

I wrote short stories, sang and played guitar, acted in plays and did standup comedy and I am not being overly critical of my abilities when I say that unless something unusual happened like it did for some of the lesser bands that hung out at CBGB’s, my antics weren’t going to get me what I really wanted which was to be a part of the professional rather than amateur conversation by making the art that only I can make. I prayed that the group of misfits I was surrounded by would achieve a Studio 54 level of significance, if only in retrospect, so that my showboating would turn out to be meaningful. I can see now that artists like Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac or Kathleen Hanna are actually doing what I thought I was doing, but wasn’t. Anyway.

I was also lonely and I yearned for romantic love so when I met my husband — the true love of my life, also a standup comic, musician and actor — it felt like hitting the jackpot. I became shy and lost my taste for exhibitionism and decided to drop out of my punk rock band and focus on writing. I grew quieter and I liked it.

I worked as a secretary and eventually became a flight attendant. We got married and both started to feel chewed up by the New York grind. We bought a house in the desert where my parents live and we love it out here. Neither of us misses big-city life.

I quit flying and became a secretary again, wrote five incomprehensible novels and created a silly/offensive cartoon and blog.

But then I started to feel hidden in a bad way. It seemed none of the people around me understood that I had more to offer than the ability to arrive on time and fill out expense reports. I felt sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it.

I didn’t know how to handle this feeling, but I wanted to take action so I swore that I was going to work as hard as I could on my latest novel. I was going to write my way out of the ugly, grey sweats and let the world see my feathers again. I quit my job and for a year I’ve been living off of my savings trying to do whatever it takes to finish the fucking thing.

But I hate it. The novel — writing it has been just … bad. Not bad like “Keep at it and you’ll get better!” bad, but bad like “Why do this when every single day writing feels like a dead, empty, cold, fishy void?” Right now I’m working now on my third rewrite (rewrite as in I’m rewriting the whole thing from scratch) and I just don’t care. My feathers are as droopy as ever. They’re wilting and I think they might be starting to fall out. The novel is meaningless. I am disgusted with myself, but I swore I’d finish it.

I feel like I’ve wasted all of my energy and enthusiasm and now I’m going to be 40 and I have absolutely nothing to show for my artistic ambitions. I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.

Today I spent the afternoon contemplating getting a degree in digital media arts at the local community college. It seems like a practical thing to do, but is it? Is it just more of the same? Who’s to say I won’t hate that too?

I’ve tried teaching yoga for a year and I really, really hate teaching yoga. I hate secretarial work. I hate writing novels. I’ve tried and failed at a crafty Etsy endeavor. I enjoy painting and drawing but can’t fathom what makes the visual art world tick and while I can pursue it as a hobby, I feel that a hobby doesn’t achieve my goal of exposing my feathers. I want to dig deep, get serious and contribute something artistic in the next (knock wood) forty years. I don’t know what I want to do only that I don’t want to be a nurse or an actress or anything that I can point to in a college catalogue. I don’t have or want children. All I’ve ever cared about was art but I can’t seem to make any.

I want more out of life, but it seems that I am an asshole who doesn’t like anything and can’t do anything well. I should also say that I am very fortunate to have a great husband and great parents who love me and I know how lucky I am.

Can you please tell me if I sound like an asshole? I’m so tone deaf that I don’t even know if these concerns are meaningful or just the dissatisfied whining of someone who’s been given way too much, encouraged way too much and should just find a way to stop complaining and be a secretary. Help.

With much love and appreciation for what you do,

Like a bird in a sweatsuit


Hey there Bird,

It’s OK for you to move from one thing to another. It’s natural for you. That’s where your energy is.

You are a wanderer. You are gathering wisdom from experience.

The problem is that when you look at what you have accomplished it seems like an incoherent mess. So you feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You are at the beginning of something. You are an artist in the early stages of accomplishment. There is a large, life-defining project awaiting you but you don’t know for sure what it is yet. That’s OK. You are working toward it.

What you need is a pattern of working for the next few years that will allow you to keep doing these seemingly disparate activities while also finishing pieces, and all the while keeping an eye on the unifying whole. I suggest using a loop as a pattern.

Envision a circuit. Picture a studio with several projects in various stages of completion. Or maybe it is not a studio but an open field. Maybe it is the desert. Whatever comes to mind. Line up your various pieces and ideas out there: Your performance-art work, your writing, your punk band, your painting, your jobs. Make a path that links them and walk that path. Go to the project that speaks to you at the time, but water them all. Attend to them all. At times, you may simply go and contemplate a project. That is OK. Your attention is like water. It is like love. It keeps the project breathing while it awaits your hands.

