The Risk of Creative Exposure

Welcome back to The Creative Life Adventure.

Someone recently recommended that I read Eileen Clegg’s 1999 book Claiming Your Creative Self: True Stories from the Everyday Lives of Women. I’m glad I took the advice. It is an inspiring collection of profiles of women who have nurtured their creative selves in personal and professional endeavors. The subjects are all women but I feel male and female readers will find several takeaways here. Claiming Your Creative Self has a lot of content that I believe creative types will find inspirational, but one passage especially stayed with me after I read the book:

Are you someone who protects your work from exposure? If so, how do you know when vigilance becomes irrational fear? Becoming attuned to the balance often is a matter of bravely examining your fear and joyously imagining your hopes. What is the worst that would happen if you revealed your creative work to others? And what is the best that could happen? Writing down your visceral response to those questions is a good beginning for an exploration of the push-pull between self-nurturance and self-revelation.

It can be frightening to reveal your own creative efforts to loved ones, let alone the general public. What if they reject your work? I experienced this the hard way more than ten years ago when I decided to start my own photography business. No one close to me was willing to hurt my feelings and tell me that my photography wasn’t at a professional skill level (the importance of honest feedback is a topic for future posts). Imagine my disappointment at the underwhelming response by business received. I even exhibited some of my photographs at a couple of art festivals with sales of exactly $0. Other photographers strolled by and sneered at my work – a few were downright cheerful when they realized I wouldn’t be taking any business from them.

The business didn’t last long. But I’m still glad for the experience. It made me look at my work with a more critical eye and compare it more honestly with the work of other photographers. And while I gave up the idea of making a living at photography, I’m a better photographer today. That failed business is one reason.

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Two un-Photoshopped experiments in urban photography: top photo – 2006, bottom photo – 2016 and a better composition, better exposure, more interesting!

That kind of humiliation hurts at the time, but in the long run, what’s a little humiliation if it makes you a better artist? Or a better business person? Jack Ma failed at two business efforts before he achieved success with Alibaba.  When T.S. Eliot decided not to publish Animal Farm, in his rejection letter to George Orwell he wrote, “What was needed…was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”  Babe Ruth hit more home runs than any Major League baseball player of his time only by also striking out more than any other player.

Since we are going to fail, the best we can do is “fail smart.” We can learn from failures and carry those lessons with us to improve future performance. If it’s true that we can’t succeed without failing, then creative risk is necessary. Make your work the best you can. Then let it go. You will probably be criticized at first. Sort the good criticism from the bad; ignore the bad and learn from the good.

It’s worth remembering that George Orwell had the final word when Animal Farm was published, in a preface that was not made public until 1972: “If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution, but because they are frightened of public opinion.” Let the critics have the first word on your work. You can have the last.

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