A big important chunk of being a Creative Person With Ideas involves believing in those ideas enough that you can get them out of your head and onto (metaphorical) paper and, you know, make stuff. And sure, it’s possible that after you make stuff, you’ll look back at it and hate it and decide to start over again, or figure out a way to improve it. But what if every time you made something you hated it? And you looked at it with shame, and you asked yourself, Why bother? And these feelings grew and grew and grew until you couldn’t make anything anymore? Well, then THE FEAR has taken over and made you prisoner of your own doubts, and that’s it. You’re done.
I am well-acquainted with the Fear. We have been hanging out for more than a decade now.
Growing up, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I had figured this out as early as five or six. In the beginning, the girls I drew had no necks, big heads with eyes that looked like lowercase Ns, and sweetheart-shaped gowns. When I was seven or eight, my grandmother gave me a Crayola Fashion Designer Kit, which consisted of a plastic mold with three figures, colored pencils, and about 12 sheets with different designs to place your paper over and trace with the aid of a light box that doubled as a carrying case. It pretty much changed my life.
For the next eight years, I sketched all the time, like I was a professional designer on a commercial schedule. I would bring my drawings to school and show my classmates, and in between classes, I would draw. I loved halter necks in blues and fuschias, colors that I never tired of. Eventually I outgrew the plastic mold and tracing sheets and starting coming up with my own tight-fitting and color-blocked creations, probably as a result of my early love for Versace and their GLORIOUS ads, which I had recently starting tearing out of magazines and collecting. I was obsessed with the models in matching metallic leather skirts, and Kristen McMenamy in a seafoam-green dress pretty much defined femininity for me for the rest of my life. I spent all my time reading fashion magazines, memorizing the names of designers and models and editors and all those colorful creatures who populate the fashion world. Every time I caught an episode of the Canadian TV show Fashion File with Tim Blanks, I would daydream about being featured on it, and I kept boxes full of editorials and ads that I knew would one day serve as my “inspiration archive.” I took draping and illustration and sewing classes in high school, and a friend even had one of my sketches made into a prom dress. There was no doubt that this was what I was supposed to be doing.
Then I got to college. It was not at all what I hoped it would be. In my first studio class, I was disappointed to discover that my classmates had a more pragmatic approach to fashion: The girls loved shopping and thought Hey, why not? and the boys thought Alexander McQueen was unwearable, ugly, and unnecessary. All these years, I imagined that I would get to a place where I could geek out with my peers about the beauty of Hussein Chalayan’s mechanical collection, and instead I got a room full of people interested in real-life clothes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted ART and DRAMA! A tiny seed was planted that soon sprouted into my entire being: Maybe I was the one who didn’t belong here. Rationally, I’m aware that it doesn’t make sense to let other people’s feelings interfere with your dreams and desires, but the brain is a crazy organ. I soon began to lose interest in my sewing class anyway, because the sewing machines were often occupied by students in more-advanced classes, and I had to go to the studio after hours in order to sew, which didn’t seem like that much fun when I could be hanging out with my crush instead.
I failed the course. I was ashamed and utterly pissed at myself. I had wanted this my whole life! Why was I acting like such a jackass? I took it again the following semester, with a better attitude and funner people, but again, I grew too distracted to dedicate the amount of work and attention needed. Worse, a lifetime of fashion-obsessing had suddenly turned against me. I looked at my inspiration archive and instead of being inspired, I felt a crushing anxiety. Compared with my heroes, I didn’t think I was talented. I was certainly no McQueen or Miuccia Prada. My drawings looked sad and stupid. I had nothing to say, no point of view. I stopped sketching altogether. My life’s passion became nothing but a reminder of my mediocrity, and during my third semester, I started thinking about other majors. The Fear had won. Scared of possible failure, I sabotaged myself, and abandoned my dream.