You don’t have to stay with one project until it’s entirely finished. You can move from thing to thing. But line the things up so that as you are moving around, you are moving in a circuit of your creations. Each time you come back to the next thing, it’s at a stage where you can work on it and move it forward. In that way, you can finish things and keep them moving forward. You will eventually finish certain things. Others may languish for years. That is OK. Finish what you can finish. Just don’t turn away from anything in despair. It all has meaning.

At the same time, while you do this, in your spare time, study form.

Concentrate on mastering the basics of any form you work in. The novel, for instance: Master the elemental truths of the novel as a form. Go back to basics. Take a look at what the novelist Jane Smiley did when she got stuck. She read 100 novels and asked herself, what are these things? How do they work? What defines them? She wrote 100 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She got down to basics and defined what a novel is at its most elemental. It is “a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” That’s all. But that’s a lot. The implications of that small statement are immense.

So learn as much as you can about form. Use what you learn to make your pieces cohere.

I sense that you are an extravert, a courageous and in-your-face kind of person, probably an ESFP with an unusually strong intuitive side. It’s vitally important for you to be alive in the moment and impassioned, and you want to share this passion with others. Also, you are physical, tactile. That is your sensing preference. So you need to be doing the stuff. You do your thinking by doing. That’s OK. Because you have a strong intuitive sense (you are probably on the cusp of sensing/intuitive) you can envision and take in nonmaterial ideas.

Creative people are often unbalanced in our talents. We can take steps to moderate our tendency not to finish things. That is one main reason why I created Finishing School — to help those of us who are impassioned and live in the moment but also want to make lasting work. By creating a structure in which we can be just as crazy as we like, we get things finished.

For some people, often those of the “J” persuasion, finishing is the driving motive. For others, the “P’s” among us, the process is the driving motive. For folks like you and me, in the moment of working, it doesn’t matter to us that much whether we finish. Later it does, though. And it matters a great deal to the world, to our audience. So we come upon the dividing point where the creative person must choose between selfishness and service. If we just want to fuck around then we can fuck around and we enjoy it but we are of no use to anyone else. They can’t understand what we are saying because we are not finishing our statements. So we have to supplement our weaker, anarchic, process-oriented, in-the-moment-and-fuck-the-results side. We have to consciously build a structure that ensures we end up finishing things in spite of our tendencies to wander off mid-song.

This requires both finesse and faith.

Since your strong side is the inspiration side, concentrate on building up your conceptual side. This may take a little bit of make-believe; that is, you may have to conjure up a story about each work that is not perhaps entirely literally true. It is a hypothesis that can guide you in making decisions. Ask, What is this piece? What is its thesis? If you are racing around New York on a bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, what is the thesis statement of this activity? What might it be? What is the conceptual framework? Might it be a critique of bourgeoise society? Might it be a celebration of the Dionysian? Might it be about being a woman, or unleashing the power of the body? Try to think in terms of a thesis so that you can make decisions about what goes in and what stays out, and so you can decide when the piece is finished. If you know what the thesis is, then you can say the work is finished when it adequately states the thesis.

You may say, well, people should understand the work anyway, in all its inscrutability. Well, maybe they should. But they won’t. Not unless you give them some framework in which to “understand” it. Now, of course, “understand” is in quotes because it is only a rough equivalent of what actually happens when people apperceive a work; it is the cognitive, expressible side. The other, ineffable side is there too. The mystery doesn’t disappear just because we conceive the work within a hypothesis.

Creating a thesis for a work also provides a basis for deciding various crucial elements. For instance: Do I want to smear bicycle chain grease on my nipples or not? Would that add to the meaning or detract? Would it create a richer pattern or would it seem random? Would it be sexually exploitive of yourself as a woman? And speaking of being sexually exploitive, why nipples? Why not on your face, as a warrior? Or on your biceps?

Another way to deal with these apparently incommensurate forays into various art forms is to conceive of your life as the actual project, or canvas. In that sense, what unifies these various activities? They spring from one unique consciousness; together, they define a person. So ask what are the major themes of your life and how do these activities express those themes? Wandering? Seeking? Rebellion? Break down those themes into their constituents and find correspondences. For instance, where has wandering been synonymous with rebellion? When has rebellion provided answers to what you were seeking? See if you can draw lines — it may help to do this visually — between these themes; look for equivalences and synonymous relationships, and also for the contradictions: Where has rebellion led to confinement? Where has seeking led to emptiness and wandering to stasis? These dualities constitute another ordering principle by which you can bring these various artistic endeavors into a conceptual whole.

