Kicking existential angst to the curb

embroidery booksPerhaps all of us who’ve lived a certain amount of time know what it is to see an unexpected truth and have our perspective forever changed. Once seen, some things cannot be unseen. If the truth is a hard one, the experience can sting all the more when we realize that the truth was in front of us for some time, and we were just unable to see it.

That was my experience this week.

It began with more reading from Shop Class as Soulcraft (subject of my last “Reading” post). Matthew Crawford relates an incident in which an experienced mechanic sees something in an engine part that he had missed:

Countless times since that day, a more experienced mechanic has pointed out to me something that was right in front of my face, but which I lacked the knowledge to see. It is an uncanny experience; the raw sensual data reaching my eye before and after are the same, but without the pertinent framework of meaning, the features in question are invisible. Once they have been pointed out, it seems impossible that I should not have seen them before. (page 91)

I knew just what he meant. All week, thanks to playing around with Ed Emberley’s drawing book, I saw the world around me in a different way. Emberley helped me understand that even very visually complex objects can be rendered two-dimensionally by breaking them down into component shapes, and that’s all I saw:

photo to sketch

This photo isn’t necessarily complex, but I would not have been able to sketch it before my exercise with Emberley.

As Crawford writes, the raw sensual data in front of me is the same, but with a different framework of meaning I am seeing in a different way.

Perhaps because I was thinking about the ability of different frameworks to change our vision, a post this past week from one of my favorite online kindred spirits, Lindsey Mead, caused me to see one of those uncomfortable sorts of truths. Wondering about the connection between love and vulnerability, Lindsey posed this question and asked readers to share their responses to it with her:

Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?

This was my (quickly written without time to over-think it) response:

For a while I have dreamed of exploring visual (rather than verbal) creation. I haven’t because I feel too old and too ignorant/inexperienced to achieve any kind of real mastery now. I haven’t because my partner in life has an MFA in painting and he’s the artist; I know I don’t have talent in the way he does in this area. I haven’t because I haven’t been willing to make time for such a seemingly-trivial pursuit. But I’ve started doing it anyway. The heart wants what it wants, and vulnerability, and, yeah.

All week, I messed around with my Valentine project. I studied the inspiration photo for my poem to see the shapes in it. I bought paper and embroidery floss. I sketched. I brought home a stack of books from the library–books on embroidery and picture books with paper collage illustrations. I cut out the first shapes for the front of the card. I did some practice stitching both by hand and by sewing machine:


In short, I have spent would could be considered a silly amount of time and money for nothing more than a card. After reading and responding to Lindsey’s post, it became apparent to me that the card has become a thing more for my benefit than Cane’s. While I’m sure he will like it, it will bring him pleasure that is neither commensurate with the time and effort I’m putting into it nor equal to mine in making it. This thought made me uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be for him, right?

It was that discomfort, as well thinking more about an an exchange with Miriam in response to my post about the first few chapters of Crawford’s book, that helped me see something about my relationship with creative expression that I didn’t see clearly before: Even though I claimed on the About page of this blog that I’m giving myself permission to create simply for the joy of it, I really haven’t.

It’s OK for me to play as I have in order to make something for someone else, but when I thought about creating projects similar to the Valentine card (paper collages) just for the fun of making them, I thought the same thoughts I’ve had in the past about writing poems or blogs–

  • There isn’t any real value in this kind of work.

  • I’m not good enough to justify the resources it takes to make it.

  • There are better things I should be doing with my time.

With works of written expression I’ve been able to put such thoughts off (sometimes) because I have some skill and some evidence that what I create matters to others. When it comes to visual expression, though, there’s none of that. I have little skill and feel foolish, selfish, and narcissistic to spend any of the minutes of my “one wild and precious life” snipping pieces of paper and thread and arranging them into pictures that may matter to no one but me.

card project

So, in my typical fashion, I built an intellectual argument to justify the time I might spend doing something just because I want to. It went like this:

My small experiments with visual creation have already caused me to see things differently than I have in the past. These shifts in understanding will, of course, change the ways in which I interact with my world. In that sense, whatever is happening internally, just for me, does have an effect on others.

