‘I Want to Be an Artist but I’m Paralyzed by Fear’

Listen to your inspired heart, not your cowering mind.

My Lady Greensleeves (1863) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dear Polly,

I'm considering completely uprooting my life and I am so scared to do it. Deep down there's a longing within me to finally be at peace with who I am. I want to be a creative. An artist. A songwriter. 

I loved art and music since I was little, but it was never an obsession. I just enjoyed these things. When asked by adults what I wanted to be, I could answer beyond a doubt, "an artist." I had a strong emotional reaction to the arts but it wasn't life-consuming.

Then I had some traumatic experiences starting in elementary school and I became obsessed with the creative arts. I think it was a way for me to cope with the bleakness of my childhood. Watching and experiencing beautiful colors, amazing storytelling, and wonderful worlds made me feel hope, and gave spark to my life where my reality had none.

I became particularly obsessed with music. Music was how I coped with pain, anger, and isolation. In high school, I felt comfortable saying I wanted to work with music for the rest of my life. It just felt right. But when my family heard about it, they beat the crap out of my hopes and dreams and I never brought up the topic with them again. I realize now that I shut off the part of me that wanted this, feeling ashamed of the artist within me.

I went to a top university and graduated with a liberal arts degree. In the three years since I graduated, I've floated aimlessly through unrelated job after job, hoping something traditional would be enough to satisfy me. I figured I would climb the corporate ladder and spend my life enjoying other things while keeping the arts as a hobby — you know, what a normal, well-adjusted person is supposed to do.

It didn’t work. I went part-time with my job, and then I quit last month. Now I’m sitting in this purgatory of absolute fear.

I hate my life right now. I hate that it's come to a standstill. I hate that everything everyone told me about what would make me happy turned out to suck. Since I've repressed the creative within me, I've lived these last few years of my life constantly lost, a dull sense of emptiness, unable to settle into anything, drifting aimlessly. I couldn’t function like a normal working human as long as I was repressing myself. Every day it felt like I settled for a shell of myself instead of who I want to be.

Please help. I desperately need to get out of this hole and find the ambition and drive to chase my true calling like I did years ago, but I'm crippled by fear of the unknown and losing what I currently have.

I feel like I was born cursed. If only I never cared for the creative world! I don't even feel comfortable consulting anyone about this, because who would understand? I'm about to leave everything that's safe behind me. I'm about to sell my home, move to a new city where I know no one, and go to a very expensive school to pursue a life that I want. People will think I'm reckless. They'll think I'm throwing a great life out the window. They'll tell me I'm going to regret it in 5 years. They'll say arts is just a hobby, you can't make it your career. They'll say I'm not good enough. They'll say I don't have enough grit for it, that it's a tough field.

And I feel like all these voices would be all fine if I just had enough confidence in myself to know that I am an artist. But I don't. I really am scared. What if I'm not cut out for the hard work it takes? What if a creative career really is cutthroat to the point that I'd be happier doing something traditional? What if I'm really not an artist, but just like to think that I am one? All these years of suppressing it means that I really don't have much to show for myself in the fields I want to pursue. What if it really is too late for me, and the prime time of my creative development has passed and gone? Or worse, what if my creative inclinations are just a reflection of my trauma rather than my creative self? Am I meant to seek therapy instead while continuing to live a normal life with a traditional job?

I can either continue down this safe path with a career that's got a good salary and potential for growth, or I can sell my home and move to a new city to pursue the arts and music. My heart says yes, some parts of my mind even say yes, but my fears and doubts are screaming no and I don't know what to do with myself anymore.

I Want to Be an Artist

Dear IWTBAA,

Which part of you do you love more, the part that’s paralyzed by fear and doubt, or the part that says you’re an artist? Do you like the girl who bites her tongue and never mentions music to her family again, or do you prefer the girl who’s fully engrossed in music and daydreams about writing her own songs? Do you feel hopeful when you imagine sensibly maintaining a steady job and referring to your creative life as a hobby, or do you feel more excited and happy when you picture yourself leaving everything behind to move to a new city to attend art school?

You can’t crawl down into the sewer in order to look at the stars. You have to buy a plane ticket and fly to an island in the middle of the Pacific and start to climb the highest mountain there and then stop and acclimate for a while and then keep climbing. And when you finally get to the top of the mountain, it’s fucking cold out there. Your muscles are tired. You’re far away from home. Your butt hurts. Your back hurts. Your fucking brains hurt. Do you have altitude sickness? No one knows what the fuck you were thinking, not even you.

