From coloring in or outside the lines to screaming a favorite Disney tune in a car seat, most of us develop a creative interest at a young age. It’s unabashed, filled with mere curiosity, and there’s no thought of critique. That comes later.
Bad critiques can push someone to work harder, reinforce someone’s belief that they are doing something unique, or fatally cripple someone’s artistic confidence. The reaction to critique in many ways defines an artist whether that’s an immediate effect or a lasting impact viewed through hindsight. Creativity can be one of the most gratifying and simultaneously delicate facets of the human experience. It’s rewarding on any level from that notebook doodle to winning an award but the study for some can be an emotional or even existential rollercoaster.
“Learning How to Act Like Myself” written by Gillian Jacobs has been around for awhile now, but it's one of my favorite reads. Jacobs describes her development as an actress/human from childhood to adulthood and the emotional hurdles she navigated while studying at Juilliard. It’s a touching examination of artistic purpose and the trials of transition from dutiful student to self-aware artist. After discussing her youth as an only child who aimed to please and her developing passion for theater, she talks about that passion being shocked into insecurity from the first day of conservatory study.
Jacobs proceeds to describe facing probation and being on the brink of expulsion. She had been accepted to the most prestigious acting program in the country. She had made the cut and was one of around 20 actors selected to study together but now, after one semester, she was "on the chopping block” because they thought she was a bad actor. She would return to her second semester intent on “white knuckling” through and figuring out how to be who they wanted, effectively burying any semblance of “self” in the process.
Jacobs would go on to graduate from Juilliard but at the cost of losing touch with that spark that brought her there. Her strengths were played down while were faults were singled out and she came out the other end of the tunnel feeling stuck in a profession in which she felt insecure. Now it seems she can look back on these trials objectively and remove herself healthily, realizing that ultimately, though not to their credit, her teachers and peers had created an opportunity to find herself again through perseverance and following her strengths.
Ultimately, no matter what your drive to perform or create, it is important, though often difficult, to stay grounded in the fact that the opinions of others do not define your craft but rather you can use those opinions to help you to define it. Striving for approval and acceptance has the potential to dilute your “self” out of something that should be a unique, personal expression. The simple act of doing creates something no one else can replicate exactly and there is innate strength to be found in that. When you think of it this way creatives should almost feel more comfortable and confident knowing that what they are doing is inherently, uniquely “them.”
Furthermore, avoiding failure clearly is not a worthwhile measure of success. It would seem Jacobs's failures to live up to the strict and focused perspectives of many of her mentors at Juilliard brought her close to giving up completely. Not everyone is made for the same path to success and she admits that the trials she experienced in her years at Juilliard helped her to rediscover her personal creative needs, leading to her current success in comedy roles.
"Failure," it seems, is not only subjective but also worth pushing through. Giving up is the ultimate failure and I think it is safe to say that any creative with any amount of success will offer similar advice. J.K. Rowling had a lot to say about this very idea in her moving commencement address to Harvard University in 2008. Most people are instantly familiar with her name, but her rise was unexpected. In fact, according to an interview from 2012, when the first Harry Potter manuscript was purchased by Bloomsbury, "...her editor advised Rowling to get a teaching job, the likelihood of her earning a living from children's books being, in his view, decidedly remote."
Rowling had always wanted to write novels. When she was six years old, she wrote a book about a rabbit named Rabbit. After studying French and Classics at Exeter University however, Rowling worked for Amnesty International in London before leaving her home country to teach English. A few years later she would return to England as a single mother with the ever-present dream of writing novels for a living. At the time, J.K Rowling found herself, "...as poor as it is possible to be in Britain without being homeless...and by every usual standard I was the biggest failure I knew."
The takeaway from all of this seems clear. Whatever your creative outlet may be it is important to remember that at its core, it is just that, a personal outlet. In the face of stress or insecurity we all might do well to periodically perform a personal once-over to remind ourselves why we create in the first place and shift our focus as needed. Creative curiosity might lead you to places you didn’t initially expect. You might find new inspiration or you may shake your resolve as an artist and that is all ok, it's part of the process. Either way, try to remember what it was like to color outside the lines and decide whether or not that’s what you really want to be doing anyway.
For more information about Gillian Jacobs:
And J.K. Rowling: