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A White Belt in Art

aloneness is the oasis of time [1]As some of you know, I recently had rotator cuff surgery, which put my writing practice temporarily on the shelf. This was a big problem for me, because I’m not the sort of person who can sit around doing nothing for too long (“too long” being defined as the time it took me to watch every damn episode of Breaking Bad). I needed some form of creative expression, something I could do with one hand – my off hand – until my shoulder had sufficiently healed.

I turned to art.

Well, not art exactly – graphic image manipulation, through the good offices of a wonderful, free program called GIMP (www.gimp.org [2]). I had tinkered and toyed with the program before – squeezed a couple of book covers out of it – but I’d never really set out to plumb the depths of its potential. More to the point, I’d never set out to be an artist before.

I was scared spitless.

After forty years of self-defining as a writer, I was suddenly somehow trying to self-define as, well, something else. I knew I couldn’t call myself an artist; I hadn’t in any way earned that title. But if I didn’t call myself something – something at least vaguely aspirational – how would I or could I ever fight through the thicket of learning and growing – and rank insecurity – that lay between me and genuine artistic expression?

How, in other words, could I fight my fear of failure?

Well, the first thing I did was craft an artist’s manifesto. (When I told an artist friend of mine that I had done this, he just laughed and said, “That’s such a writer thing to do.”) Here’s it is:

1/ I will create images I believe in.

2/ I will decide which images I believe in.

3/ I will stand behind the images I create.

Here’s how having a manifesto immediately helped: It let me sidestep the judgment of others, and my attendant fear of that judgment. By putting responsibility for deciding what worked and what didn’t squarely in my own hands, I emotionally supported my earliest efforts with a certain bravura bravado. I knew that failure would be a big feature of this particular learning curve, but also that there would be instances of “not failure” – the creation of images that pleased me or made me laugh – and that it was up to me to recognize those instances and take satisfaction in those early, halting successes.

Were one to substitute the word “sentences” or “stories” for “images” in that manifesto, it would be a pretty good one for writers too, I think.

The next thing I did that really helped was to call myself “a white belt in art.” Knowing that in karate and other martial arts the white belt is the lowest belt – the beginner’s belt – I understood that a white-belt practitioner has no obligation beyond just practice. Quality isn’t the goal for a white belt; learning is the goal. By declaring myself a white belt in art, I freed myself completely from all expectation. I was a beginner; I was meant to do what a beginner does.

And again, were a beginning writer to call herself a white belt in writing, I imagine that would make things easier in writing, too.

For me, this declaration of white-belt status alone was well worth my price of admission into “art world.” It has been so long – decades – since I’ve felt like a beginner in writing, I had no recent experience with this sort of “go for it” creativity – creativity completely unburdened by expectation. I immediately found it liberating, and started turning out images like a mad fiend. I had what I wanted from my creative practice: the strong desire to sit at my desk and make the magic happen for hours and hours on end. Can I tell you that I don’t always have that experience when I’m writing? Writing is often so hard for me – because I’m supposed to be good at it and all – that it doesn’t always bring me the creative joy I’d like to enjoy. Especially while my shoulder still hurts.

But the way of the white belt is a wide open highway, and any creative direction is as good as any other. I tried my hand at color manipulation, photo collage, cartooning, anything I could think of, always with the idea in mind not of, “Is this any good,” but rather, “What can I learn from this?” That made art so easy and fun for me. I was a white belt, and happy in my work.

This went on for a month or so. My shoulder recovered to the point where I could start writing a little, and I found myself writing these words: “So, what is art? Manipulation of images to communicate a message.” Of course that’s not the only thing art is, but in framing and naming a definition, I realized that I had grown in my practice. I’d gone from having no idea of what art is to having some idea of what it is. With that, I awarded myself my next belt, a yellow belt, as befits someone who, while still a beginner and an amateur, has at least made some strides.

So now I’m a yellow belt, and now the stakes are higher. I have to start asking myself questions like, “Is this a road I seriously want to walk?” “If so, which aspect of art can I most fruitfully pursue?” And, “How will this fit into my existing brand of ‘half funny, half serious, half strange?’” Note that I’m not asking, “Can I make it pay?” I’d like it to pay, but that’s not the point.

The point is that I’m free – free from the fear of trying my hand at art.

See, for all those decades that I self-defined as a writer, I also self-defined as not an artist – although I think I secretly wanted to be one. It’s ironic: for someone who travels the world teaching creative freedom, there was this huge emotional block that I had to work through in order to arrive at my own true creative freedom. And what did it take to unleash my visual creativity? The silver lining surrounding a cranky shoulder. Who’da thunk it?

So my message for you today is: know where your limits lie – and then transcend them. Use strategies to trick yourself past the hard parts (like using a manifesto to give you confidence, and then calling yourself a white belt so that you don’t need confidence). If you’ve never written a song or acted on stage or drawn a cartoon, but you’ve always wanted to, do it! Extend the definition of who you are creatively, and expand the tools available to you in your creative pursuits. Even if it all brings you right back to where you started, it will be worth it in terms of pure creative growth.

Like the sign says, “There are many talents, but talent must have a locomotive.” What I’ve learned in the past few months is that there’s more than one locomotive for my talents. I’m sure that the same is true for you. So, like the other sign says, “Go off in all directions at once – you’re bound to arrive somewhere sometime.”

What do you do to refresh or expand your creative practice? What’s a recent bold creative risk you’ve taken? What risk could you take today?

About John Vorhaus [3]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!