Then you lie down on the cold ground and look up at the sky. Infinity. Your skin is electric. A sparkling universe reaches out for your heart. It’s almost like the stars are whispering: You belong here.

I’m sorry for the triggering talk of getting on planes and flying places. It sounds so good, doesn’t it? Who knows how much you’ve had to change your plans, thanks to the pandemic. Regardless, though, it’s going to be very hard to make decisions when you’re anxious and alone in your house, without a job, paralyzed, unsure, imagining your family members shaking their head at your dumb dream of art and music. That would be like asking whether or not you truly care about the stars when you’re down inside the dark of the sewer and there are no stars in sight.

In other words, you can’t use your current shame – enormous, heavy, insidious, unrelenting – as a barometer of the weather ahead. Because no matter how bone-crushingly frightening and impossible it feels to stand in one place, without a job, with no artist friends, with no family members who understand, with no belief in your own abilities or tenacity or conviction, what truly matters is what your heart tells you about who you are.

If you’ve tried to hold down a job every day for three years and you’ve switched jobs several times and you’ve kept telling yourself to be sensible, be smart, be logical, and after all of that time, you’ve known in your heart that a traditional, safe life would never make you happy, then it’s done. Your decision has already been made. You’ve done your due diligence. You had a thesis, you searched for data, you reached your conclusion: Straight jobs are not for you.

But shame doesn’t believe in accumulated knowledge. Shame tells you that your fixation on art is delusional. Shame picks up where your family left off. Shame attacks the things you love the most. The higher the stakes are for you, the more shame you’ll have.

Are you paying attention now? The more embarrassed and weak and stupid you feel about a particular pursuit, the more important that pursuit is to you. The more rapidly you drop a creative project in the face of other people’s mild disinterest or disapproval, and the more you try to cover your tracks and hide and disown your original investment, and the more you play it off and move on and pretend that you’re sensible and you know your little stupid “thing” is just a joke, ha ha, who cares, whatever, not a big deal, the more you love that thing.

Why does it matter how much you care about something? Why does it matter how much you love it? Why do your truest desires matter at all? These are the questions at the center of where you’re living right now. Because you believe, right now, that the things you care about and love and desire are the very things that you should destroy. Your shame is built on the premise that your desires are poisonous and delusional and a curse. You’re not just UNSURE about pursuing art and music, you’re VERY SURE that your pursuit of art and music lies at the white hot center of what’s broken and repugnant and deeply embarrassing about you.

Your current religion is that you’re deeply fucked and there’s no one to talk to about how fucked you are, because no one could possibly comprehend why you’d risk everything to pursue your truest desires. You even write those words: “I don't even feel comfortable consulting anyone about this, because who would understand?”

It’s time to crack this fucked up religion of yours apart, and throw it away forever.

Millions of artists and writers and musicians would understand why you’d sell your house and quit your job and pay way too much for arts school. It would take them about 2.3 seconds to get it. You would start to say, “I’m going to sell…” and they’d say, “Yes, of course.” The ones who seemed the most sure when they said this would be the ones you should listen to. The angry ones who lamented their lack of retirement savings and their bad marriages would be the ones who never broke their fucked up religion of isolation and despair into tiny pieces and threw it away, once and for all.

Becoming an artist is like joining a fucking monastery. It’s not about talent, it’s about faith: Building that faith, connecting with other people who believe, talking about it out loud, owning it, and feeding it. Just yesterday, I was walking down a sunny sidewalk with my dogs, talking to a writer friend of mine on the phone about how important it is to welcome whatever desires bubble up inside of us – sometimes even in spite of our very traditional, structured, married lives. We talked about how vital and good it feels to trust yourself, even when sometimes it might feel like you’re surrendering a lot for the sake of your complicated passions and experiences. I remember exactly where I was in the crosswalk between two streets when I told my friend, “Art is my top priority. And living as an artist means that sometimes other parts of my life are at risk. I need to greet everything – darkness, complexity, adventure -- with a wide open heart. It’s not even a choice anymore.”

My shame just two years ago would’ve blocked me from saying something so pretentious and so audaciously selfish. I would’ve been worried that someone might think I was talking about fluffing my own ego, or ignoring my kids, or leaving my husband, or using “art” as an excuse to be a dick. The second I used the word “art” to stand for what I do, I would’ve immediately heard a voice in my head, the voice of some imaginary angry, snobby human who misunderstands me completely: “Oh Christ, look at this mediocre advice lady with delusions of grandeur! Check out this washed up suburban Karen in fucking yoga pants, going on about art! Get a load of this bitch who thinks her ‘art’ matters, my god, how much spray paint do you have to huff to land there?”