That whole is your life.


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10 thoughts on “My crazy creative acts don’t add up”

  1. Hi Bird, I love your letter! I could have written it myself if my attention span at the moment wasn’t so short. I think you should write a memoir – Eat Pray Love for the would-be creative who is all over the place. Good luck!

  2. LW, I would like you to know that your letter is the most inspiring that I’ve read on the new Cary Tennis site.

    It sounds to me like you have had a tremendously interesting life so far. Now, at around what we usually consider to be the “midpoint” of life (40s), with the benefit of experience, maturity, wisdom, hindsight, etc., you’ve figured out a great deal more than many people figure out in a lifetime–in particular, what works for you, what doesn’t, what’s interesting to you, what’s not, how hard it is to earn money from various endeavors, etc. Plus, you recognize that stuff that atrracted your interest at one phase of your life is not necessarily attractive to you now. That’s cool too. It’s all part of growing and changing. That is the very essence of life!

    I’d like you to know this is all good stuff! I’m a (moderately competent) graphic designer. I got to this career by way of the standard Art School route: “craze-eee artist gal at 20 who also wanted some way of making a living doing something ‘creative’ when I hit 25.”

    But you should know that I was WAY more conservative than you during my “crazeee art school years” and truly ENVIED people I knew about doing exactly what you were doing! (Yes, sigh, there was a time when I so badly wished that I could have been a “New York Punk Rock Theatre Skank”–what a DREAM that would have been for me way back then! But, sigh, I was just Miss Dorky McDork from Fort McDork, thousands of miles away from New York City . . . or anywhere else cool for that matter, and played it all way safer than you. Don’t get me wrong, I have my share of now-embarrassing, cringe-inducing, bridge-burning moments as well (hooooo boy!) they just weren’t nearly as cool as yours. Different choices, different path . . . same lessons maybe?)

    But at least you TRIED it! And so what if you never became the next Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson or whoever (sorry I don’t have a more contempory artistic references to insert here–see how uncool and out of date I am?) I LOVE LOVE LOVE the fact that you put yourself out there and tried living life on the edge, in a place where that matters, even for just a little while. You took a chance, you gave it a shot. That’s way better than never trying.

    So what now? Well, you have reached what (famous) designer Paula Scher calls “The Dark in the Middle of the Stairs.” Your no longer a young potentially rising star, full of radical ideas, but you still have years and years of hopefully relevant professional work ahead of you . . . as what? Well, hopefully something . . . ! Something that you love, something that sustains and nurtures that creative and challenging spirit.

    Finding out what this “something” will be is perhaps THE key challenge for any creative person at midlife.

    I don’t know what will work for you, but I have recognized that now is a good time to really look at my skills: what is lacking? What can be improved? What should I let go of? Where do I want to direct my energies now that I have a bit more time, a bit more wisdom, and a bit more money than I had in my student days? Do I need more serious study to move beyond my current level?

    One way to think about this is to make a list of all the things you KNOW you do not want to do, and the things that you know you COULD NOT do—(like maybe Marine Biologist?)–strike them off the list once and for all. Let them go (for me it was Pharmacist! Gahhh! What was I thinking? I wouldn’t last a day as a pharmacist!) Know that those things are out there getting done, and you don’t have to worry about doing/not doing them. Those things are not your job.

    Then, I think you might feel a bit more ready to start narrowing down the things you really do want to do. What media and materials do you love–TRULY LOVE? What would you choose to do for enjoyment, even if you could never be paid? I’d like to add that you are a VERY compelling writer by the way–might I suggest you keep writing in some capacity, even if only as a tool to develop and support some other creative endeavors?

    You sound like the kind of person who is interested in many different things. I believe that is a gift that not everyone has. You should listen to those interests, and find connections between the things you love,and see where they could lead.

    AND, if you aren’t the risk taker and “crazy” performance artist you were back in your 20s, that’s OK too. You might find that having a clearer perspective at this age might give your creative ideas a razor sharp focus (and possibly more receptive audience?) than you were able to achieve back then.

    Also, you didn’t mention travel. I wonder if a trip to somewhere mind-blowing might give you a bit of a kick-start again.

    Keep searching, keep dreaming, keep trying, and above all keep DOING. And also, don’t give up on finding good solid like-minded community support. It’s out there, but you have to look hard for it.

    All the best to you!

