I've been reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I found it wedged between a duplicate copy of some Christopher Hart cartoon guide and another Ultimate Guide to Drawing Stuff and Things. It's kind of like a self-help book for creative folk.
In the first few chapters, The Artist's Way introduces the concept of the shadow artist. Shadow artists don't have a badass origin story about being born in a pit of darkness, fulfilling some kind of prophecy, or anything like that. It's kind of a sad one, actually.
You're seven years old. You like to write. Maybe you draw too. You spend hours in your room with a pack of printer paper and colored pencils, pinning your designs to your walls. You write plays you make your siblings perform with you in your living room. You explore all the things that make you wonder. Your parents, your teachers, and all the well wishers cheer you on. Long story short, you create a ton of stuff all the time and you love every second of it.
Fast forward you're in high school. You've got a part-time job because your parents want you to learn some kind of responsibility or how to manage money. Now you just doodle for fun during your lunch break. Instead of writing stories, you're prepping for your SATs and ACTs. You're corralled into an AP Physics course and told it'll boost your class rank—so you take it instead of an art class. Then comes the college applications and career fairs. This is where it gets real. You want to be a painter or a poet or a playwright, but the same people who were once rooting for you are now telling you these things won't pay the bills. (Most have good intentions though). You take a second look at those printer paper drawings, and now they don't look as good as you thought. So you take their advice and put your passions on the back burner. You get the picture.
Shadow artists are basically people who grew up to love to create but walked way for one reason or another. Their parents told them they wouldn't make a living as a playwright. They didn't think they were good enough and that their form sucked. They thought they weren't true artists/creative folk. They hang around other creative people so that they can vicariously live out their dreams through other artists instead of claiming their own “birthright” as a creative person. And you can bet they beat themselves up about it. They're essentially caught between the dream to act and the fear of failing.
Sometimes to ensure some shred of success, a shadow artist pursues a “shadow career,” or a job similar to what he/she wants to do. So instead of being a fiction writer, you're a journalist. Instead of being a director, you're a film critic—and so on.
The other ugly part of being a shadow artist is when you believe you can't be “great” without giving up something else you really, really wanted. That author of that book I keep mentioning says, “In other words, if being an artist seems too good to be true to you, you will devise a price tag for it that strikes you as unpayable.” So, the price of being a talented comic artist means you'll die alone. If you want to be an incredible novelist you have to develop a dependency on alcohol and cigarettes. In your mind, you can't have it all.
I'm saying all this because I'm a recovering shadow artist. (At LSB we don't really like to talk about ourselves on here, but sometimes it just helps to use ourselves as examples.)
I grew up with a passion for drawing. I spent hours in the basement of my old house just drawing and hanging my pictures up on the wood-paneled walls with my mom's hospital tape. As I got older my sister and I started writing short stories back and forth (most of which were Spider-Man themed), and people said I had a knack for storytelling. I skipped AP classes and took art classes instead. At some point, someone said I can't make a living as an artist. I know this person genuinely meant well—most people who say this do. But eventually I started having these crazy thoughts about not being good enough and how all my ideas sucked. So what did I do? I walked away. Instead of being a fiction writer I majored in journalism (because those things are similar, right?). I reduced my art to being a hobby I did on weekends (until I became so self conscious I quit art entirely). Trying to write a story became an excruciating endeavor. This led to an on-and-off relationship with writing for a few years.
Getting back into it isn't easy. In my experience the best place to start is to take yourself seriously. You're an artist. You're a writer. You're a whatever-the-heck-you-want-to-be.
And it's okay to feel like you suck or are out of practice at first. Julia Cameron says, “By being willing to be a bad artist, you have the chance to BE an artist, and perhaps, over time, a good one.” Anne Lammott says something similar in her essay, “Shitty First Drafts.”
Ramble, mess up, get lost in it. You'll be busting your ass learning how to play again, and it'll be hard work.
You owe it to yourself to at least try.