Art & Soul: Alchemy and Validation

“Since time immemorial, stories have been used as a way of transmitting cultural values, ethics, and morality. A bitter pill can be swallowed more easily when it is embedded in a sweet matrix. A straight moral preachment might be dismissed, but guidance and direction become acceptable when embedded in a story that is intriguing, amusing, and interestingly told.” —Sidney Rosen, ‘My Voice Will Go With You’

“It’s easier to tell the truth in stories.”

I was a child when I first said this. Every year it has become more true to me, and I have found more sentiments like Sidney Rosen’s in his book about psychologist Milton J. Erickson that validate that sense. Art of all kinds looks to me like a way of inviting or enticing people, and art with a strong message performs the delicate act of coating a bitter pill with Princess Bride-style chocolate to make it taste better. As someone else (that I did not write down) said, it disturbs the comfortable and comforts the disturbed.

This ‘Art & Soul’ series, originally intended to be YouTube videos, was I think a desire in me to search for those things in myself, to dialogue and puzzle through in writing my feelings about art and soul in general but also to specifically answer for myself the most sleep-destroying question of my life: how do I turn all this pain I carry into satisfying art?

Also in many ways: how do I recover my imagination from the endless repetitive loop of trauma and fear?

What I yearn for is a sort of alchemy. Alchemy appeals to me for a lot of fantastic human reasons. As a science it’s total crap, but as a method for exploring one’s inner worlds it’s heartily endorsed by Carl Jung. The dreamlike imagery of his ‘Red Book’ as well as the traditions and myths of alchemy are deeply appealing to me on an art level, but also as ritualistic ways of drawing out what often resists language and logic like narcissists resist realistic self-knowledge. We respond to rituals and patterns, it’s part of the human condition. (See: Matthew Hutson’s book ‘The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,’ where he even deconstructs his own delineation of 7 laws as a form of possibly flawed thinking.)

The creation of art can be incredibly ritualistic. It can also be incredibly flippant and shallow. I still haven’t read it yet due to a reading list backed up from here to eternity, but I want to talk about ‘The Screwtape Letters’ despite being ill-informed. Recently I watched Stephen Colbert being interviewed by a Catholic priest on YouTube. Colbert spoke of the four forms of humor described in ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and the fourth was the only one the two demon characters discussing humor focused on as a way to influence ‘clients’ (i.e. the human race) to the dark side of the Force. The first was joy, the second play, the third the joke proper, but all these had the potential to invoke closeness and divinity while the fourth was flippancy, and only created barriers between people and atrophied the intellect.

Listening to this I knew finally how I felt about a long stretch of my early teen years where I wrote poetry. I knew I felt nothing and revealed nothing and invited nothing and risked nothing, and here was an excellent framing for what that was and how I sometimes feel when I experience works of others’ art (or especially my own)—there is nothing at the center of the Tootsie Pop. There’s no passion, no drive, no message, the artist acting almost as a random generator regurgitating forms and stories and diagrams and what seems like what would happen if you deconstructed someone else’s art and swapped out pieces with a clinical air to present something as original.

I hate writing that. Because I feel like this is leveled at a lot of burgeoning artists and shuts them down before they build a capacity for public vulnerability and self-knowledge and confidence with their craft to show up and be what they have to say. Hell, in various nicey-knifer ways I’ve had that done to me so relentlessly it shut me down repeatedly for years, and as soon as I’d build back up it would hit me again in that soft fleshy ‘who do you think you are?’ place. What turns me off is when artists never even discuss this—admittedly for valid reasons because artists love passive-aggressively attacking other artists in general. What turns me off is when artists get comfortable faking it, make it, and start to drink their own Kool-Aid and never grow beyond the titillation of form and pretension.

What turns me off, basically, is my own art, when I think about it too much. I recognize I’m faking it and despair and all those nightmare voices play in a loop, reminding me I do not have what it takes. I’m triggered, I’m too fragile for feedback and criticism, and I know this about myself. It’s only in denial of those things I can do anything at all, including go on living. Because without art, my life has no meaning. No soul.

I have a lot to say that is not at all nice. And it’s bound up in trauma and hate and fear and grief and abuse and I long for an artistic and satisfying way to express it, so it’s both not so jarring for me and something I can share with others, without feeling as though I am abusing them with my compulsive desire to connect with others and share the stories of the traumas I have been through. The problem is that art itself is entangled in a web of shame and traumatic experiences of destructive feedback I cannot just scrape off like a healthy well-grounded well-supported or even well-educated person might. My art and my life are compartmentalized so I wouldn’t be vulnerable in an area where everyone is a critic.

