A Little More Defiance, Please.

In Pep Talks, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David13 Comments

One of the most heartbreaking things I hear from photographers, when I ask why they do not share their work, is this: who am I to put my work out there? Who wants to hear what I have to say? It’s heartbreaking for so many reasons, not the least of which is how often I hear it. From photographers, from writers, from almost anyone that has finally come to grips with their desire, their need, to make something, I hear it in as many different ways as there are people to say it. What they are collectively saying is that they don’t matter. Or, perhaps worse, they know they matter and they’re just plain scared. Scared of rejection. Scared of the vulnerability that must happen when we make and share something that matters to us, into which we’ve poured a part of our soul. Scared others will not so much dislike our work – that happens – but that they won’t care enough to even register an opinion. We worry that if our art is unimportant or unnoticed, we must be too.

When did we become so timid? How many voices have we listened to that we finally gave in and swallowed the lie that unless what we share is better than others we shouldn’t share it at all? Who told us that sharing our art was first about the expectations of the people who will experience it and not first about the simple need to speak, to create, to do?

We have been robbed of something beautiful and fundamentally human: the freedom to create and add whatever we create, however good or bad in the eyes of others, to the great tapestry. And now, in a culture where the most common metrics of individual worth are likes and hearts – the approval of others – I worry we’re heading further from home, from the safe place in which we create for the joy of creation, and share our work as a gift, not a way to test our value.*

Someone told me recently she was a coward, as though that were an inescapable state of being. We are all afraid. But fear is not what we are. Fear is only a voice. We can listen to it, we can learn from it, we can let it point us in the direction of important (read: scary) work. But we need not obey it. When did we all become so g*d-damn obedient? When did we start taking no for an answer when we used to be so good at taking the cookie from the cookie jar and pressing the button we were told not to press, just to see what happens? Someone used to insult us and we’d hurl back: sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. It was bullshit, of course. Words hurt more. The scars go much deeper and stay much longer. But at least we were defiant.

The art spirit is a lot of things. One of them is defiant. That word has been rattling around in my brain a lot lately, settling in to some old wounds and helping me find new freedoms. It’s another way of looking at what I’ve long called this beautiful anarchy. Not because there’s value in rebellion for rebellion’s sake but because there is danger in being obedient for the sake of obedience. Conformity pushes the human soul in the wrong direction; it only works because it feels safe. Just keep your head down, blend in, it’ll all be OK. Again: bullshit.

The human heart longs to be loved and accepted. But it’s hollow unless we are loved and accepted for who we truly are. That means standing out – not for the sake of standing out but for the sake of being unashamedly you. Just you. Cracks and all. The cracks let the light in. But they also let it out. Honour the cracks. Uncover them. Let those cracks be the way you pour your soul into your work.

*Disclaimer One: I have been critical of social media lately, more so than usual. I’m not being negative; I’m trying to be unmistakeably positive about the things that matter most: the artist that I see in all of you, and the artist** that I hope is in me. Critical thinking is a good thing, especially about something I worry threatens our last threads of courage, something I worry might be pushing us all towards homogeny. But let me be clear: it’s not the technology, it’s the way we use it that either serves our humanity, deepens connections, and allows us to share like never before, or we use it to compare ourselves, to see if we measure up, and on a stage of millions that’s a frightening prospect if what we’re hoping for is to end up near the top. It is enough that we just find the place that is uniquely ours.

**Disclaimer Two: When I use the words art and artist I mean them in the least precious way possible. There is no implication that because I create art it is necessarily good art, important art, or anything more than relentlessly practicing my craft with increasing vulnerability, discipline, passion, and curiosity. It is art, not Art, if you catch my drift. 

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  1. Pingback: Not Good Enough? - Iris Nelson Photography

  2. David,

    I think this applies to everyone, in some degree, just in being who we are, individually, as opposed to being the person who fits a particular niche that suits the people closest to us. Trying to be someone we actually, truthfully, aren’t at all. And if we keep trying to be the niche filler for too long, and this is the most dangerous part, we forget/lose the real person hiding inside. That way lies long term unhappiness for everyone concerned. Open up the cracks and let the light in. And out.
    With a houseful of artists, (painters, musicians, actresses, …..) this post was pertinent for all, so they have all now got it in their inbox!

    Thank you.


  3. David, your recent posts have been so insightful and most appropriate for the times we are living in. Without forcing it, keep them coming as and when the mood takes you.

    On the topic of social media, I began by removing Facebook and Twitter from my phone, so that I couldn’t compulsively check them any time I have 30 seconds to spare. I now only look as a conscious decision while sitting at my PC.

    This latest post arrived at an interesting moment. I had just posted some work I was very pleased with, only to be met by deafening silence – yet again.

    I have deleted my website on multiple occasions because of the whole, “What could I possibly have to offer?” question.