When you go to art school – and yes, you are going, for fucking certain – you’re going to meet actual human beings who are very angry and very snobby. They’re going to take everything that you are and everything you’ve done, and they’re going to craft a scary voodoo doll out of those things. They’re going to fixate on your safe, traditional jobs and your dull life up to this point. They’re going to roll their eyes at your so-called tumultuous childhood. Nothing you are and nothing you own will be good enough. They’re going to take the voice of your dismissive family and they’re going to amplify it with 5000-watt speakers. These humans are going to stick their pins in you from the first millisecond they meet you, and the pins are going to have words like “no talent” and “deluded” and “average” and “too lazy” on them.

I couldn’t even make it to any art or writing school, personally, because I was too scared. I already knew what the angry snobs would say, because I was an angry snob myself, and I was the absolute BEST at constructing my own imaginary voodoo doll of myself — ugly, self-deluded, chickenshitted, deeply average me. I was a TV critic and then a book critic for years because I was really fucking good at ripping other people’s shit to tiny little shreds. I loved to do it. My shame was a sharpened switchblade, and I could cut you where you stood. I still can, motherfucker. It just is.

Smart and even merciless criticism is not only delicious but necessary, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I just want you to remember that artists and art students and critics and art professors are exactly like family members and friends and scared, paralyzed future artists: We are all ruled mostly by confusion and shame and fear. Our fear just looooves the word “talent.” Our fear draws lines between people who are embraced and respected by the world (and people who know how to talk like they’re already embraced and respected) and people who are unknown, who doubt themselves, who fear that they’re talentless. Our shame laughs out loud at the person who sold their house to go to an overpriced school in the city. Our shame tells us that self-doubting unknowns are also, usually, talentless. We have to believe in scarcity in order to prop up whatever abundance we’ve managed to stumble on — at least, that’s what we think when we’re living inside of our fear and shame. Most people live there most of the time.

You need to understand that over the course of your entire life, your ability to create art will depend on taking some of the feedback and encouragement and criticism and even spite from other people – people who know things and also people who know nothing at all! – and using that feedback to improve what you make WITHOUT EATING THEIR FEAR AND THEIR SHAME. You will take their shit sandwich and you will scrape the shit out of the center and you will eat the bread. You will do this without feeling things about it, ideally. You will forgive the shit sandwich makers. You will see their very narrow, confused fixation on talent and recognition and their tongue baths for Embraced, Known Artists and their contempt for Unproven Nobodies as manifestations of their fear and shame. They need to matter just as much as you do. They’re clinging to what they have, desperately. That is all. Your goal is to transcend that kind of clinging desperation, and to shed your mercy on them as you do it.

And when you meet someone who is present, who sits with you and looks you in the eyes and tells you, “I see you. Keep working. You’re on the right track.”? You will fall to your knees and thank the wild gods who sent you there and pledge your gratitude and loyalty to this person. And you will keep working.

You ask: “What if my creative inclinations are just a reflection of my trauma rather than my creative self?” Dude. Creative inclinations are often if not USUALLY a reflection of trauma. They’re so intertwined that they’re practically the same fucking thing. I don’t know if I could hear music the same way if I weren’t extremely fucking lonely and alienated as a kid. I feel music in my cells. I can listen to the same song on repeat for a full hour a day, if that song holds some kind of special magic for my mood. Repetition feeds me.

And if I weren’t a lonely, misunderstood, overly sensitive child, would I write 3000 words to a stranger about the supreme importance of selling their house to go to some snotty art school staffed by scared fuckweasels who’ll scorn them into the ground? This is my passion. I’m a person who wants to explain everything, all the time, to anyone and everyone. I want people to surrender their fucking hearts to me. Sometimes I meet a complete stranger and I immediately know things. Sometimes I can feel someone from a few feet away, and I want to know everything, everything, everything, and the feeling is so strong that it will haunt me for months.

I’m a fucking weirdo, in other words. But the more I surrender myself to these weird gifts, the bigger the gifts become. Gifts are not the same thing as talent, mind you. Gifts are just odd seedlings that grow out of unmet needs and also mysterious proclivities and desires. You don’t define gifts. You don’t say, “Does this person have a gift or not?” You just take your gifts and use them. Half of your gifts look broken at first. They aren’t wrapped with a bow and neatly marked. They’re all janky and fucked. I think sometimes what I feel in other people are their gifts. The more twisted wreckage I sense inside them (Not trauma! Some people with gifts are exceptionally healthy!), the more drawn to them I am.