Admittedly everyone is a critic regardless of whether it is art or my personal stories of pain I am sharing. It’s a defense mechanism I think destroys human connection, empathy, and a capacity for emotional resilience. Plus the critics are the most voracious, vocal landsharks that ever did walk; they must continually seek out people and things to criticize. I used to be one. I was raised with them. I had them in place of friends because I never learned how to filter them out. Now they are like slivers embedded so deep they will never emerge from my psyche.

I think validation is important because it’s so vital and rare for me. I don’t think it’s appropriate to blindly validate everything because not everything is valid. For instance, with a bully and a target, the bully’s feelings are not as important as the person they have abused. Their choices are not valid and it’s not appropriate to pressure the victim to listen to the bully’s rationalizations, forgive them, or consider them as important as the complaint of a person who has been genuinely harmed by a bully.

I’ve studied why bullies and abusers do what they do, and for most I have encountered and studied, their level of denial is even greater than those of addicts. They do not get interventions because they lash out when people attempt to curb their behaviors and hurt targets they can without repercussions. People who serially hurt other people, whether through narcissism or harassment or child abuse or any other form of cruelty and preying on those weaker, do not respond to a lot of common-sense approaches. Dr. Phil, on an interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, talks about the impossibility of treating narcissists, because they learn the lingo, they learn to game the therapy system to their advantage, and powerfully resist change. Those who learn to turn off empathy are not eager to re-engage it. They are often rewarded far too much for their almost solipsistic selfish behavior.

So validation is not always the right response to everything. That’s all-or-nothing thinking. At the same time, validation is valued far too little, and understood even less. Those who are in the habit of invalidating what they do not like or agree with or ‘get’ are just as defensive and unlikely to change, in my experience, as those who serially bully others. Even though chronic invalidators are usually this way because they were bombarded with invalidation and fear of ‘other.’ When ‘uncomfortable’ equals ‘wrong’ there is a problem. However there is also a problem when people ignore discomfort and just keep enabling bad behavior.

But where is the art in this? Where is the soul? I can talk about what I’ve learned as a result of my experiences, but don’t yet have the capacity to tell the stories of what those experiences were in a way that satisfies me and feels okay to me. It’s too easy to get damaged in this journey. But for me, it’s the only risk worth taking anymore.

Art & Soul: “All things…”

[siteorigin_widget class=”VideoSidebarWidget”]”,”after_widget”:”

","before_title":"<h3 class="widget-title">","after_title":"</h3>","widget_id":"widget-0-0-0"}}” />[/siteorigin_widget]

The things I find funniest are when people can laugh at themselves, and the above video is a brilliant example. It’s hard to cultivate in myself after being raised with shame-based parenting and having my weaknesses used as justification for hurting me, even though I know it would make me stronger—not weaker—to own and enjoy my own frak-ups.

I have loved how cross-training in different creative disciplines helps me grow in all of them. I realize new things about myself that are true not just in the form of creative expression I’m working with. For most of my life my only creative outlet was writing. When I took up hoopdancing it brought me into my body, into a more direct experiencing of things, helped me feel things physically and emotionally I often distanced myself from with words and intellect, brought new appreciation for dance and music. It opened a whole new world to me of performance art, of the experience of give and take with kind and generous audiences—although far from all performances featured that. This in turn also made me more appreciative of others’ performances, and realize that expressing my enjoyment during the performance can be valuable for a performer. (Also that performers can—but don’t always—make the absolute best audience members, particularly if it’s ROOTS Week. Oh my yes.)

I’ve been collaborating with my dearest friend on visual art. This is a new area for me. I contribute collage materials and she paints brilliantly, which makes me feel a lot less like a fake and a hack doing the least possible work at visual art to create something that, if I think too much about it, feels like literal trash and emotional insincerity. I realized that a lot of what I do creatively, I do in ways that try to protect myself, to safely deflect any criticism onto whoever took the pictures or created the graphics I’m using. Much like when I write, and quote other people obsessively, and in the past when I have felt a strong need to prove my words and opinions and experiences have validity by linking to things other people have wrote that express what I don’t feel safe to myself. Then if someone criticizes what I wrote, I have used the other person as a human creative shield—“they said it, not me.”

