June 2003 

Getting Naked-showing your stuff to the rest of the world

I saw the Fedex truck from my studio window.  Without hesitation I jumped up and ran downstairs to meet the driver.  Excited and out of breath from running I told him, "Iíve been waiting three years for this package!"  He responded with something like, "If I had know that I would have come sooner."  I absentmindedly signed the sheet, thanked him and ran inside while furiously trying to pull the cord that would release the contents.  This was a moment that I had played over in my head many times over the last year, my first glimpse at my new book! 

There it was in full color, impressively gleaming and giving off that wonderful and intoxicating smell of freshly printed ink.  My stomach did a little lurch; nervous excitement mixed with fear.  I flipped through it haphazardly, taking note of the illustrations that I had done so many months before, the colors were great, the layout seemed to work well with the type, the binding better than I ever expected.  So why did I suddenly feel a wave of panic rush over me?  Wasnít this supposed to be a shining moment? 

Actually I had read about this phenomenon a few months ago in a book by Harriet Lerner called "Forest for the Trees".  In it she describes the process an author goes through when releasing a new book.  Iíve talked about it at length with my self-employed friends.  There is this beautiful moment where you are actually realizing a dream, the thing youíve been waiting for years, and mixed in with joy there is a feeling more akin to visiting the dentist.  What is that about?  This isnít what I was expecting.  All of the sudden I was worried that I would now have to show this thing that I have been talking about for months.  People would be able to make judgements about whether it was good or bad.  It was much safer when I could just talk about the concept, leaving it to peopleís imaginations.  This says nothing about the actual thing (the book, painting, or any other creative endeavor), but speaks more about that little pestering seed of self-doubt that we all have lurking just around the corner of our psyches at all times.  Just when you think you have it under control it sneaks up on you wearing different pants.  Oh, you again. 

Itís interesting to me that the literary world seems to be full of authors who are constantly battered by their own insecurities.  Publishers and editors are full of shocking stories about literary greats that were so plagued with self-doubt they were unable to function for sometimes years. 

Recently I became obsessed with reading about J.D. Salinger.  Like many I had assumed he was no longer alive and was surprised to discover that not only was he alive but he had been in seclusion for years.  Apparently he wants nothing to do with the outside world and prefers to avoid human contact, while writing in a large bunker somewhere on his farm in New Hampshire. He was supposed to be releasing a new book a few months ago but mysteriously, this new book never materialized.  It is rumored that his fear of judgement by critics caused him to pull it, this after not having released a book for over thirty-five years.   (note: There are an incredible number of rumors, myths, and legends surrounding Salinger and his work.  See the additional research links at the end of this article for more info.  Be warned, it can be addictive.)

After publishing the best selling title "By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept" it has been noted that author Elizabeth Smart felt so incapable of living up to the success that she never attempted a second novel. 

The publisher for Douglas Adams on at least one occasion had to lock him up on a hotel room in order for him to actually write at all.  Given free reign he would put off writing for months on end, feeling he had lost his voice and plagued with feelings of inadequacy.  When forced to write he could pull off a novel in a week or two.  (One of my favorite quotes by Adams is this, "I love deadlines, I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they rush by.")  Is it any wonder that one of his proposed titles was, "The Salmon of Doubt"?

Author Anne Lamott in her book "Traveling Mercies", writes about walking down fifth avenue in New York elated after she is asked to go for lunch with her editors.  She thinks, "writer gets to go out with her editors in New York.  What more could I want!"  She describes sitting in the posh restaurant while they start to discuss some of the changes they would like regarding her recent manuscript.  She writes, "I held tight in my chair and made an honest effort to listen.  These two women were savvy.  They had good things to say.  But I felt as though I were sitting stark naked in a perfectly civilized eating establishment."

The image of the insecure, tormented artist or the author paralyzed with writerís block has become somewhat of a cliché in our culture.  But these stories are extremely important in helping us to deal with our own insecurities as creative people.  It can be so freeing to understand that the feeling of panic when releasing a new project or showing our work to others is completely NORMAL and something we all experience.  When talking to my friends about these things I am always amazed to hear the response of "Oh gawd, I have that every time!" 

After having my first edition for about a week, I am starting embrace this feeling a little more.  I liken it to when I had my first professional massage a couple of years ago.  When I was told to take off my clothes for the first time I was so self conscious about being naked that I found I had difficulty relaxing and was unable to enjoy the experience (I think I talked nervously the whole time).  Now after having done it several more times I still feel strange being naked, but I am no longer paralyzed, I find myself able to give in to the experience and let my body relax.  So I guess thatís the trick, you may never feel totally comfortable with sending your work out, but over time (and with a few towels), you can learn to surrender to it.

Additional reading about people dealing with self-doubt:

J.D. Salinger   -includes directions to his house (not that anyone should attempt to visit)
Elizabeth Smart
Journals of Steinbeck
Douglas Adams
Anne Lamott  -have fun perusing these articles!
May Sarton  -I did a little pilgrimage to see her house a couple of years ago.

Comedian -Jerry Seinfeld
The Wonder Boys
Hollywood Ending

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a ďmagicĒ cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her new book "Living Out Loud -an activity book to fuel a creative life" is being released in Fall of 2003 by Chronicle Books.