Are you waiting for proof that you’re really an artist? - Jessica Abel

Are you waiting for proof that you’re really an artist?

Lost in the dark forest

Everyone knows that if you’re not making work, claiming the title of “artist” or “writer” is going to feel questionable. And it’s not easy to get over that hump, and get into a routine of creating regularly. Sitting down to work is not about willpower, it’s about having a plan.

But there’s another piece to the puzzle.

What if you really are sitting down in that chair and working, but it feels so difficult, and the work comes so slowly, that you just can’t believe that you could possibly be doing it right? You’re going to hit moments when you think, really? Is this it? Because this doesn’t feel great. Isn’t it supposed to feel great when I actually hit my creative goals? Does this mean I have no talent? Should I just give up?

After all, the point of “doing the work” isn’t producing freewriting or doodles or endless pages of notes, it’s making art, right? It’s making your dream creative projects come to life; it’s launching your thing into the world. And if you’re deep in it, and what you’re producing feels more like a morass than a coherent statement, that can be demoralizing.

The bad news is: This is often what it feels like to make creative work. Or to keep making creative work. It can feel like you’re flailing, like you’re completely incapable of getting your mind all the way around the subject at hand.

Kazu Kibuishi, the author of Amulet, who I think we can all agree is a genuine, honest-to-god narrative artist, expressed his experience in a well-loved tweet.

Creative process:

  1. This is going to be awesome
  2. Oh, this is hard
  3. This is terrible
  4. I’m terrible
  5. Hey, not bad
  6. That was awesome

See #4 on that list? That’s where you’re at. But it wasn’t true about Kazu, and it’s not true about you.

You’re in what I call the Dark Forest.

The Dark Forest is a scary place to hang out. I made a podcast episode all about it.

The Dark Forest of the artistThe good news is, the projects where you find yourself lost like this are really only the big, important ones.

This kind of stuck doesn’t happen with little things, with easy, non-challenging work. If you can get through this one, it will be creatively life-changing.

If you’re not stretching yourself, trying to say something you’ve never said before, trying to give form to ideas that are truly new for you, writing is a breeze. It’s a walk in the park. Do you struggle to describe the ridiculous behavior of your annoying roommate? To express how you feel about what your dog did to your shoes? To recount what happened in some recent sports match? Probably not. If you were to write about these topics in an email, say, it would probably be a pretty cut-and-dried affair. But that is because the ideas you’re expressing are fairly simple, and the events are clear and on the surface.

And that email would probably not reach the level you’re aiming for when you sit down to work on your dream project.

If what you’re doing is deep, if it’s worth doing, it’s going to be hard.

I’ve been lost deep in the Dark Forest on every major project I’ve ever done. Even on smaller projects, I spend at least a few hours there. And it’s no fun.

But I’ve been doing this long enough that if I didn’t get at least a little bit stuck in those brambles, I’d worry that I wasn’t stretching enough. That feeling of being lost is what happens when your brain is working the hardest to make connections, to understand what this morass of work you’ve produced actually means. And if I’m not stretching? Maybe I’m not doing my best work.

So when you’re in the Dark Forest, be kind to yourself. It’s impossible not to think, “Am I doing it wrong?” in these moments. Just try not to go all the way to “I’m terrible.”

Take a walk, take a shower, take a nap. Your mind is doing its work, and it hurts. But keep working, keep making art, and you will escape from the forest. And there’s a beautiful sunny glade on the other side.

Leave the Dark Forest as an artist

You’ll emerge from the Dark Forest, and when you do, you’ll be a new person. The forest is fire, and it’s that fire that will forge you into an artist.

Per aspera ad astra

Through hardship, to the stars.

If this was just what you needed to hear, and you want to get on with making your art so you can arrive at #6, define your conditions for maximum creative success.  Sign up to get a free worksheet.

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  • Pierre-Yves

    November 18, 2015 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks for this post (and the precedent). I feel less alone. 🙂

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      November 19, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Pierre-Yves, if you only knew how common this experience is for artists…you are so far from alone!

      Reply
  • Katherine Clarke

    November 19, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Exactly what I needed to hear right now. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Maike Venhofen

    November 19, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Greetings from out of the Dark Forest!

    Right now I am working on multiple personal projects and while I generally feel like I am progressing and doing the work, it is hard to explain this to friends and family. This makes it particularly hard to keep stumbling through the woods, while everyone else around you wants to send you a helicopter. They don´t seem to understand that getting lost and struggling are part of the way out.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      November 21, 2015 at 11:02 am

      “Send a helicopter”! What a great metaphor. Yes, it’s hard to have people feel sorry for you and think all you need is a good cheering up. On the other hand, actually involved help, in the form of editorial consult or collaboration really IS like a helicopter, in the best sense. Maybe if someone wants to help, this is how they could? By talking through what you’re struggling with out loud with you. I find that usually accelerates my progress massively.

      Reply
  • ethiel

    November 26, 2015 at 1:15 am

    Do you still have your 21st birthday ring? Following that message has worked well for you. XO

    Reply
  • Andy

    December 6, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Brilliant! I’d like to needlepoint this entire post. Onto a really, really big pillow.

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      December 6, 2015 at 9:34 pm

      Ha! I’ld really like to see that pillow 🙂

      Reply
  • A different Jessica

    January 30, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    as someone who just signed up for your mailing list (my phone wanted that to say “making list”), I think this is great, and I wonder if anyone gets to #7, “Wow, the reception is so bad that maybe #5 and #6 was my lying to myself.”

    Reply
  • Ruks

    March 8, 2016 at 8:10 pm

    Just what I needed! Thanks so much for this!

    Reply

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