It’s an appealing but unfortunate habit, because internally I’ve also gotten to a point where I don’t even let myself have awareness of how I feel and what I think. I’m trying to dodge shame internally and externally, to dodge vulnerability.

Which isn’t always a bad thing. Brené Brown said something to the effect of ‘share your vulnerability with those who have earned the right to it,’ which is a crucial part of smart vulnerability that can be overlooked easily and was leading me to get awfully hurt when I first tried to cultivate the ‘power’ of vulnerability. Vulnerability is where shame flourishes as well as strength, and often presents a lot of risk if I’m revealing something about myself that people are in the habit of attacking and judging freely, or offering unsolicited and destructive advice, sometimes out of buried envy. Like art.

I learned this lesson painfully on YouTube, and learned how susceptible I am to being hurt. This isn’t a bad thing either. We feel things as a result of how others respond to us. No matter how many people want to insist that we ‘choose’ to feel a certain way, this is not the case. Emotions happen first, in a much older part of the brain than higher reasoning. We know this because of fMRIs and Bessel van der Kolk, who knows what the hell he’s talking about. We can choose what emotions we express, and we can choose to repress awareness of emotions, but I’ve seen where that leads—to sociopathic and narcissistic behaviors and habits of interacting with others, and having no problem hurting other people habitually, and blaming victims.

I didn’t want to be like that. I still don’t. But I also, in my intense desire to not turn into my abusers, went much too far the other way. A certain amount of not caring what other people think, or more accurately caring selectively and finding good supportive allies and doing right by them, is essential in order to be myself and to live, and especially to have the strength and courage to express myself in art and life.

Having defenses is important to being human, and so is knowing when and how to lower those defenses in order to grow and thrive. If my Wall is always up, I am bound for loneliness and bitterness, and likely to become abusive in my own ways.

The way I make visual art and write are valid choices, but I find myself wanting to widen my range and form a willingness to show up, make mistakes and learn from them in art. I may take in information in a variety of ways, through listening and watching and doing, but learning only happens if I allow myself to try new things (and keep failing all the way to success), and get feedback that helps me pinpoint things I can change.

That being said I only want to accept feedback that I’ve sought from people I respect who know what the hell they’re talking about. Throwing myself open for all feedback is akin to jumping into shark-infested waters with a bloody cut. The people most in a rush to give unsolicited feedback are often those who give the absolute worst and most self-serving kinds and often have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Those who know the least often know it the loudest, and I’m absolutely guilty of doing this when I’m just starting out.

In my younger days I wrote a lot of stupidly pompous stuff about how to write. I was aping my abusers in telling other people what to do. I didn’t share this writing with others and I’m really glad I didn’t. I spent too much time ‘telling’ how to do something rather than doing it, and that was pure aggressive defensiveness on my part. Crucially, I wasn’t aware of this.

I believe most people engaging in abusive defensiveness block conscious awareness of what they’re doing, which makes it impossible to change. I think of this as ‘blindfolded drivers’ and a lot of people go through all their lives plowing their proverbial car into other people and causing a lot of damage and continually claiming ignorance and innocence. And persecution. It doesn’t fly with car insurance companies or the police and it sure doesn’t fly with me anymore. “I didn’t mean to” raises a red flag with me because so often it meant that the person I was dealing with was incapable of not doing destructive things repeatedly and incapable of changing their behaviors. I wasted too much time forgiving people who never earned or deserved it, and only used that forgiveness to go on hurting me. People can and do make mistakes, but after a while it begs the question, “What did you mean to do, and why aren’t you doing that? If you didn’t mean to run me over, why are you repeatedly doing so? Even though I have said repeatedly that I (a) don’t like it and (b) want you to stop?”

Doing what I mean to do requires that I take off the blindfold, although this also meant finding out I didn’t know how to drive, and it can be really tempting to put the denial back so I don’t see all the wrecks I’m causing. It’s very painful when awareness comes before change, and I know I’m doing something I don’t want to do or want to do better, but I haven’t yet learned how. Without awareness, though, change hasn’t been even remotely possible.

