Making Art While Appeasing Your Inner Committee

I had an insight today.  Regardless of what you think makes a successful artist – whether it be sales, gallery representation, or critical attention – you can’t even be an artist without tremendous inner resilience and spiritual balance to. Just. Keep. Working. This is what separates the ones who try and give up and the ones who keep going, year after year, whether anyone cares about their work or not.

As for myself, I have reached a critical point, where I think the momentum and thrill of leaving my job behind to become a full-time artist has dropped off and I am left with the personal battle I fight everyday to get myself into the studio to work. Suddenly, just cracking the whip isn’t enough anymore. The work is dragging, my mind is wandering, I count down the minutes to the end of the day when I can put down my paintbrush and walk away. A far cry from the liberating, joyous feeling I used to have when I was alone with my work.

So this is it. This is the hardest thing that an artist has to overcome and I’m right in the thick of it.

I have no boss to keep me on track. I have no set agenda or schedule unless I impose it on myself. When I quit my job to do this, I did put in place a set schedule and expectations. I reasoned that I should maintain the same roughly 9-5 schedule I had at my old job in the government. Mornings I would do administrative tasks, social networking, managing my online shop and by afternoon I would be in the studio to work for a few hours.

Most days, this has worked for me.

Since the New Year, however, I’ve had a terrible time getting back on track. Suddenly, I feel like I’m at war with myself. Not to get all Jungian on you, but I can break it down like this: There’s the inner taskmaster, trying to keep on top of me, attempting to impose structure, routine, schedules, etc. Then there is the inner rebellious teen, trying to undermine the taskmaster at every turn. On another level, I have my chattering, analytical “monkey mind” pulling me in all sorts of directions while I try to steer from a deeper, more artistic, “higher” self. Lately, I’ve become unmoored from that deeper center.

No person is a completely unified and coherent individual. We are made up of a crowd of different people, each representing an aspect of ourselves, taking on a different role. Sometimes, these “selves” are earlier versions of us. If you’ve ever watched the show The United States of Tara, you are familiar with this (albeit in an extreme form). I think dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities), whether it truly exists or not, is fascinating as a fictional device because everyone can somewhat relate to the chaos of having multiple selves, pulling us in various directions. 

At any rate, these different personalities, just like real people, can feel hurt, frustrated, angry, and resentful.

… And I think that’s where I am right now. Here I thought I was running free, three years away from a highly structured and demanding career. However, I took that pace and structure with me. The result: I have a full-scale rebellion on my hand, triggered by my very ambitious and merciless set of New Years resolutions and goals. (Clearly, the Taskmaster was given entirely too much influence in the process.)

So, I think what I’m going to do is reconvene my selves and tell them we’re starting from scratch. We’ll see how it goes.

Conference in the center of the mind. Source:

In the meantime, I am going to work on reordering my ideas about what it means to be an artist and how best to keep up my work. One thing is clear: I can’t achieve anything through sheer will power alone.

For this, I like the idea of the middle way in Buddhism, the path of moderation in between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. In yoga, there is equal emphasis placed on the problems of attachment and aversion. The goal is to practice non-attachment without feeling deprivation. This is something a person must address at some point when they are trying to achieve something through discipline alone.

Let me give you an example. Say you decide to go on a crash diet in the hopes of losing a few pounds as a New Year’s resolution. You eat a very lean, low-calorie diet for a few days and then, on Friday, you order a large pizza and a liter of Coke and proceed to consume it down to the last bite. Following the middle way, food is a necessary, potentially enjoyable part of life and you should neither deprive yourself of its nourishment, nor should you ever gorge yourself. To change your diet and get in shape, you would be wise to simply try some healthy, flavorful recipes with your favorite ingredients or try a new, fun sport or exercise. Enjoyment is the key to sticking with anything.

Perhaps the rigid schedule I lived with the past three years has served its purpose. It kept me on track, somewhat, but I’m willing to admit now that I could probably improve upon it in a way that allows me more freedom and openness. I have been showing up to do the work, but I dare say I’m still not doing my best work.

I didn’t think I would be shedding another skin… I didn’t know I was still carrying around so much from my previous career which no longer serves me.

And so here I am faced with the unknown again.

I had clung to my precious schedule, afraid that if I took it away, I would have nothing to keep me honest. Which, frankly, does a disservice to my desire and need to create in the absence of all expectations. Isn’t this my life calling, after all? I would work no matter what, even if I thought no one would ever see it. Especially if I thought no one would see it.

