The Gatekeepers

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Gatekeepers

When people ask me for advice on how to start a creative practice, I have two reactions. First, I want to cheer and say, “You don’t need my advice, just go for it! You’ll figure it out, and it will be wonderful!” Second, I want to ask if they have a few minutes, pull them aside, and tell them about the Gatekeepers. In my experience, making art more or less takes care of itself once I get past the Gatekeepers.

I call them Gatekeepers; you might know them as the inner and/or outer critics, judges, snobs, monitors, and censors that get very uncomfortable when you decide to try something a little risky or different, a little–dare I say–artistic. Brene Brown calls them shame gremlins in her powerful book on vulnerability (which I recommend highly to everyone). Writer Anne Lamott refers to her inner doubts as “Station K-Fuc$&d,” as in the radio channel that pipes up with its not-so-helpful commentary when she settles in to write. Steven Pressfield simply calls it Resistance. Whatever we call these voices, every honest book on the creative process pays homage. And thank goodness people have mapped the territory, because otherwise, I would have stopped painting shortly after I started.

Mind you, even during the first few years, I did have some fun. In fact, I experienced moments of play, awe, surprise and delight. My life benefited in ways I hadn’t anticipated; I got more open, real, and free. But those first few years were also the hardest, not because I was learning to use the materials or refine my technique (more on that topic here), but because at least half of the time I painted I was basically breaking myself out of a top-security prison in which my artist was a captive, and my Gatekeepers were the guards. My challenge was to figure out how to get past the guards–a bunch of insecure thugs and abusive maniacs who thought only they could grant access to the land of creativity.

It was as if painting awakened all the criticisms and fears I’d gathered over my entire life and inspired them to organize.

Organize they did, around the gates with their complex rules I didn’t even know about until I started breaking them. The rules were many, and toxic, but in the end boiled down to this: “Silly girl, art is for artists. You know, the real artists. Your job is to consume what those people make, not try to create for yourself. It’s sweet that you’re trying and all, I mean really, you poor thing. But there’s been a big mistake. So put down that brush and step away from the paints. Guards 17 and 32, will you please escort Miss Nash to the gate?”

These Gatekeepers, of course, were voices in my head that had accumulated via exposure to other artists, well-meaning friends and family, and an absurdly consumerist culture. These voices told me variously that I was: crazy, stupid, not allowed, a bad artist, wasting my time, should be feeding the starving orphans, who did I think I was, I didn’t have the credentials, climate change would drown me and my amateur paintings, that I didn’t go to art school, that no one would ever like my work (or me), that  I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was never very talented anyway, that I was never disciplined enough, that I should have done more of those awful drawing exercises in high school when I had the chance…

You get the idea?

To slip these voices, I kept an open document on my computer beside my easel the first few years of painting. Sometimes the voices quieted down and let me work in peace; other times, they made such a racket I could barely breathe. When they got going nice and loud, I would put down my brush, lean over my laptop, and type my defense into the document. Sometimes I didn’t even put down my brush; I stuck it between my teeth like a long-stemmed rose.

Basically, I called them on their crap. I told the Gatekeepers that I did too have a right to paint. I reminded them that people have been creating from the dawn of time, scratching symbols in caves, singing around fires, dancing dances, painting faces, telling stories, making pots, fashioning hair clips and knives and goblets and garments. I told them that creativity was my birthright.

When they responded, “Well, isn’t that cute, she’s a self-taught naive folk painter, then, “ I told them I refused to consider their limiting, patronizing labels. I told them, “Look here, people have been making art long before there were art programs in universities, long before there were masters teaching classes, TV personality painters, the internet, instruction books, even art museums and patrons. People have been making art from the start, and I’m a person, too.

Only this dialogue went on for a hundred pages.

Eventually, my hard drive crashed, taking the document with it.

Eventually, though, I didn’t need the document–I got far enough past the Gatekeepers that I could only hear their distant echoes. They were still there, of course, staging a misguided but well-staffed resistance, but they couldn’t get me anymore. I could see it only looking back: They’d never made a creative thing in their lives, and their only weapon was fear.

Of course, I still experience challenges in the creative process, but today these have a  different quality than the challenges that haunted and hailed me at the start. And truly, challenges are inevitable in any life well-lived, and in any creative endeavor worth taking.

Which is to say, I believe that the art, poetry, music, dance, quilt, sculpture, lava cake–whatever you feel called to make–is already in there. That’s the reason you’re longing to make it. The challenge is discovering how to slip your guards long enough to get to the good stuff, to get to freedom.

It’s worth it.


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