If we believe that working or playing at expressing what we see and feel and believe helps us get closer to Truth (and I do) and that knowing Truth is the path to better lives for all of us (which I also believe), then perhaps that, alone, is reason enough to give ourselves permission to muck about with paper and words and string and any other thing we want to use to reflect and reflect upon our world and our experiences in it.

You know what? Screw that.

I’d like to tell you I came to this place of liberation and bravery and bravado all on my own, but it was yet another writer who took me there. I found her through Jen’s weekly round-up of good reads this morning, and it was just what I needed to hear. Jen linked to this piece (“25 Writing Hacks from a Hack Writer”) by Delilah S. Dawson, who writes:

10. SCREW GUILT.  This is another case of getting rid of a backlog of bullshit that keeps you from reaching your writing potential. Fact is, you probably have some kind of guilt attached to your writing…. Writing, or whatever your passion might be, is worth pursuing. You are a human being with one life, and you damn well deserve to do the thing that brings you joy. You do not have to feel guilty for pursuing your passion.


Now, that being said, you have to keep up your bargains with the world. …But if you’re doing all the things you’re supposed to be doing, you have every right as a living creature to pursue your bliss in your spare time. Anyone who says otherwise is a dreamkiller, and fuck dreamkillers right in the ear. If someone tries to make you feel bad for writing, consider why they’re being a toxic douchebag and why you need them in your life.

Oh, man. What does it mean when the toxic douchebag dreamkiller is…me? And it’s not only guilt I need to give the finger to, but also shame and pride and vanity?

I can’t exactly kick myself out of my own life. And while it is all well and good to say brave things and throw around profanity so that I sound like a big, creative badass (can I tell you, I so want to be a big, creative badass), I know that guilt and shame and pride and vanity have deep roots and will not be swiftly or easily tugged from the soil of my psyche.

But damn if I’m not going to try. Once this card is done, I’m going to make more things. Things that are for no one but me. Things that are crappy. And I’m going to share them here, so they can’t be hidden away. So I can’t pretend they don’t matter. I don’t really know how or why they matter yet, but I know they do. Because, as Lindsey suggests, vulnerability fosters closeness. And perhaps the only way I can repair my relationship with my creative self is to get vulnerable– to risk letting her make things that are mediocre and frivolous and for no one but me, to see if I can still love her anyway. And to see if others will love me when I love her.

Maybe then I can even find my way back to writing poems, my oldest and truest creative love.


Comments especially welcome

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has struggled with these questions. I would love to hear about your experience and what you know.



23 thoughts on “Kicking existential angst to the curb

  1. Beth says:

    This is timely for me because of the week I had professionally. I’m a freelance musician (almost commented on last weeks’ post referencing musicians and creativity within limitations) and am considering quitting one of the jobs I have because it is personally and creatively soul sucking. The angst I have a hard time reconciling is that because of my husband’s job we are in a financial position where me having this job is not necessary for our family’s well being. So I feel like a privileged spoiled brat for having the option of quitting to have a more fulfilling creative life when my husband does not have that choice nor do most of the people I work with. Of course, I should mention this job pays very, very little which is part of the soul sucking because a disproportionate amount of work is involved. So I harbor guilt but my husband pointed out it’s insane to have the option of getting out of a bad situation and choose not to take it. I need to get over my angst over taking.steps to improve my life and that of our family. It’s not like I’m taking that chance away from.someone else. Why should being as happy and healthy as possible, not to mention being more artistically fulfilled, make me feel guilty? Why should I worry about the snarky.comments I will receive from.coworkers? The “must be nice” people can kiss my ass. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      Your last sentence made me smile. I think we all have some parts of our lives that seem like gifts to others, and some parts that don’t. I will admit I’ve thought “must be nice” about some writers–because I would like the choices/resources they seem to have and because I think it really must be nice for them to have them. But you know, I could have made some different choices, and I truly don’t begrudge others who seem to have more options than me. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and everyone has to give up some things to have whatever it is they have, you know? I don’t think you should feel guilty at all. I think all of us should grab as much of the good stuff in life (whatever that is for us) as we can. I hope you will.