So I can appreciate why people go through their entire lives blindfolded with denial, especially if what they’re spending all their time and defenses denying is painful for them to see. These are not people I want in my life, for sure, but understanding the why of denial helps me understand others and identify when it’s happening and steer my car away from them. If someone is a raging ball of defensiveness, I understand that these people will be giant time and energy drains on me if I choose to engage more than I absolutely have to. Especially because I am often a raging ball of defensiveness when criticized or otherwise triggered.

It’s still frustrating. A lot of people are asleep at their own wheels in a lot of ways. It’s how bad attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs thrive in secret and drive a lot of what people aren’t aware of doing, including me. What I don’t own owns me, drives my choices and keeps me unaware that I’m even making choices, making those wrecks feel unavoidable and out of my control. But to be alive is to make choices, is to be behind the wheel. Pretending I’m not is not a smart way to live. Not everything is a choice and a lot of things are out of my control, which makes it even more important to me to figure out what I can choose.

This brings me back to art. Art, to me, is how I thrive, how I engage with my own feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions and explore them. This rich inner landscape of mine I navigate and explore with art, and without art life isn’t worth living to me or in any way meaningful. It’s the lifeblood of my soul, both enjoying others’ art and making my own, no matter how unskilled or ‘fake’ I feel. I have so many disciplines but I am master of none, a ‘multi-disciplinary dilettante’ who’s a little crap at a lot of things. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and discouraged if I think too much about those shortcomings, but if I don’t make art at all I can’t possibly grow in any way that matters to me. (N’est pas de l’art. French: another thing I’m completely crap at.)

It’s essential for me to figure out what ways do matter to me, to be able to identify where I want to go, so someone else doesn’t metaphorically give me directions and tell me how to drive and wind up putting me in a wreck or somewhere I never wanted to go. I don’t want to base my decisions on the advice of those who don’t have to live with the result. Ideally I’d like a way to tune out their extremely loud knowing of the least and focus on driving my own car. That advice-giving is the least helpful and most draining to deal with. When I tell people to stop, I run into all those defenses and all that denial, and my patience evaporates instantly. Poof. Like water in the Nefud Desert.

Figuring out how I personally can cope with this has been one of the biggest challenges of my life. I really attract people in a rush to tell me what to do, especially by talking about what I’m doing. (Ceci n’est pas une invitation.) I haven’t yet hit on a strategy that I can successfully use to get them to shut up and go away. Sometimes I wish I could summon my inner bitch, but I’m not that great at consciously being a bitch (stellar at being one unconsciously; I always drive my Bitch Car blindfolded and leave no survivors), so it’s not a set of choices I’ve cultivated. I’m much better at avoidance, withdrawal, and ghosting. Which aren’t always bad things but also aren’t always effective, especially when someone is determined. Again, I really attract these unfortunate characters, and I’ve tried learning and changing things that help cut down on that, like taking self-defense classes and learning what in my body language signals submissiveness or that vulnerability to those who are determined to target it—and replacing it with more confident body language. Awareness plus change.

There are unavoidable things about me that make me a target—being female, being poor, being disabled, being asexual, being mentally ill. Being an artist, being open about hardships I’ve been through, writing this post itself, working through things in writing and then sharing that writing with others. It could be argued that those last things aren’t unavoidable and are choices I make, but they’re not ones I’m willing to live without. Living in silence and secret and without art are things that kill me slowly and make me miserable quickly.

But living aloud, and creating things, and being myself, is hard. Really frakking hard. (Although not as hard as people who struggle with oppressions where I have privilege, and it’s important for me to remind myself of that.) It’s hard even without my desire to grow and change and develop new skills, try new things and know I’m going to fail a lot more than succeed even by the most compassionate standards. Failure is probably the most important part of art for me, and certainly one of the largest for me, but so is defining what that means for myself and resisting the extremely aggressive insistence of others to define it for me. It’s hard enough living with my own standards without having to deal with those of others. Particularly those who don’t meet mine. And won’t keep their blindfolded driving away from my car. That takes at least 90% of my energy and effort and often inspires me to withdraw entirely from everyone, in order that I can keep going and keep making art.

Protecting my art, especially early on in making something or practicing things I’m not good at (everything), is essential to me, much like protecting babies from the myriad dangers the world presents them with. Having a judgment-free sandbox to play and develop in is one of the most important things I need for both making art and learning anything new. So is knowing when and how to find the feedback I need and want to grow where I want to grow, and figuring out where that is.

