Feeling trapped in our own creativity is the ultimate in psychological backwardness. Growing up we see artists who appear free in every sense of the word. They seem to never be tied down to commitment or obligation. They are wild and “out there”. And as we grow up watching these figures we assume that being an artist means freedom. Yet how many of us feel trapped in our creativity?
I believe this feeling of entrapment comes from two sources. One is being pigeonholed into a certain category of artist, and the other is feeling an obligation to be better than before. Social pressure as well as self-inflicted pressure. These are the cornerstones on which our insecurity as artists is built.
I started to recognize these two attributes in myself. I felt obligated to create a certain type of art because that was suddenly what I was known for. I also began fearing to share my artwork, thinking that if it wasn’t drastically better than it was before people would think I was an imposter. This is a crippling way of thinking. To always be better than the last time means that we are never failing, and that means we are never growing. To stay one type of artist your whole life means the same, that stagnation has been chosen over growth. In theory I want neither of those things. In reality, they are more comforting.
I have started to break free of those constraints by telling myself the exact opposite of them. Instead of thinking I have to do what I’ve always done, I tell myself: I will surprise myself. Instead of wanting to be better than before I tell myself: I will fail.
There are two great ways of achieving discomfort and growth, and they are failure and surprise. I want to shock myself. I want to look back at the person I was and be forced to look twice.
When I started photography I received emails from people telling me that I’m not a photographer. It didn’t bother me so much as it just wasn’t true. I create with a camera and know comparatively little in Photoshop. Nothing that I do results from digital art, but simple images sewn together in simple ways. But the title never bothered me as much as it did and does other people. Some people would email me angrily to tell me I am a disgrace to the name of photography. To that I simply smiled, knowing that creativity and art forms are always evolving. Our perception of photography will continue to evolve.
Those emails made me aware of just how much other people want to define artists. And in turn, many artists want to be defined. It is comforting to fit in somewhere. I remember the first time I gave a lecture and was introduced as a “fine art photographer”, it felt thrilling! Someone was recognizing me for a job title that I wanted to have. It felt validating. But the more my business grew, the more I realized I’m not just a photographer. I wrote a book, so doesn’t that make me an author? I teach workshops, so doesn’t that make me an educator? I get hired to give speeches, so doesn’t that make me a speaker? I run a charity, so doesn’t that make me a philanthropist?
At the end of the day, how could these titles possibly matter? What makes the difference is what we spend our time doing and with how much heart.
At an event last week I introduced myself to three different people three different ways in thirty minutes. I was talking to a fellow photographer and when she asked what I did, I answered “I am a fine art photographer”. Next I spoke to a fellow speaker and when I was asked what I do, I answered “motivational speaker”. And finally I was talking to a fellow writer and when she asked what I do, I answered “I am a young adult fantasy writer.”
Isn’t it interesting how these labels come to define us so much that we feel we cannot break from them? But why should we not? Why not keep collecting them like little trophies that may eventually get dusty in a box we never open, but still we keep them knowing that they show a time when we tried and succeeded at our dreams?
Photographer. Writer. Novelist. Educator. Motivational Speaker. Philanthropist.
May the list grow ever longer in the pursuit of my greatest fantasies. May our lives never be stunted by the labels others would put on us. And may we shine through the cloud that tells us we have to be better. May we fail until we feel broken so that we can put ourselves back together even better than before.