Will Doubt Always Be Part of Making Art?

In an On Being column by Courtney E. Martin, she quotes Choreographer Alonzo King as saying, “Self-doubt has to be eradicated. If you plant a seed, you don’t dig it up to see if it’s growing. You plant it. You believe in it. You nurture it. You go with it.” Martin goes on to say, “It’s more about trusting your own instincts – recognizing that, even in your messiness, you are perfectly made, that you have these seeds, these gifts, that must be planted and trusted.” The first time I read this quote, I took it as a call to arms. It was completely logical and clearly what I needed to do.

The problem was that I didn’t know how.

Besides, I was unsure that a complete removal of doubt from my artistic process was even possible. What would that look like?

I’ve been attending to self-doubt more than usual these days. The timing does not surprise me - I was painting a show of new work. Often, in the midst and muck of it all, as the pressure mounts and outcomes become more crucial, I inevitably have my “what the fuck am I doing here?” moment. It’s followed by a dark night of the soul (or two) that can be temporarily crippling, but I usually manage to dust myself off and keep painting. But, this time around I was struck by the question: “could this be different?” or “will doubt always be part of making art?”

The short answer to both, I’ve realized, is yes.

But, there is an important distinction I’ve made between “I’m not sure I made a good choice” and “I’m not sure I’m a good artist”. This is where my personal work lies. I know I’m not the only one. Making art is part of how I process things emotionally. It’s a welcome site of clarity and at times, a painful trigger. It can be hard to stand in front of the evidence of poor choices and not see them as signs of failure. If this happens too many times, it seems reasonable to think things like, “It’s done. I don’t know how to paint anymore.” While I value the growth that comes in the aftermath of these bouts in the ring, it would also be nice to be nicer. To myself and to the work.

In part, this is a process of reckoning with the somewhat ugly truth that I am uncomfortable with artistic confidence. When I speak of my own confidence, my inner critic slaps a name tag on my chest that reads: Ms. Ego Braggy Attention Hound. It’s a big name and a big story. A story I need to wrestle with, because it’s not the truth, but it has the power to prevent me from experiencing ownership of my voice, my gifts, and the space I deserve to take up.

From a self-worth perspective, I agree that “eradicating self-doubt” and “planting and trusting” would be a homecoming for many: being able to rest in an unwavering knowledge of our capabilities. But this is another spot of friction, because I don’t always trust that possibility and perhaps I’m unsure as to whether it serves me to leave the metaphorical seed alone. Most of my moments of uncomfortable transition have included a healthy dose of self-doubt followed by an admission that I need help. There was a time, when I was just starting to paint, that my teacher very gently told me I was painting grounds not pictures. I had been basking in the beauty of my streaky canvases when he broke it to me that they were just the background for something else. BUT WHAT ELSE?! I didn’t understand. I was crushed. I left the studio and self-doubt told me to pack it in and not go back. Maybe painting wasn’t the right thing for me. But instead, I calmed down and admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing. That I doubted my talent and myself. I went back the next week and asked him to help me make paintings.

In an issue of Border Crossings Magazine, painter Allison Katz spoke to the role of doubt in her work and process: “…I think the doubt is the pleasure. It’s where that allowance happens of being able to linger in that doubt and have it bring up a whole host of questions about ability and perceptions and meaning. That’s why I’m still making paintings and why I like looking at paintings because I feel the good ones can do that.”

I’ve learned to be cautious when a betterment project involves the eradication of a natural human experience as it becomes nearly impossible to avoid feelings of inadequacy. If I told myself that success is never feeling self-doubt, then as soon as it inevitably shows up to the party, I’ve failed. It’s a similar trap to “finding your purpose in life” – what if you do and 30% of it still sucks, then what? Do you put it down?

Doubt can be a guide. It is often the force that pushes me out of my comfort zone. It asks if I’m being lazy, or predictable, or making an easy choice because I’m not really in the mood to make a daring one. I guess I appreciate the humility that comes from the very natural “what if all of this is shit?” moment – how it catches me and stops me from putting out safe work. It makes me more honest. I suppose my self-doubt and my resilience are strange bedfellows that let me question things without abandoning things entirely. I will waver many times before I am done, but it won’t stop me from trying again.

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