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Freeing Myself from Creativity-Related Impostor Syndrome

This post is about how I realized a traumatic event had given me creativity-related impostor syndrome, and how I’m working to free myself from my own unrealistic standards.

This weekend I completed my first big Illustration project, and I’m so in love with how it turned out. I posted it EVERYWHERE of course, and was particularly touched by the reaction received on Reddit. I didn’t realize it would resonate so strongly with some people. That sense of recognition and resonance felt really good.

To quote my FB page:

This piece means a lot to me. Not just for the subject matter, which is obviously related to my mental health challenges over the past two years, but because I was able to make it at all. As my very dear friend helped me uncover last week, I think a core, subconscious cause of my depression has been denying myself the things I really want to do, in deference to unattainable standards and distant hypotheticals.

I’m not waiting anymore. Today is good enough. And I can’t say this realization has ‘fixed’ my depression, or if that’s even possible. Only time will tell. But I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it feels to have THIS day, when I can look at a finished piece of art I made, and be proud of it.

I’m a creator. And just look at what I’ve let myself create.

One of my internal struggles has been the idea that unless I come up with something completely autonomously, it’s not ‘real’ art.

I’m very sensitive to accusations of copying other artists, after a friendship ended over similar accusations. I could trace the inception of the particular ideas involved, and they did not originate with my friend, but for whatever reason (similar age, influences, etc.) the topics of our creative ideas were often similar. By ‘topics’ I mean stuff like ‘zombies’ or ‘fairytale retellings.’ Even though the execution and details of my version of those topics were uniquely my own, and I honestly don’t believe I was copying my friend either intentionally or subconsciously, the accusation gutted me.

My work is so intimately part of me. The accusation felt like an attack on my very soul. I wish it hadn’t, but this incident rocked my confidence in my ability to be creative. It’s given me a complex where I’m very aware of where my ideas come from, and I second-guess the authenticity of my ideas constantly.

I’m now realizing how damaging that was, because most of what we create IS inspired by other people. How could it not be? One of the main reasons I wanted to be a writer was to create the feelings in others that my favorite writers created in me. It’s the same with art. But because of my incredibly high standards for myself I devalued most of my ideas if they didn’t originate in a ‘void’.

The most confusing part of it all is this: I’m REALLY good at remixing. I’m really good at learning new styles by collecting and synthesizing the work of others. I collect and collect, constantly internally refining the vague vision inside me until I’ve fleshed out the details. It’s like… using the filter of others to find what was inside me all along. Or learning to name things in my heart by seeing them in other places. Then I take what I find and run with it.

That’s art. …Right?

But I wasn’t letting it be art. Not to me. And so even the stuff I created with the tools I learned from others, I didn’t accept as ‘real’ art. I devalued my creativity. I didn’t let myself be proud, or own what I made. I didn’t fully consider it mine.

Poor spirit. I see now how I was stifling my own growth.

Let me show you an example:

When I started learning Illustrator, I wanted to create some simple images to practice with. I saw this illustration of a bear on Pinterest and thought it was adorable:

https://dribbble.com/ciarasworld
By Ciara Ní Dhuinn

 

Meanwhile, I’d been taking this tutorial on making animal icons and I felt ready to branch out on my own. So I made this:

As I learned more about Illustrator, the final version came out like this:

But I didn’t consider this 100% my own, original art, according to my unrealistic standards for my own art. The reasons are: I got the idea for a bear from someone else (including the background color inspiration and the ‘blush’ below the eyes), I learned how to do the eyes from that tutorial, and by examining various bear illustrations on Pinterest I learned that cartoon bears need that ‘muzzle’ to look properly bear-like.

Isn’t that so neurotic? Because I didn’t autonomously decide to do a bear — or figure out how to do cartoon eyes, or that I  needed a muzzle, or that teal blue is a good color to represent the arctic — I didn’t consider this real art. This totally discounted everything I DID do: decide to make art, do it in this cartoon style, come up with a unique pose, come up with the structure for the paws (without referencing anything else, thankyouverymuch), and — oh, yeah — actually MAKE the thing. How unfair is that to myself?

The credit for coming to this realization goes to my BFF who came to visit a few weeks ago. She was seeing my house for the first time, and admiring the way I’d set up the living room (Chris and I recently sold all our other furniture and got new stuff). Here’s the before and after:

Before: Uncomfortable couches not really in our style

After! Lounging/cuddling space! Room for all the dogs and Chris and I! Updated style! Now there’s a big black ottoman there too to put feet and stuff on!

Reading nook! This space used to be taken up with a black daybed couch thing.

My BFF was complimenting what I’d done with the space, and called me out when I tried to downplay it.

“Yeah, but I spent HOURS on Pinterest and in furniture and decorating stores,” I said. She responded with something to the effect that she could have spent weeks on it and not been able to do this. “Yeah, but I did spend weeks on it. I didn’t just throw it all together.”

“…Is that what creativity means to you?” she asked.

I considered. “It’s just… I didn’t come up with this on my own, you know? I’m not an interior decorator, I didn’t just automatically know what pieces would look good and how to pull everything together.”

And then she said something to me I’ve been clutching to my heart ever since. “I don’t know anyone else who can so consistently decide, ‘Huh. I’m going to go do that thing now’ and then actually do it and have it look amazing.”