It’s like in therapy where therapists who are a good match for me can strike exactly the right balance between validation and change. I need absolute fraktons of the former and a very gentle and responsive touch with the latter—in pretty much all areas of life—and that can be infuriatingly hard to find. Asking for it doesn’t work if the other person isn’t conscious of the choices they’re making and rejects all attempts I make to wake them up. It’s made worse when I’m too triggered to articulate what’s happening and overcome my defensive reactions that lock us into a cycle of provocation and reaction, which happens the vast majority of the time. Then we’re both blindfolded and repeatedly ramming each other like we’re jousting instead of driving, and I’m a psychological wreck for weeks or months after these incidents. I have to be cut out of the twisted remains of my car by doing something like watching ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service.’ (Thank you, Amanda!)

Art at its best for me is a dialogue with myself and my world. Something that’s browbeaten into us writers from all quarters is how we have to think about our audience. But I really hate reading something where the writer is clearly writing for an audience as their primary goal. The writing I like best is when the writer is writing to fulfill their own burning needs, and doesn’t presume to try to control me, how I feel or what I think or do. When writers write at me, it comes off as manipulative, condescending, aggressive, demanding, and turns me right off. I want to read something that someone wrote for themselves, to tickle their own fancy, to give themselves the best thrills, and then shared without caring what I personally think or feel about it. I don’t want people to make art for me. Even if at its core the art is there to educate, especially about certain issues that the artist really cares about, and does require a lot of thought about making the information accessible to those without the knowledge and expertise of the artist, I still want the artist to be responding to a deep soul-level desire to make that art. The art that is there because the artist clearly could not live without it is my favorite kind of art. The art that says what an artist wants so say, not what they think I want to hear. In art people can tell a lot of otherwise unbearable truths wrapped in an appealing chocolatey shell. Yum, art!

To me, that kind of art has built-in success. When I write something for me, when I make something for me, when I do something for myself, then doing it will be guaranteed to please one person, even if it doesn’t come out great (and it usually doesn’t). If I were to write for others that would be giving others the power to determine whether what I wrote was a success. And what other people like is a matter of taste. I started writing when I was four for one simple reason: I was frustrated that there were stories I wanted to read that I couldn’t find. The only way I was going to get to read them was if I wrote them myself. This is why when people try to tell me how to write what I write, I want to tell them, “Then you do it your way and let me do it mine. Ce n’est pas ta voiture. …Yes, I know, my French is awful and I should absolutely stop.”

It really sucks that so many people have aggressively judged and criticized what I wrote that I have withdrawn behind others’ words, and no longer share my stories and almost never write them anymore. It took away what was really important to me about writing and made it about other people—and not just any people, but the whiniest, most impossible to please people on the planet. People who mistake their opinions for facts (which I also do, but not all of my facts are opinions when others don’t like them) and behave as though everything is made specifically for them, as though it’s all right to send back with demands to remake it better the food their hosts serve them. People who don’t understand why they are shown the door and never invited back. They will never be satisfied and won’t do it themselves, and it isn’t my job to satisfy them.

I wish I could tell them that. It’s aggravating to get my own defensiveness triggered by critics and feel trapped by it, blindfolded by it, hearing the sounds of the slow-motion wreck I’m in and not know how to stop it and get out of it.

The moral of the story is: shame-based parenting sucks, y’all.

Also, I’m not wanting advice. I wanted to engage with these things and work through them in writing, and while I may not have the answers, I’ve made a place for them to arise from myself. I’ve opened a door inside myself to see what was shut up in there. This writing, however objectively bad or long-winded or useless to anyone else, has done what I wanted it to do, and in that sense it’s a success. I’m letting you overhear my conversation with myself, because I have loved when other writers have done that for me. So much of others’ processing of their own stuff, shared so generously, inspired me to do those things myself. And with that courageous generosity what makes sense to me is to pass it on, allow others the choice to read or ignore if they want without demanding a response.

It’s the give-and-take of my lifelong dance with art, which is a dance with myself. I am the partner who is always ready when I am, who doesn’t care how we dance or how well we dance, only that we dance exactly the way we want to. I danced damn hard to get here, I have a right to dance here—in my car—and I’m damn well gonna dance.

[siteorigin_widget class=”VideoSidebarWidget”]”,”after_widget”:”

","before_title":"<h3 class="widget-title">","after_title":"</h3>","widget_id":"widget-0-0-2"}}” />[/siteorigin_widget]