I became convinced that I had never thought the whole thing through, that I hadn’t seen how maybe my interests were changing and I was simply focused on the wrong pursuit. For one of my design classes, I had done an illustration on the computer, and suddenly graphic design made sense. My school offered the program with a minor in fashion, so I reasoned that I had mistaken my love of magazines, art directing, styling, and photography for a desire to be a fashion designer, when the whole time I just wanted to be responsible for the actual layout of the pages that had influenced me growing up. I was happy again. The Fear was left to rest.
I was a cluster of nerves during my first design class. All the kids were familiar with Photoshop and Illustrator; other than that one project I mentioned above, I had only ever used the computer to chat on AIM, make Angelfire websites, and look at Style.com. I had no idea there was this whole world of creation right at my fingertips. I loved it, though! I dove in with excitement, and I was surrounded by some really talented kids who totally inspired and challenged me for a while. But it wasn’t long before the Fear reared its ugly head again. As the courses got more complicated—and orbited out of my comfort zone with talk of corporate identity, YUCK!—I began to hate everything I did and would completely abandon and restart projects halfway through. For each assignment, we had a group critique where we hung our work on the walls and took turns talking about what succeeded and what could’ve used more thought, and every single time I saw my work next to theirs, I felt like dying and crawling in a hole. Since I’ve always thought that I had a really good critical eye and can easily tell good from bad, I figured my feelings about my own work MUST be true.
I managed to stick it out another three years and finish the program. When preparing for my exit interview, in which I had to present the work I’d done throughout college to the professors in my department as well as a guest judge, I spent countless nights held hostage by my anxieties, completely certain that I was going to be told: “You suck and you are not getting a degree.” But the interview went well. I cried. I graduated. I was suddenly in the real world.
In the years after college, I stopped making stuff, perhaps a natural consequence of not being in an environment where I NEED to create in order to get a grade. Finding a job in my preferred field became increasingly more difficult—it was the year all the magazines started shutting down left and right, which is obviously an inauspicious beginning when you are trying to become an art director. I worked full-time retail jobs because I had to survive, and was disheartened when I sent my portfolio to a highly regarded magazine only to hear back from them that they “loved my work,” but since I didn’t have a connection or know anyone that could refer me to the position, I didn’t have enough “experience.” The real world was crushing all the progress I had made in my last semesters, and slowly the Fear wormed its way back into my soul. I started to believe I was not good enough to do any of the things I wanted to do.
It was two or three years before I sketched or collaged or made anything again. I had ideas floating inside my head, but I swatted them away like flies, too paranoid about confronting my own crappiness if I attempted to execute them. Then one day I had an idea to make a little illustrated fashion zine, and since I didn’t have access to models and clothes, I would just do simple drawings on Illustrator of my favorite pieces from that season’s collections, like Proenza Schouler’s perforated bags and Pierre Hardy’s crazy sneaker-heels—it was more an exercise to refresh my skills with the programs than anything else. I kept putting it off and putting it off, because I believed it was going to be another giant failure. But the idea persisted and finally I had some free time and just said “Fuck it!” I started working on it without any idea if it would work out. I was enjoying the process so much that I was unconcerned with the final outcome.
And then I finished it, and I didn’t hate it. I made a website and sold some copies. And some places wrote a little bit about it, and I felt good again. And a year later I had the idea to make another one, and again I let it simmer and simmer and simmer until my brain could no longer contain it. And then BOOM, I finished it, and I loved it even more than the first. I was proud. And now whenever I look at it, it’s like a little trophy that I won for beating the Fear, at least that once.
Sometimes the best way to deal with a problem is to force yourself to face it, like, say, by pitching a story about it for the website you write for. When you include the idea in the monthly email, you pray “please don’t pick this one,” but you damn well know it’s gonna get picked and you’re gonna have to write it, and you hit send anyway.
So here I am.
This is not the end of the story, because I don’t have one yet. To be honest, I don’t think there’s a magic potion for conquering overwhelming feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, but I’ve learned that persistence pays off. It’s true that you have to make a million drawings or have a million ideas that are crap before you get to the good one, the one that uncovers something about you and the world. I am still totally afraid of failure, and of being judged by my peers, and of never being good enough, but at least now I know there’s a way around it, even if finding it is hard. ♦