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Tiny Revolutions №81: Making the Thing that Helps You
A Conversation with Beth Pickens 🎨
First of all, welcome to all you new subscribers! For those of you who’ve been here for a minute, the folks over at Slow Growth featured me in the Snail Mail newsletter talking about how I approach writing, which has led to some, um, fast growth of my subscriber list. Anyway, I’m grateful to have so many new faces around, and hope you enjoy these meandering dispatches.
This week I’m extremely excited to finally share an interview I recorded last May (gulp) with Beth Pickens. Beth is a counselor who helps artists make their best work, and she has written two wonderful books that contain so much wisdom about the creative psyche. If you are making any kind of creative work, or if you are just an ambitious person in general, I can’t recommend her latest book, Make Your Art No Matter What, highly enough. It’s all about overcoming the barriers and roadblocks we encounter when we set out to do something ambitious.
In this conversation we talk about why we make art, what it does for us, what it does for the world, the importance of community, and some practical suggestions for reframing the self-defeating beliefs and behaviors we all carry. (Well, most of us.) I got a lot out of it and I hope you will, too.
Do you think everyone is creative?
I think anyone has the potential to be creatively engaged. I do not feel like a creative person. This comes up all the time. My wife and I have been watching every season of the Great British Pottery Throwdown. And every time there's a challenge where the potters have something already made that they were instructed to decorate or paint or do something to, I'm always like, “I would just do the alphabet. I have no idea.”
I don't have a lot of creative impulses, but if I'm given constraints and told, like, here's some indication of what to do, I could come up with something and maybe even enjoy it. I think anyone can have a creative experience. I don't think a hundred percent of humanity is necessarily instinctually creative.
The reason I was asking about it is that this book so plainly lays out all the sorts of barriers you have to overcome to engage in your creative practice. So it just makes me wonder, how much is conditioning?
I think a lot of people who would be artists and who understand themselves as artists through many experiences and socialization have diminished that truth inside of them.
And I see that in artists all the time. They are constantly or at war with themselves, thinking, “Am I really something? Am I really an artist?” when I can see so clearly that they have this profound need to make their work, and a profound need to be creatively engaged. They may like it or not like it, but they need it.
Then I look outward and see people who maybe aren't necessarily artists and don't have that drive or need, but they really benefit from it and love it too. And they also may feel like that's not important enough, or “I should be doing other things.” I think so much of the world tells us not to do the things that we instinctively know are good for us, including people following their creative needs.
Absolutely. One of the things that I also appreciated about your book is the importance of having community for your practice. Can you tell me a little bit about how you arrived at that conclusion?
In my first book, I laid out what I had as a working definition of what the three basic needs for artists are after their human basic needs are met.
And those three things are making work, taking in new stimuli and experiences, and having a creative community, specifically a creative community of artists. Not just any random group of artists, but people who want good things for each other and themselves.
That community is an artist’s biggest resource. Not in just the nepotistic or networking way that can make people feel slimy when they think about building a creative community — the good parts are accessible too. I think any problem an artist encounters in their life, through the lens of being an artist, not just in their practice, but in the world of money and relationships and professionalization and dealing with themselves and time, all of the answers will come from their creative community.
Everything that they need will come from the people in their lives. So building and maintaining and investing in a creative community is, I think, an essential need. It’s also very difficult and something I am continuously pushing my clients to do.
I will give them explicit homework, particularly at this point in the pandemic where all of my clients are vaccinated and they are considering having expanded choices with public life, and they have a lot of anxiety about that. I give them the explicit homework of, “You need to go hang out with an artist friend and just talk about what you did or didn't do creatively recently, but be together in that specific way as two artists being together.”
I'm seeing this a lot in my friends and other people who are figuring out how they want to reconfigure their lives now that it's possible. I'm curious if you can talk about how to find an artistic community or a creative community.
I would always advocate for it being in person. I think it's easier to find people through social media and online, but there is a barrier to intimacy. And so starting with where a person lives is the fastest way to meet your people. I think across the board, the best way to find artists is through volunteering or contributing to something that you love.
So whatever thing is available in your community — that could be a public library, that could be a museum, that could be a performing art series. Simply being involved in volunteering will put you in proximity of other people who also have that similar value. They may not make the same kind of work as you. They may be dormant artists, or who knows what's going on, but they are somebody who sees the value in creative community. And that means you already have something in common. So I always say the answer is that volunteer service will bring you your people.
I love that because I think it ties into one of the biggest reasons, at least for me, to make creative work is that it's somehow in service.
Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I think of an artist's creative practice as first and foremost, they make the thing that helps them.
It helps them take something out of their interior and pull it out so it can get out of their body, out of their head. So they can work through something and deal with a set of ideas or experiences or people or feelings. And then when they decide to share it with anybody or let it be in the world, that goes on to give other people what they need. That’s service right there.
Absolutely. I'm thinking about Mason Curry, who I interviewed recently. The way he got started is that he was just like, “Oh my God, how do people do this?” And so he started doing research to discover how famous artists got their work done, and that has led him to his entire career. It's fascinating to see just how you can pull that thread of curiosity and service right through.
I loved the laundry list of common artists' fears that you put together in your book. I won't go into them right now because I want to encourage people to buy it, but I wondered if you could talk about the most pressing things that you see that really hold people back from making their art.
In terms of fear, I think we all have this base fear of being rejected. Whether that's professionally, or by people we admire or that we hope would accept us. And it could just be the fear that people won't like what I make, or they will call me to task for it, or it won't achieve what I think it should or has to for it to be meaningful.
It's just like rejection — “I'm not good enough” or “I'm bad.” And that is just a baseline human fear that everybody has. It gets expressed in so many different ways. And I see it manifest in an artist in a million ways. But when we sort of detangle everything, at the base of it is, “Oh, you're just afraid.”
You're afraid people will reject you. And those people might be the internet. Those people may be your fans. Those people may be your parents, even though they're dead. Those people might be a grant committee, but it's just fear of not being accepted. Which I think we all have. And so when I can, I take the top layer of what a person is telling me is going on, and we just get down to that root of, “Oh, you're just having this human fear that we all have.”
And, great. We can deal with that. I think the biggest thing at the base of it is usually, “I'm afraid that I'm bad.”
How do you help people overcome that?
A lot of different ways. One is really reframing. What is the point? What is the foundational reason that you're writing or making your work, whatever it is?
And the foundation that we build and work on strengthening together is that it will help you have a better time of your existence on the planet. We want it to do all these other things. You want to have readers or audiences. Maybe you want to make money. Maybe you want professional accolades and to feel seen and you want community.
But below all of that, I want there to be a bedrock, a foundational cornerstone. That is, “I do this thing because I have to, in order to have a better life. If I do not do it, I will have a worse life.” And then we can shift. The reason, which is a daily practice, shifted back to, “Why am I doing this thing? Because I have to. Because I'm an artist.” Or if you're a writer you have to write because you're a writer.
And not because of any other thing; all the other stuff is extra. And we build on top of that baseline. I remember after the movie “Wild” came out, I read an interview with Cheryl Strayed and she said that when her book came out, a lot of people asked her, “Did you write this book because you went on this big hike?” And she said, “No, I wrote the book because I'm a writer and that's how I do everything.”
And that is so true that if you're a writer, how you deal with anything is going to be through writing. That's true, no matter the discipline. So then we can just put that exactly where it should be: you have to drink water, you have to eat food, you have to take care of your body, you need love and shelter and money for basic needs, and you have to make your creative work.
When all those needs are met, then we can look at like, “OK, so now what, how do you get all the other things that you want to achieve and have as the result of your work?”
I love that. Are you able to see a real transformation from when you start to work with a client to when you are like, “OK, you can go now?” Or does that not happen?
Oh, I see all kinds of transformation in my clients all the time. For example, I can think of someone I terminated with, and it was because she did everything she set out to do.
In her time with me, she wanted a regular practice. She wanted shows, she wanted to get grants, she wanted a growing community of artists, and she wanted a set of tools to help her feel and enjoy and internalize all of those experiences. And then she did it and I was like, “You're done here. If you have more goals, we can work together again. But like you did all the things you set out to do.”
Some people will kind of get what they need and then return, or they'll go off and do what they're doing. The transformation is really interesting.
But the thing that I have lately been coming back to in the second half of the 11 or so years I've been doing this, the thing that has really become clear to me in the past few years, is that the hard part for artists is not getting the thing, the fellowship, the job, the money, the award, the book deal, etc. That's not the hard thing. The hard thing is actually enjoying and being present for those things.
And I see this over and over and over again. So I actually think if I'm successful in my work with my clients, to me, what success is is whatever they're getting out of their practice — the experience, the community, the accolades, the money, the power, whatever it is they want — that they can actually enjoy it.