In the end, I think the answer might be a period of total freedom. I table all the administrative tasks, put my Etsy shop on the back-burner, and give myself complete freedom to play every day for… let’s say three months. To appease the taskmaster, I will work each day for “X” hours. Beyond that, I’m free to fill the time in however I want, so long as it is creatively spent.

It’s just a thought I’m kicking around, anyway. For a change, I would like to be flexible about the path ahead of me right now, including with this.

How about you? If you are an artist or maker, how do you stay on schedule and, conversely, how do you make sure your freedom to create is boundless?

15 thoughts on “Making Art While Appeasing Your Inner Committee

  1. Hi Heather,
    I can find it hard to be motivated sometimes, but I find that if I keep coming up with new projects and new ideas, then it keeps me excited about my projects and that’s what gets me motivated. (If I work on the same project or even just the same type of stuff for too long, I lose interest)
    When you first left your job, the change was exciting. Maybe you need something new that will excite you. Like a new series of paintings or something?

      1. I find it’s just so hard to find the right balance. Routine can be helpful because it keeps bringing you back to the work every day, but too much routine makes things stale and you need to change things up!

      2. Agreed. Unfortunately (or fortunately?,) some other thing, be it a part-time job or other extra-curricular activity, always seems to come up and interrupt the work pattern I created briefly before it ever gets established or stale.

      3. So true! But life will never stop getting in the way. There will always be days you need to run errands, go to appointments, etc. The “interrupted flow” is something I constantly struggle with.

  2. I think you’re expressing a lot of issues that artists will completely relate to. As a young woman, I was drawn to art, wanted to go that direction, but KNEW I didn’t have the discipline to make it work. There was no Etsy back then, to give me an outlet, so I went into academe. Now, I’m retired and can play, as you say, and it’s pretty liberating! I hope you find the joy in your art again.

    1. Thank you, Kerry! I do think the joy will return and that this is some kind of transitionary period. One thing that makes me very happy is the idea that I have many years ahead to play with all this and find what works best for me. My favorite artist, Wayne Thiebaud, is 94 and still painting! He didn’t even start to exhibit his work until he was 40. I’m glad you have found liberation through your work.

  3. I heard some advice recently, to check emails after 3pm. This made me think that I’m going to try and email, administrative and social media in the afternoon. They say you should do the most important task first or early in the day. To me creative work and creative play are the most important so I will be testing this out for the next couple months. I’m actually also working on being more scheduled, so that may not help you:)

    1. I’ve thought about that, too, Frances. I know that getting on the computer in the mornings sometimes makes me feel frazzled for the rest of the day. Morning is a naturally meditative time for me if I can stay away from the internet. But that’s the tricky part! Something to ponder, anyway.

  4. I don’t know why you would doubt the existence of dissociative identity disorder, maybe nobody you know has told you they have it? It is not a rare disorder (it is as common as OCD or schizophrenia) but is rarely disclosed for a number of reasons – one being that people feel that will be judged as “not having it”, and another being that it forms from severe and repeated childhood trauma – usually abuse which occurs at a very early age, plus it usually takes a long time to diagnosis since it is often hidden. A long history of child abuse is a very taboo subject still of course. I think a lot of people struggle to relate to the reality, small things especially like having dinner cooking in the oven and then “losing” a few hours and find out someone else must have eaten it and left you the washing up. It’s good to hear the United States of Tara brought more awareness to DID.

    Your mention of a “unified personality” is interesting – all of us have different personality states, but dissociative identity disorder involves each being more distinct and some amnesia being present between them. If you do not have a dissociative disorder then you have a unified personality with different personality states present, it sounds like yours have been causing chaos. There’s more on personality states here – I hope things calm down after your self-talk.

    1. Thank you so much for your informative insights. I would never claim to be an expert on personality disorders in general or DID in particular, but I am a huge fan of The United States of Tara. I think the inner struggle to which I’m referring is relatable for just about everyone, especially for artists striving for balance between goal-setting and routines on the one hand and the more amorphous, flow of the work itself on the other. This post was really only meant to address that particular creative experience, which, unfortunately, is often a source of real stress for artists. I like the idea of Tara sitting down with all of her personalities and asking them what they want out of life with the goal of achieving a more harmonious state of existence. I think it might be a useful exercise for all of us “unified personalities,” as well!

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