Shame is a trendy emotion right now. Brene Brown did a hugely popular TED talk on it. Oprah’s been bandying it about. People are buzzing about it on social media. Certainly I’ve had my share of shameful moments, mostly in my twenties, but until recently I hadn’t given shame much thought.
A week ago I started re-reading the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and suddenly I realized that for years, shame and I have been constant companions; I wasn’t aware of it because I’d been numbing it.
Cameron reminded me that writing (or any type of art) is often associated with heaps of shame. It begins when you’re taking the first baby steps to owning your identity as a writer. At first, you don’t want to say it out loud to anyone, because the next question is always, “Where have you been published?”
And, of course, if you aren’t published, then time spent writing feels shameful. People feel free to interrupt you because it’s not like you’re doing anything important. They look upon writing as a luxury akin, to sitting around eating Cheeze whip and Ritz crackers and watching the Kardashsians.
The shame doesn’t stop when you’re finally published. Some reviewers act personally affronted by your efforts and have no reservations about publically shaming you. “I’ll never get those six hours of my life back” they say, as if you’d been holding a gun to their heads while they read your work.
Shame can also come during royalty check time. Very few authors have not experienced the pain of selling below expectations. Shame will also sweep in if you’re in a transitional period and haven’t sold anything lately.
And perhaps most painful of all, people will occasionally shame you for what you’re writing. If you’re a genre writer, you might be shamed for writing junk If you’re a literary writer, your navel-gazing is subject to attack. Even people close to you will sometimes shame you. A friend once said to me, “I’m waiting for you to write the serious book I know you’re capable of.”
Recently I got some insight into the reason for all this art-associated shame. I was talking to a friend named Billy about a mutual acquaintance, who is a beginner painter. Billy was complaining about our friend because she refused to help him move one Saturday. She told him Saturdays were her painting day.
“She’s just a dilettante, pretending to be Georgia O’Keefe,” Billy said. “Like it would kill her to take one day to help me out.”
And that’s when it hit me. Bully, I mean Billy, has always been a frustrated artist. Sadly for him, he’s never pursued his creative impulses because he claims he doesn’t have time. That’s a convenient and common excuse for blocked artists but the real reason Billy doesn’t paint is because he can't bear the idea of being a less than perfect painter and perhaps falling on his face a few times.
The truth is, people who are happily creating art don’t have time or the inclination to shame other artists. They know that creating art is our birthright; it’s as a natural as breathing, sleeping and loving, and all efforts have validity.
It’s the creatively frustrated people who delight in the shame game. It’s as if they are saying, ‘How dare you make art when I’m going through so much artistic turmoil?” On some level they hope they can shame us enough so we quit creating, and then they won’t feel as uncomfortable.
As long as there are blocked artists, shame isn’t going away. The only thing we can do is change our reactions to it. It seems so obvious but it took me years to learn that when someone shamed me, I didn’t have to internalize it.