It is so difficult for people to get what they want and then be present for it and enjoy it. Because as soon as they get there, our minds are just wired to be like, “Yeah, but I didn't get that thing that my friend did,” or “I got the thing, but it didn't change how I felt about myself. So if I just get this next thing, that will really do it, and that's what I'm going to fixate on.”
And then our whole lives are robbed. We're just robbed of a life focusing on, maybe when I make that much money or I have this many Instagram followers or whatever. External things don't change an internal experience. So I want all my clients to have the stuff they want in their practices and careers, but my goal that I'm wishing for, to make transformation, is that whatever it is they're getting, they're actually feeling and present for and enjoying.
That's a profound thing to strive for. Do you ever see in your clients a hesitation to embrace that? Like maybe they’re worried it'll make them less ambitious or something?
No, it's never related to ambition. I think it's just very difficult to conceptualize having a different internal experience related to these external goals.
Sometimes in the outside world, people will ask, “Are your clients worried that if they feel better, they will make less art? Or that they’ll lose their edge or something?” And, no. The healthier people are, the more work they make and the better it is because they can actually sit with it. One of the hardest things for writers is you have to be with yourselves for so long.
And by the time you finish a piece, a book, an article, whatever it is, you are so sick of that piece of writing. You've changed because time has passed and you can no longer see it accurately. But the healthier a person is on the interior, the longer they can be with themselves and actually show up and do that work and not just block something out and be like, “I can never look at it again.”
They can actually sit with the repetition and the problem of editing things and becoming better at one's craft. That takes so much willingness. It takes so much sitting with those selves. So I think the healthier people become inside, the more peace and serenity they have, the more art they make and the more amazing it is because they can drop deeper into themselves.
What kind of homework do you give your clients for becoming more at peace with themselves? Like how do you do that?
God, they get so much homework. They get so much homework because of the nature of my practices.
I really am looking at a person's life very holistically from the get-go. I give them homework from the very beginning, with the very first long intake session where I ask them to do a bunch of writing and thinking about their lives creatively, professionally, financially, spiritually, and in terms of relationships and intimacy. I want to have a really wide understanding of how they are living, because if there's something being neglected, it's going to show up in their art practice.
In the avoidance of it or in the sort of starting things and not finishing them, it's going to show up. So we have to attend to money issues, mental illness, their bodies, their relationships, their homes, how they make money, how they deal with money, their relationship to time. We have to deal with those things because they of course show up in the creative practice. Because for artists it's like, you all have these very unusual jobs.
For one thing, you're the only kind of worker who does other jobs in order to do your job, which makes you a different kind of worker that other workers can't really relate to or fully understand. It's like a different bird species or something. And the nature of your work requires you to plumb depths that are uncomfortable.
Some people have to do that in other jobs, but many people don't. They do their job, they get the money, and it has all kinds of other stressors, but it doesn't require them to sit with their value of themselves as a human. So it's this very specific kind of job, but if the artist doesn't do it, they're not going to have a good life.
And then the rest of us are going to be robbed of the thing that they would have made. I think all the time about books I love so much that were written by people who were profoundly ill. And somehow they got it together to write that book, and thank God they did. Thank God they were able to.
What advice would you give to someone who has ignored their creative practice for a long time?
I think first I would tell a person it's always there. It's not going anywhere. Every moment is an invitation back to it. That need we have doesn’t leave us, and just because we ignore it doesn't mean it goes away.
And then a tactical, practical thing is I always recommend tiptoeing back into things. Gentle tiptoeing. So for example, when a person has had a lot of distance from a project, like a book draft, for example. I say tiptoe back in just by looking at it and reading, just by being in the universe that you've created. You don't have to add to it. You don't have to edit it. You don't have to do anything except go turn all the lights on and just look around.
With writing in particular, much of it gets worked out when you're not sitting at your computer; it gets worked out swimming laps or washing dishes or talking to somebody or watching a film or whatever. But it's like, it has to be turned on in the back of your head, it has to be turned on in the subconscious, and the way you do that is just by going into the world you created. Spending some time there without judgment and without a plan.
And if it's not a project, tiptoe back in through a practice that is not one you have any competency with. This is a very low stakes way to reestablish a creative practice. It's just about establishing that this is a thing that I do. It's a thing I prioritize a little bit. A thing I expect to do with my week at some point.
And then once you're in the habit, maybe turning your gaze back to the projects or the forms or the disciplines that you do work in. But gentle is the answer.
Thanks for reading, as always. Have a great week.
p.s. Share this with someone who makes great creative work that you’d like to see more of.