I think all creatives yearn for some kind of success, some kind of recognition for the work we do. Success is maybe not why we photograph, write, paint or travel—or whatever creative activity we do—or ought not to be. The work itself, being creative, is a reward good enough if we only let ourselves not get obsessed with the thought of success. The craving for success can actually get in the way of our creative endeavour.
Nevertheless, we do feel good when we experience some kind of success, whether it’s monetary gain or just some heartfelt feedback from a good friend. I am sure you know what I am talking about.
Success is all in our minds, though. You cannot control how the world will receive and perceive your artistic work, but you can be in command of how you feel about it yourself. If you let yourself feel good about actually having achieve your creative goal, whether it’s a book you have written or a photo project you have undertaken, your creativity may flourish even more.
I know, it’s easy to say. Because we do yearn for some kind of recognition from the outside. And when it doesn’t come —and often it doesn’t or takes a long time to arrive—we feel discouraged or even dumped. What really happens then is we fire up under our own scepticism.
Perhaps the greatest barrier for a creative life is this deeply held scepticism that we all hold inside of us. When we don’t experience the success we so want, we nourish our own scepticism. Then we start to doubt. We doubt our creative abilities. We doubt we have it in us at all, and these doubts are very powerful.
Very often when success doesn’t show up, we give up, let our creative self down. Instead, we let ourselves sink into addictive thoughts. Rather than living now, we spin our wheels and indulge in daydreams of could have, would have, should have. We stop being creative, even resent it and fall into a black hole. Life is no longer what it is, but what it could be or ought to be. According to Julia Cameron, a writer, director and producer—and the author of the book The Artist’s Way—one of the greatest misconceptions about artistic life is that it entails great swathes of aimlessness. The truth, according to her, is that a creative life involves great swathes of attention. Attention is a way to connect and survive.
So when you feel miserable and futile because success has failed to appear, instead of letting yourself sink into despair and resignation, start to pay attention to what is beautiful in your life. Try not to worry about your creative disappointment, be aware of the now. Live in the now. You still have creativity in you; you are still creative, no matter success or failure. Success or failure has little to do with quality of life—creatively or otherwise. Again, according to Julia Cameron, quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity to delight. If you are able to feel delight even when life is hard, success doesn’t show up or when you lose someone you love, you can recover and feel alive again. If you are able to feel delight, you will gain trust in your creative abilities again. You will start to create again.
And here is the point: The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention. If you pay attention to what is right now, the small pleasure that always are, you are on a path to creative recovery.
The award of attention is always healing. It begins as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream, the lack of success. But what is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pains; the pain that we are all, as Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke phrases it, «unutterably alone». Attention gets us back on the track, and what more is attention is an act of connection. This I know from my own experience.
Some 15 years ago, I went through a divorce. As anyone who has undergone a divorce knows, it’s a painful experience. After my divorce, I pretty much withdrew from everything. I stopped seeing friends, I didn’t go out anymore, I didn’t engage in anything besides work and spending as much time with my kids as possible. In reality I gave up myself, I felt ashamed and I felt guilty. Eventually my creativity—that my work so depends on—stagnated as well.
I would take long, solitary walks, and I would suffer. Then one day, as I was doing a day hike up in the mountains surrounding the city I live in and was immersed in my own ominous thoughts, a little girl ran into me. She had been chasing a butterfly and hadn’t seen me at all, before she bumped into me. «Isn’t that a beautiful butterfly», I remember her saying. In fact, it was a rather dull, bleak butterfly, but suddenly I did see its delicate beauty. And then I started to notice the small flowers that grew out around rocks, I noticed birds in the sky and saw the imaginative figures the clouds formed on the sky above. It was as if I suddenly was awakened. I started to pay attention. I started to live in the now again. I started to appreciated what was.
Not long after my life got traction again—included my creative life.
The poet William Meredith has observed that the worst that can be said of a man is that «he did not pay attention».
Facts about the photo: The photo was taken on Ilford XP-2 film with a Canon EOS-3 and a 16-35 mm lens set at 20 mm. The photo was scanned and processed in Photoshop.