Her words were such a huge compliment, and also the first step in a conversation that helped me uncover this strange insecurity about the authenticity of my creativity. Thus began this journey toward dismantling the unrealistic pressures I place on myself, and giving myself the freedom to create in a more free way. And I’m so, so excited to see what I can do with this freedom.

Because I’m a nerd for ‘behind the scenes’ stuff, on the next post I’ll show you the creative process behind the skeleton illustration.

Talk to you soon!

<3, Savannah

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Emergence

“Emergence” was the theme word for my birthday. My best friend flew down to visit and we spent four amazing days together hanging out, catching up — and healing each other. She very patiently and lovingly helped me explore the glass walls of the maze depression built in my mind until I could jump out and walk free.

A few weeks prior to this I was in another bad depression spell. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was spiraling in a feedback-loop of dead-end thinking and avoidance. I prayed in my journal to stay focused on holding out my spiritual hand, waiting for the help I believed would surely arrive.

Within the space of a few days several dear friends serendipitously offered up the advice I was looking for, showing me I’d been tangled in my own head for far too long. I need time spent among people. I need movement. I need more time living in the body instead of the air above my head.

Now that I’ve broken free from the chains of my own making, I’ve realized how silly it was to be bound like that for so long. Hindsight is 20-20, right? Here’s what I discovered:

A lot of my unhappiness stemmed from the incredibly high standards I set for myself, and the crippling need to perfect details and planning before moving forward with the things most important to me. I have so much creativity I’ve bottled up inside, and so many projects I’ve put on indefinite hold because I wanted to ‘save’ them for when I had a book deal, so they could be used ‘appropriately’ in expanding my platform.

And everything I wanted to do ancillary to novel-writing, I was withholding because I view everything from a monetizing perspective. Why bother learning to crochet, or make jewelry, or carve wood, or do so many other things I want to do, unless I’m going to launch product lines and set up marketing plans and launch Etsy stores, and, and, and…

Such competitive, unrealistic thoughts, right? Art makes me happy.  And I don’t need a business plan or financial reasons to make it. I don’t have to devote my entire life path toward a set of products. I can just… make stuff. For the joy of it. That’s a GOOD ENOUGH reason.

And as for writing… one of my most favorite things to do here lately is write little poems about my wonder for life, the universe, science, and God. In the back of my head I figured I’d write in secret for a couple years, and hopefully after I’ve had a few YA books come out I would have enough street cred to justify a small poetry chapbook, and THEN maybe I could start sharing them.

But in some ways that’s putting the cart before the horse. Art comes first, THEN platform. And my fears about ‘wasting’ the sharing of new work, or ruining my chances for copyright or traditional publishing just doesn’t really apply these days in this share-first monetize-later environment. I don’t need a contract to be a real creator, or to start sharing my work.

So, now I am.

I still feel very anxious about ‘muddying’ the waters of my online brand, but I’m trying not to care anymore. To that end I want to  make this website more inclusive of EVERYTHING I’m doing, so I’m adding new sections and changing things around some more. I would really like to start updating this blog more frequently and have more conversations. Here are the other things I’m doing:

Poetry on Instagram (& more!)

I started a secondary account for my poetry and poetry-related art. If you like my style, come follow!

I’m adding these poems and graphics on several mediums, most notably Pinterest if that’s more your thing.

Art, Art, Art

I’m finally learning Illustrator! I’d love to make in-person art but I’m still too perfectionist, and computer programs allow me the unfettered ability to tinker. Check out this happy polar bear! I’m very proud of him because he’s the first original illustration I’ve made on my own, instead of copying other people’s art to practice Illustrator functions.

I also made the graphic at the top :-)

Twitter

I’m back. I was gone for a long time because it was OVERWHELMING. But now I’ve unfollowed a lot of people, especially industry-people, so I don’t get that panicked “I’m falling behind and everyone is doing so much more than me!” feeling. Now my feed is a trickle instead of a river, and that’s way more enjoyable. Plus, several of you have been SO nice and welcoming. You’ve really made me feel wanted.

Writing

I’ve been stuck on Nameless for a while. Not because I don’t know what happens, but because of Unrealistically High Standards (TM). Done is better than perfect, right? I’m trying to let go of that itchy perfectionism and get through it (while still having FUN).

Depression + the Future

I’m feeling WAY better. This week. I hope it lasts, but the past nearly two years have taught me I just can’t know for sure when the depression will come back. I have a book ready to query (Shotgun Girl) but I don’t know if now is the right time. I’m in the last semester of college (graduating August!!!!) and sort of reclaiming my artistic self, so I’m unsure this is the best time to go down that road. I think by the end of the summer I’ll have a better handle on things.

Thank you, as ever, to everyone who has reached out with encouraging words. It still amazes me that we can communicate so lovingly across so many miles. The future is wonderful, isn’t it?

Talk soon,

Savannah

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Header Sketches

Corona gave me permission to share the sketches that she did for me for my header, so I’m excited to share them with you today! (You can click to view larger!)

This is the first one she did for me. When I saw it I was completely blown away. She captured the feel of what I wanted precisely, and I was in love with the colors. And the sky! Oh, man, the sky!

This one was inspired by an idea Kat Zhang gave me about an open book with a fantasy world flying forth. I loved the galaxy here, and the animals were great! That deer is so sweet looking.

Of course this is the one I ultimately went with. We discussed options for filling in the dark spaces; having dragons was really important to me, and Corona added a rose vine to tie in with my sleeping beauty retelling. I also requested bats in the background because I love bats!

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on the Best and Worst of my high school experience!