    Could my work stand improvement? Of course….if I’m not a better photographer in 5 and then 10 and then 15 years, then something is wrong.

    However I know my work isn’t a pile of crap. And I know it’s better than a huge amount of the banal drivel that gets all the “Likes” on social media. If the people I know on social media are more interested in reading what one celebrity said to another, than giving time of day to the creative efforts of someone they actually know, well then…..

    It’s taken a long time but I’m finally beginning not to give a shit what the world thinks, of my photography or anything else for that matter. Curate for yourself a few helpful voices – all the rest can take a long walk off a short pier.

  4. These seven things all have to do with fear in some way…..

    Seven times have I despised my soul:
    The first time when I saw her being meek that she might attain height.
    The second time when I saw her limping before the crippled.
    The third time when she was given to choose between the hard and the easy, and she chose the easy.
    The fourth time when she committed a wrong, and comforted herself that others also commit wrong.
    The fifth time when she forbore for weakness, and attributed her patience to strength.
    The sixth time when she despised the ugliness of a face, and knew not that it was one of her own masks.
    And the seventh time when she sang a song of praise, and deemed it a virtue.

    ~Kahlil Gibran

  5. Something that can be even more painful is when those that you thought cared about you, don’t say anything at all, or worse, use the technology to in effect “dislike” or ignore. Lack of correspondence can be hard to ignore as well, especially when you know people you love are watching. Since I adore transparency, it not a long reach to assume this has happened to someone I hold so dear. Instead of telling someone how you feel, people certainly use it to say nothing at all, which can get in the way of letting all that beautiful light from all the beautiful cracks.

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  7. As I was walking away from my keyboard another inspiration came to me. Years ago I was privileged to attend a very challenging leadership course in Colorado Springs at the renowned “Center for Creative Leadership”. After a life changing week, one of the instructors shared a poem with us. I’ve never forgotten it. I have it printed and hangs in my office. Very powerful.
    Be Drunk
    Charles Baudelaire, 1821 – 1867

    You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

    But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

    And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

    1. Author

      Ian – This is so great. I was in Winnipeg recently and began writing a poem called EverDrunk that begins with these lines:

      Let me be ever-drunk
      And wander these streets
      A little dizzy with the wonder
      Of every spark of life and love.

      Give me that wine of laughter
      And watch my soul get a little
      Head-fogged and heart-twisted
      By the beauty I too often miss
      With the sobriety of mundane days

      Find me behind the woodshed
      Drunk on bathtub gin
      And drowning In the moonshine
      of the muse’s hungry kiss

      It’s not complete yet but I’m thrilled to see I’m not the only one to think this a beautiful metaphor. To be in Baudelaire’s company suits me fine. 🙂

  8. Interesting topic David. I can’t help but believe this topic is indelibly linked to your astute observations of the increasingly negative drumbeat of the news, social media, etc. All too often the distance provided by the screen and keyboard result in statements and slanderous comments that few people would ever verbalize in person. The merely average feel empowered, intelligent and wise beyond their interpersonal daily interactions warrant by spewing vitriol at almost any issue or topic.

    In this tempest of negativity the creative candle is hard to sustain. Hard to light. Hard to show others. Fearful of the snuffing words. The embryonic stage of the artist is often a fragile existence. Too much significance is put in the “wisdom” of the heathens that elevate themselves by lowering others.

    The solution I believe is seeking those that are truly wise. Those that nurture the flame regardless of the candle. Learn to discount those that have a spurious intent. Tune your “bullshit meter”!

    Also, learn to cherish your mistakes. As Thomas Edison said as he tried to invent the light bulb “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Those are value too! Cherish what you learn. Success is a poor teacher.

    In my living room I have a large black and white print of a bear picture that you gave me constructive feedback (very positive feedback too). On the other side of the fireplace I have another large print that you gave me constructive feedback (very provocative, blunt and even harsh on why the photograph was even taken). I proudly display both in my house. Why? The bear photograph still moves me as I remember my feeling in Alaska. The other photograph celebrates several things. First, it is the first time that I believe I received HONEST feedback from a man if wisdom with positive intent that helped me on my visual journey more than any other single event. Second, although I wouldn’t even print that photograph today much less hang it in my living room, I leave it there to remind me how far I’ve progressed and am eager to see how far I progress as my journey continues. Others might think I have it there because I believe it to be a wonderful shot. They may wonder at my choice. I don’t care. I have it there because it speaks reminds my soul to keep striving to learn and grow.

    My two cents anyway…..

  9. Thank you.

    I needed to hear this. Not 10 minutes ago I was wrestling with the ever-present voice in the back of my mind that says there’s no point in me creating, or sharing, or anything because it’s all been done or is being done by better people than I. I have some projects in the beginning stages where it’s easier to kill the idea than try and see it through.

    My motivation needed adjusting, it always needs adjusting, but this really helped right now. I’ll keep working.

    Thank you.

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