  2. Pamela Keown says:

    Hi Rita. I have a guilt problem–about my creativity. I used to write all the time. I know when I stopped writing and I know why I stopped writing. I was 21, I am 54. My writings were just for my eyes only, so I thought. My mother read my writings and she did not approve. The scene was bad, verbal, but extreme. I was 42 the first time I openly defied my mother. But I still cannot write more than keeping a date book with appointments and significant events. You are a wonderful writer. I have been following you for awhile.

    I believe you have the creativity to make any art that pops into your head. Don’t compare yourself to anyone. 🙂 Especially someone who paid money to be trained to be an artist. There is joy in art–in the process of creating.

    Don’t rob yourself.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, Pamela. This story makes me so sad. It is such a risky, tricky thing to be a writer–especially if you write the truth about things that matter. It means you are bound to make someone uncomfortable in some way. I want to take your last sentence and hand it back to you: Don’t rob yourself of the joys of writing any longer. I’m planning to do some writing exercises in this space. Maybe you can do them as I do, as a way to start? You don’t have to show them to anyone. Surely your mother can no longer violate you in that way again? I certainly hope not.

      • Laura says:

        Pamela–I understand your pain in this, and I understand how hard it is to unhear a toxic person’s voice in your head. I’d encourage you consider Rita’s invitation. This would be a wonderfully supportive place to get back something that was taken from you. Sending you encouragement!

    • MJ says:

      Your mother story touched my heart. (First, I’ve been following Rita around the web as I sit here in the kitchen having coffee and pizza for breakfast and Rita led me to your letter).

      I’m going to give you some advice you didn’t ask for, so it’s up to you whether you read further or not. I don’t know you or your mother, but I’ve been where you seem to be and am making so bold as to offer armchair counseling. (My late husband, a trained counselor himself, would be tsk-tsk-ing me now, but he’s gone on and I’m still here so I just ignore him.

      Sweetheart, I’m way older than you and I had a toxic mother who didn’t like anything i did–at all. She made fun of my dreams and was nasty in all sorts of other ways i won’t bore you with (with you bore???LOL) with further details and only you know if you recognize your mother here.

      I made my peace with my soul –and then it was easy to let her words roll off my shoulders and be agreeable and calm every time we were in the same house, mine or hers–before she died, but she never did become “Mom.” She was and still is, “Mother.” It was her job, which she, sadly couldn’t perform, due to her own crappy raising, but the title was a formality, only…ever….still….

      Please, look into your heart, try to leave your mother in the past and live for yourself through the days you have left. Life is so short….so painfully short..with so many missed opportunities….so many lonely days and nights (even if you share space with another human being). It’s taken me over half a century to understand how few days we actually have on earth.

      You won’t realize how much time you have wasted until it’s almost too late (you have too few years left) to make the change that will raise your soul to the heights it deserves. Wiki “Inner Child” and read a bit. Bradford’s advice works.

      Here’s what he told me (on PBS) that changed my life: In your mind, go back to the child you once were. Watch yourself in the life you lived. Then, still in your mind, you–the adult with that hurt child still inside you–walk over to her, pick her up and carry her in your arms and tell her you are a grown-up and you wont let her be hurt ever again. Tell her you love her and she is loveable, no matter what anyone else says. Tell her that she deserves a better life and you will see that she has it. In my mind, I put my inner child down and told her to play, I’d be there to protect her.

      The results can be amazing. If you do this and it works, I know you will not have to still bow to the wants of a person who doesn’t know the inner you and didn’t love you as a kind mother would, so you will be free to write whatever you please and you don’t have to show it to your mother (whether she be dead or alive).