    PS: One more thing: In our 20s, creative pursuits tend to be all about ourselves: our own uniqueness, our own complicated romances and emotions, our own self and identity issues . I’ve been noticing that as I’ve moved through my 40s, it has become more interesting to try to connect my creative energies with projects and ideas that are more outward-oriented, more “other” oriented. Not necessarily “charity” or “activist” work, but something with a broader, more worldly view.

  3. Thank you, thank you Cary – and thank you to everyone who commented. I feel so bright and hopeful with so much to chew on and contemplate. What a beautiful thing this is, this community you’ve created, all these amazing people… so grateful and ready to move within my circuit of creations. Love.

  4. All right! This is a great letter. Very satisfying. Also a great answer from Cary. I’m printing this one out and tacking it up for guidance.

    Dear Bird,
    I want to tell you what would be most important to me to hear. I hope it matters to you, as it would to me: I found you interesting. I wanted to know you, read about your life, see your work. All based on your descriptions. Maybe you’re only good at writing, or worse, at writing something really short. But if you could keep this up,the way you write in this letter, I would be greedy to read it. Whatever you tapped when you wrote this letter to Cary, I would like to see that in all your work. To me, you sound desperate but courageous, cowardly but unable to stop, careless, but implacably passionate. If you can be this person who wrote this letter, you would be awesomely interesting. Who is this person? Someone honest, humble, wild, questing, flawed, unreliable, exciting, unpredictable, original, different, vulnerable, avoiding, tender, delicate and robust. I would like all that, I would buy that. I can’t think of anything more enticing than a scared, complex hero who keeps going anyway. I agree with True Blue; I would read about your life if it sounded like your letter.

    I sense that you might be avoiding declaring the meaning of your expression because it’s less scary to toss your hair back, roll your eyes and say “whatever,” than to get serious for a minuet and admit what it means, saying, “Here is what it’s about.” If you do that, then people can get a foothold and know just exactly how to reject you. But you gotta risk that. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. I wish you the best mess, and blessed mess 🙂

  5. Thanks so much, LW, and Cary, for your letters. Both great, and with lots in there to stimulate and teach me. Wish I had good advice LW, but definitely no, you do not sound like an asshole!

  6. Well, you don’t sound like an asshole to me. You have such an honest and engaging voice – have you ever considered writing a memoir? What you describe as no creative achievements, I see as a pretty fascinating last nine years whether you wrote that novel or not. I wonder if by wiring about your life as a comedian, singer, naked performance artist, flight attendant, wife. desert dweller, city kid etc., you might even find some fictional story that might turn into something that doesn’t feel like a dead fish on the page. I know that I’d love to read it! Hang in there!

  7. I just wanted to say how much I thoroughly enjoyed how the LW detailed her state of mind (sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it) and Cary’s really insightful, intuitive, and instructive response. Both are fine pieces of writing which have expanded my mindset as well. Thanks for that. And LW – good luck! You sound like a remarkable artist already.

  8. LW, thank you for putting this into words. It is the worst part of how I feel at my worst moments. I’m not quite like you — I pursue private art with a strong cerebral bent, almost “collegiate” in its (privileged?) intellectualism, and I’m very outcome-oriented… the process is almost always a struggle, but it suddenly seems gratifying when I look back at the work I’ve produced. I’m also very concrete and concept-oriented, and could really use a lot of work on my spontaneous and experimental side.

    But as I was saying, I get all the same frustrations… don’t all artists have vibrant, supportive creative communities that help reward their effort? I’ve tried creating these kinds of communities, and they never seem to coalesce. It’s led me to occasional cynicism: is the problem that everyone, like me, just wants to be heard, and doesn’t want to listen? Am I actually a terrible listener/consumer, and my sin of self-indulgence is karmically biting me in the ass? What are the questions I’m supposed to be asking? What are the cues I’m neglecting?

    Reading your letter, I’m immensely relieved: I am not the only one living this struggle.

    And Cary: thank you for your wonderful response, also a great relief. As pitifully motivational-poster as it sounds, it’s nice to hear that no setback is conclusive, and that every moment is a beginning, in a certain way.

    LW – if you ever want to post or send a link to any of your ongoing work, just send it along my way (via email or Twitter link in the website above this comment). I’d love to see how it’s going. I have an unusual, almost irrational love for things that might very well be called “incomprehensible.”

  9. “I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.”

    No, instead you are, or have been, all those things! That’s great, don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s all wonderful.

    You may be confusing doing things with becoming rich and famous for doing them. That’s not the right standard to be looking at. You’re an artist when you’re doing art, and a writer when you’re writing. You don’t become your job description either, as you’re discovering.

    So lighten up. You’re fine. Keep your bills paid, and do stuff you enjoy. That’s it really.

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