As an artist, you welcome these sensations. You sit in the middle of your big pile of messy, clattering, rusted-out gifts and you sift around for something you can use. You give your gifts all of the love in your heart. You work with whatever is there. When you’re an artist, you sit in the middle of that fucking junkyard every single morning and you relish the stanky heat and the bent metal and the stray springs and all of that busted-ass bullshit. And then you get to work.

Why would you sell your life just to live in that junkyard? Because the junkyard is heaven, and the clean, respectable office is hell. Who would understand? Millions of artists would. Why would you do it? Because when you hear a song or read a story or see a work of art that speaks to you, your heart rises up out of its quivering, fearful state and it says: THIS IS WHAT I WANT. THIS IS WHO I AM. You just know.

And when you feel that way, some little voice whispers to you, “Please, please, please believe in this! Please, please, please, I’m begging you, don’t forget this feeling!” You’ve said that to yourself, haven’t you? And even when you’re saying it, you’re already afraid. Because you KNOW you’ll forget. You know your shame will take that feeling away from you.

So the first thing you have to do, before you sell your house (if you haven’t already sold it? Slightly unclear!) is this: You have to see a therapist. But you need someone who knows what art is. You need someone who gets it. If you see a therapist who talks about talent, or seems to want to figure out if you have talent or not? Consider dropping that therapist. You need someone who understands that belief and hard work and a junkyard full of bullshit are what make an artist. Talent is a word for the fearful and the ashamed. Talent is an old rubber stamp, owned by some stooped, confused king who’s sure someone is coming for his throne. Real artists just talk about the work, the process, the feeling of smelling the hot stank of the junkyard and knowing in your heart that you’re in the right place.

You have to see a therapist because you’re living inside of your shame right now. If you want to move and get a therapist at the same time, fine. But I need for you to understand that you’re not ready for art school yet. If you started art school today, you’d become a scared shell of a person very quickly. The angry snobs are going to scare the shit out of you. That’s a reason TO DO IT. It’s not a reason not to do it. Being around those predators will make you into an artist, if you welcome the fear instead of hiding from it. But in order to do that, you need a therapist who can remind you to remind yourself, every single goddamn day, that you must (MUST!) cultivate compassion for yourself and for the angry, fearful predators around you. You will not win by proving them wrong. You will not win by explaining yourself. You will only win through compassion, and through the slow cultivation of your private religion around art and what it means to you — TO YOU! No one else.

And if you can stay present and live inside your compassion for an angry snob and hear the word “untalented” and continue to make eye contact with an angry snob and shed your mercy all over that person, while keeping the glory of your unique junkyard inside your heart? Then you’ll make it.

Where will it lead? How will you support yourself? How will you survive? What if no one likes what you make? What if everyone thinks you’re the worst? These questions are the emotional equivalent of wondering what the weather will be like five years from now. You will put on a raincoat when there is rain. That is all. You will fucking survive by scraping the shit out of the shit sandwich every day. You will survive by trusting the junkyard and forgiving every other fucking person, place, and thing under the sun. You will survive by letting go of your anger as much as you can and replacing it with forgiveness - for yourself and others. You will survive by embracing your desires and your instincts and your complexity and your love of art and music, every single minute of every day, above all else.

You don’t arrive at the mountaintop, in the middle of the Pacific, under the blazing light of a million stars, by focusing on the cost of the flight or how much your ass will ache from climbing that high. You arrive there with belief. You cultivate belief privately. You make a religion from it. You build a practice. You do it every fucking day. And it’s hard every single fucking day. It’s also worth it, simply because this is who you are and nothing else feels remotely worth it, ever, not in the slightest.

Is it a mistake? Sometimes it feels like a mistake. Sometimes other people will tell you it’s a mistake. Fear and shame know for sure that it’s a mistake, already.

But that’s not what your heart says. That’s not what the stars say. They’ve been whispering to you all this time, haven’t they? You never needed a plane ticket to hear them. That’s your gift. You already know the truth: You belong here.

Polly  


Heather Havrilesky is the author of three books, most recently the essay collection What If This Were Enough?, which was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2018. You can read Heather’s most recent Ask Polly column on New York’s The Cut, where it’s published every other Wednesday. Write to: askpolly at protonmail . com.