      I’ve written here my truth and hope you will find the way to write yours. Remember, it’s just words and if those words are true and honest they will find the right readers….and if you never send them out into the world where there are rejections and resentments, you will still have written them and when the opportunity comes to share them with the world, you will be ready. Oh, wait, we have the internet–you can publish it yourself–and people’s negativity cannot touch you….and their objections are just ideas and words…..and might hold a nugget of truth that you can use in your own writing–if you chose to.

      I wish you all good things and many years of writing what pleases you.

  3. Marian says:

    As I mentioned in your Emberley post, I’ve made cards for each of my kids’ birthdays since year one, and it’s funny, because all the objections you’re now raising to the card you’re making for Cane, are the same ones I’ve had over the years, most notably the feeling about the time involved. My early cards were fairly quick – they could be done in perhaps an hour or so; but as the years have gone on, I’ve found that I have to out-do myself, creatively, meaning these cards can be a full evening’s work or more. And then the kids open the envelopes, smile (and hopefully admire the artistry!), it gets set on the table, and that’s that! It does rather seem like a disproportionate amount of work for the “return”, but I’m bound and determined to ignore that (and not succumb to the voice in my head that says it would be quicker/easier/ok if I just bought cards at the store). Firstly, because these cards have come to represent an expression of love for my kids. (And, frankly, the precedent I’d be breaking if I stopped now…!) But secondly, and maybe this is the one I fear the most: it’s far too easy to slide down the creative/existential slippery slope. I’m an over-thinker and have unfortunately had plenty of existential angst, thoughts of what am I doing with my life, how should I be spending my time, etc etc. Creativity has always brought me both joy and a sense of calmness. My life simply doesn’t feel right if I’m not creating something, even though I will admit that I have on numerous occasions wondered why the heck I was creating that particular thing. So I think if something gives you joy (or, if not you’re quite at joy yet, but you still feel compelled to do it, because as you said, “the heart wants what it wants”), then too much questioning and dwelling on reasons both for and against can take you down roads that are perhaps better left un-trod. I think that in the culture that we now live in, you can squash and talk yourself out of nearly every single creative thing you think you might want to do. Take a quilt for example: Why should I bother to take countless hours to choose fabric, cut fabric into little squares, sew the fabric pieces (that I just cut apart!!!) back together (but in a pattern this time, which supposedly makes all the difference), add a middle layer and a backing, bind off the edges, and do the quilting … when I could just buy one online at Pottery Barn and call it a day? I know there’s still a lot of creative people out there, people who wouldn’t want to ever give up the joy that comes when you create something … but I wonder sometimes if that’s slowly being chipped away. Are people turning to the world-wide marketplace on the internet, shopping for the perfect hand-made mittens at some etsy store, or is it in fact the opposite – are more people searching for how-to advice and knitting those mittens themselves?

    As to not being good enough to create something with a visual expression … I’m a great believer in the empowerment that comes with “trying”. The whole “if at once you don’t succeed, try, try again” makes eventual success all the more sweet, and – I believe, anyway – leads to other instances of “trying” in various other avenues of life.

    And I am *totally* my own toxic douchebag dreamkiller. But I’m finding that the more I try to simply ignore her, the quieter she gets…maybe one day she’ll go away altogether.
    Marian recently posted…Processed Food is a Slippery SlopeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      As always, there is much here I want to respond to. I agree: You have to make those cards now! 🙂 Obviously, they are much more than cards, both for you and your children. When they are grown, they will treasure those. When they become adults, especially if they are parents, they will understand them in a different way. They’ll know them for the symbols of your love that they are.

      And as for practical creativity, yes–I think we do not have as much need for it in the kind of world you and I are living in as we used to. I remember my mother sewing dresses for me because it was so much less expensive than buying. But now, it costs more to sew our own clothing than it does to buy them. I have a quilt top that my great-grandmother stitched from assorted scraps; she made them because that was less expensive than buying, and I’m sure that’s the reason all my great-grandmothers and both grandmothers knit. I know there’s been a resurgence of interest in knitting, but I think it is like sewing; we can buy knit goods for so much less than it costs to make them. People are doing those things for other reasons, and the ability to do so feels like a kind of luxury to me. And, I suppose, that’s why the things I sew don’t feel like work. I sew not because I need to, but because I want to.

  4. Kate says:

    One of my friends (who is very active in the art world) told me once how sad it is that we kill our artist. He pointed out that if you ask almost any child if they can draw or paint – they say yes whereas almost any adult will say no. At some point, we forget the joy of creation and start worrying about what we produce and if our production isn’t “perfect” we feel the need to leave it to those who are more talented than ourselves. I think it’s normal as we age to find the things we are good at it (it feels so good to be good at things!) and shed the others. That’s what grown-ups DO. But creating for the sake of creating – it’s childlike and joyful and playful and light. I know I need more of that.
    Kate recently posted…4/52My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Me too, Kate. Me, too. I would like to know, though, why we attach such baggage to artistic expression (whether that’s visual, verbal, or musical). People do not seem to be as ashamed to play sports badly as they are to paint or sing badly, it seems to me. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about someone feeling they can’t call themselves “a writer” unless they are published in a traditional way or are somehow recognized as writing things of a particular kind of worth. Although I know intellectually that such notions are invalid, it seems that I don’t feel it. Yet.

  5. Gretchen says:

    Funny thing: I know Delilah. Mostly as a friend of friends, but we ran in the same playgroup circles when our kids were younger. I never see her anymore except on facebook :). This reminds me of a Northern Exposure episode: Chris was making some kind of elaborate sculpture and Holling was doing paint by number, and, as I recall, Chris was trying to convince Holling of the value of making art just for the process and then destroying it, but Holling concluded that he LIKED his paint by number and didn’t want to destroy it. I wonder if Ari would like Northern Exposure. I’m not sure how well it’s aged. This also reminds me of how I keep meaning to take a painting class and keep….not.
    Gretchen recently posted…Making Plans for the Poor, Neglected DenMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I think I remember that episode (and I, too, now wonder if that show would seem as charming as it once did). I would love to take a painting class. Maybe we both should?

  6. Jen says:

    I struggle with the time that I commit to writing (because I’m not writing a novel. I’m not writing a short story. I’m not even writing essays. I’m just scribbling most of the time – working out my thoughts, figuring out what I think, what’s important to me) and to photography. It seems like I spend so much time on it but don’t actually produce much. I was reading a post by another blogger that was pretty strident about the fact that you can’t call yourself a writer or a photographer or an artist if you’re not getting paid and that all of us who are toiling away, journeymen makers are essentially diminishing what those “real” artists are doing (it was really kinda of an awful post), and it kinda made me wonder what I am doing and why.

    And I realized that I do these things because they allow me to feel connected – to myself, to my past, to my family, to others who engage in practice, to the “professionals” – and I enjoy it, dammit. It makes me happy. It makes me feel engaged. I don’t know if anything will ever come of it or even if I want anything to come of it. It makes me happy.
    Jen recently posted…Weekend UnwindMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      That kind of thinking (what you described in the blog post) just chaps my hide. I think writers are people who write. Period. Maybe it’s not your profession if you’re not getting paid, but if you’re writing, you’re still a writer. I’ve been paid to write and I’ve got a book to my name, but I sometimes don’t allow myself to attach the label “writer” to me because I’m not actually writing. Or because it’s not how I support myself. I get it. I’ve certainly had trouble claiming that word for myself even when writing. But part of what I’m pursuing here is finally letting that stuff all fall away. I want to write (and make) without worrying about what those things make of me. I want to be happy and engaged. I want to do it for the reason you share here–to feel connected to other people and to my own life. Those are reasons enough, I think.

