“I thought it was going to be easier. I didn’t think I would have to fight so hard. What is wrong with me?”
Over a year ago (more than 16 months ago actually), I was working on a video documenting the process of my friend Joe Wilson. Joe is a commercial photographer working out of Portland, OR and I pitched him the idea of making a short documentary about his photography. He agreed. He set up a shoot with a model, a group of other photographers, hair and make-up artists.
I shot interesting B-roll of Joe working with the model and with others. I filmed the entire shoot with a GoPro in time lapse mode resulting in an interesting video of Joe’s physicality and rhythm. I interviewed Joe for over an hour about his process, what he has learned as a commercial photographer, and the importance of working with others. I even cut a trailer with the promise of the full video to come in September 2013.
But something happened between the promise of things to come and today: I got busy. I made excuses. I lost my nerve as an artist.
I Got Busy
It’s easy to get busy and forget about the things that are important to you. I have been caught up in “the tyranny of the urgent” for far too long. I have become more reactionary and desperate as opposed to being strategic and intentional with everything that I do.
Being busy allowed me to focus on the tasks that came easy to me, without any fight or heart. I became a robot. I did whatever I could to satisfy the short-term demand, while sacrificing my long-term sanity. I unlearned what I knew to be beneficial to success and through unhealthy habits learned to be okay with far less than what I would tell others to demand and hope for.
Being busy brought out the hypocrite within and led me down the path of making excuses instead of performing admirably and timely.
I Made Excuses
I am a people pleaser. I want people to like me. That means I say yes far too often, no not enough, and have learned that there is an art form to making effective and acceptable excuses.
Being a people pleaser also means that I will sacrifice my happiness in order to make someone else happy. I will eat poorly, I will not exercise, I will not do the things that bring me joy and fill me with sustenance (hiking, taking photographs, reading, and writing). I make excuses why I can’t do those things. It’s a vicious and torturous circle that has no end.
Eventually, I became better at coming up with excuses than doing the actual work I set out to do. I continued to focus on what came easily and that led me to lose my nerve as an artist.
I Lost My Nerve As An Artist
In Conversations with Scorsese, film director Martin Scorsese is talking about the importance of tenacity and what tenacity means in the context of reading or hearing what people have to say about you (both positive and negative):
But I must say that when young people ask me what’s the most important thing, I do use the word “tenacity,” and that means, no matter what, you’ve got to be like Odysseus tied to the mast.
I can’t say “Don’t listen”–you’re going to hear it, and it’ll be with you for fifty years. You’ll always hear it, even if they change their opinion. But if you get a lot of praise very often, there has to be an attack, or many attacks. There has to be. And then you just weather that, and you have to have confidence in yourself, and that’s the tenacity. (pp. 184-185)
Scorsese’s definition of tenacity is similar to how I would describe nerve. Through the good and the bad, you wake up every day and tell the story you MUST tell. But what does it mean to lose your nerve as an artist? How did I lose my nerve?
First, I listened to the positive things said about me and I believed them so strongly that I no longer felt the fight to tell my story. I had arrived. I had become someone important. My success had become the story.
Second, I let the negative things said about me overshadow the amazing accomplishments and praise that I had received. “The Fraud Police”–fabulously labeled by Amanda Palmer–were out to get me and I believed every single word that others said about me. I even believed every single negative word I uttered to myself in the sanctity of my soul. I lost the confidence in myself.
Weeks became months, which eventually dragged into years. I lost my nerve as an artist. Until I couldn’t take the pain anymore. Until I wept for who I had become. Until my pity for myself became genuine sorrow, allowing me to take action. To pick myself up, to tell my friends I am sorry for ignoring them, and to get back to telling the stories I HAVE to tell.
The Manifesto of Truth
I love to ask questions. It fills me with joy as I ask a question that gets the other person to talk. The reason I love to ask questions is because I love to listen to others. I love what they have to say. The wisdom and insight garnered throughout a lifetime of living their own lives. I love that a question I asked 16 months in the past, can provide a response that would hit me right in the artistic gut.
During the interview with Joe, I asked him: If you were to write a manifesto on pursuing photographic excellence, what would be your first commandment?
It didn’t take long for Joe to respond: “Thou shalt not assume anything.”
I assumed being an artist would be easy.
I didn’t think I would have to fight so hard.
I thought my experience would be different.
I assumed everything and gained nothing.
But fortunately, I have hope. That I can change my attitude towards busyness, that I can make less excuses, and that I can grow my nerve as an artist. After all, Joe had assumptions, but he was ultimately changed by the experience of doing what he set out to do.
Thank you Joe.