    • MJ says:

      I wrote for pay and the people who did it for free brought down the amount of money people were willing to pay me. To some people Free is always better, right? Especially for non-profit organizations and charitable causes. Life has many wrinkles and this is one we all work out for ourselves, as you seem to have…..good for you….

      I’m sorry the other blogger was strident, but the point is well understood by those who write for money.
      I never thought myself an “artist” but as a person who liked to write and could provide a service. Most people who paid me got more than they expected and often i was re-hired for the next job.

      You wrote:……working out my thoughts, figuring out what I think, what’s important to me) …

      IMO, this makes you a philosopher, way more important than just a writer who does it for a paycheck.
      Your thoughts might produce ideas and perceptions that are treasured, re-produced, accepted as reality, by people you will never know. Or, in time, your collection of thoughts and where they lead you could turn into a book that makes you a tv star. Who knows? And if they remain just your ideas, thoughts, and deductions, if they are written down, you have no way of knowing who will read them in the future and be inspired, helped, shown a new way of looking at a part of life and the world.

      Keep believing in yourself and being happy….be connected and take joy in it….

      An aside: one day i was returning from doing interviews for an article, stopped at a traffic light and was hit with the thought “I don’t want to do this anymore.” So I quit. Now i make quilts, knit winter caps and such, paint tiny “Artist’s Trading Cards” and furniture. And lots of days just sit and watch the clouds go by.
      To each her own and damn the naysayers.

  7. Laura says:

    Wow. I’m a little speechless right now, but in a good way. Lots to think about here. THANK YOU for writing this. I come from a long line of blue-collar and farming types, and it feels like I am constantly at war with justification. Like I need an external reason for doing what I’m doing (It’s okay to write this column because I can sell it to the community magazine) along with a reasonable excuse for NOT doing whatever it is that I’m sacrificing (clean dishes, paperwork, weeding the tomatoes). The problem is that there is never enough day left at the end of the day, and yet putting writing first seems awkward and guilt-inducing. I think I need to expand my definition of both “productive” and “worthwhile”, but old habits are going to be hard to break.
    Laura recently posted…In Search of: a 2-step Organization PlanMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Me too. I struggle more with the what I’m not doing than with justifying what I am, but it’s hard to pull them apart, really. Old thinking habits are hard for me to break, too. Obviously.

  8. Katherine says:

    One of my friends stitched me a card and I have it framed and hung on our wall- I see it every single day and it brings me such joy. Another friend knitted a sweater for my third child and my forth child is now wearing it. Again- so much joy in this art that was created with me or my children in mind. I am thankful these friends spent the time. What a gift. I hope you use yours unabashedly, for you and anyone around you.
    Katherine recently posted…Clothes Baskets Can Help You Not Resent Your ChildrenMy Profile

  9. Josh says:

    Two quick comments:

    1. I think if one wanted to play devil’s advocate a counter-argument could be made that you can’t be a REAL [artist, photographer, writer etc] if you ARE getting paid. So there! 😉

    2. I would just like to point out, Rita, that the photographs, i.e ‘visual creations’ accompanying this post are wonderfully expressive and technically excellent. 🙂

  10. Lisa says:

    I have always been struck by how throughout time, and even in the poorest cultures, people express themselves in what they make. Coverings to keep us warm could be merely functional, but instead they are beautifully woven or exquisitely patched and pieced together. Dishes aren’t only holders of water and food, they are expressions of the maker’s imagination. Life is demanding, and yet humans have taken the time and effort to make it beautiful even when simple survival seems more than enough of a challenge. I think the act of creating is a very human need. We all do it in different ways. We are all artists when we express ourselves.

  11. May says:

    I took my daughter to UVA this spring as she was selecting her grad school. The mountains there absolutely reminded me of a quilt. The rock, the foliage, the plants coming to life with spring. It all looked like different patterns of fabric brought together to form a larger picture. The first set of photos (nature and art) reminded me so much of that experience. Life really does depend on how you look at it.
    May recently posted…Fount of KnowledgeMy Profile

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