In a previous letter, I spoke about reconnecting with one’s creative spirit. As with many allegories that involve creativity, I mentioned a canvas, and I’d like to do so again.
However, unlike in the previous post, this canvas is not blank. Rather, it’s filled to the point where not a single drop of white linen remains. There are layers upon layers of paint, slopped on top of each other and muddled into a garish mess. Mistakes are hastily hidden under more paint, covered instead of corrected. The original vision has been lost after so many revisions; it’s clear the artist no longer knows what they’re trying to create. They’re going through the motions, desperately trying to salvage this canvas.
You may be asking yourself, “But why continue? Why bother? The canvas is already ruined. Why not start over?”
Ah. But there it is, isn’t it?
Why We Avoid Starting Over
Starting over seems like a logical solution, but it’s often a solution we come to as a last resort. Why? Because while it is typically the most effective solution, it is also the hardest.
You ask why this artist continues to slop paint onto a ruined canvas? This is why.
- It’s easy. The beginning is always the most difficult part of a creative project, and it’s easier to continue to work on something that’s already been started.
- It’s validating. After devoting so much time, energy, and resources into this project, starting over would feel like giving up and putting all of that to waste. Continuing to work on it justifies the expense thus far.
- It’s self-serving. What greater feeling is there than rescuing a project from failure? The desire to succeed and salvage the project can be all-consuming because it feeds the ego more than anything else.
- It’s gratifying. There’s still emotional attachment to the project and the phantom of what it could have been. On a spiritual level, abandoning it would be heartbreaking.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
As artists, we often force ourselves to continue working on a project long past the time when we should move on to other things. Perhaps it’s for one of these reasons, or a combination of all the above. Whatever the cause, it blinds us to the undeniable truth that the canvas is ruined. The project has strayed so far off course that there’s no way to bring it back. Not even chipping off all the paint will save it as the foundations of the canvas have started to sag, the linen wearing thin after so much abuse. There is only one choice: toss out this failed attempt and set up a new, fresh, empty canvas.
Recognizing the Need to Restart
Sometimes, this realization can come from an outside source. Maybe a friend walks over, taps the artist on the shoulder, and says, “Hey, friend, I think it’s time you take a break, then try again after you’ve rested.” Perhaps a harsh critique makes the artist realize their heart isn’t in their work anymore. It’s possible an injury forces the artist to set down their brush. For all one knows, the house could catch on fire or a storm may cause the power to go out, and the artist has no choice but to take a step back.
In those situations, an outside force causes the artist to reevaluate. But if the artist is starting to have doubts on their own, having such a revelation can happen by asking a few basic questions.
- Is this project turning out the way I want it to? Is this my original vision?
- What do I gain from this project? What have I lost or what could I lose if I continue working on it?
- Does this project bring me joy?
If the answer is “no” to questions #1 and #3, and if the losses outweigh the gains in question #2, throw out the canvas.
It’s hard to have these realizations about creative projects, but what if that realization is about your entire life?
When Life Mimics Art
If you’ve read my About page or my very first letter, you’ll know I went through a huge life transition this year. To sum it up, I realized my career as a professional artist was killing me and I was miserable on every possible level. Some outside sources contributed to this realization, but by asking myself those questions, I was able to evaluate my career. Then, I could decide if it was something I wanted to continue, or if I wanted the fresh start of an empty canvas.
First, I asked myself, “Is my life turning out the way I want it to? Is this my original vision?” The answer was no. Yes, I was making art for a living, and I could travel, and I was making a difference in the lives of others. But fame was never something I wanted, especially as a social media influencer being paid to hock products I didn’t care for from companies I didn’t support. My business was becoming centered around me, rather than my art, and it was exhausting.
Next, I considered what I was gaining from that lifestyle. Numbers on social media, free products, travel… and that was about it. Meanwhile, I was losing my passion for my art; I had no social life to speak of; I was working 18+ hours a day; my health was rapidly declining; the constant travel meant I was never home long enough to have a “normal” routine; I was under constant pressure to create flawless art if I wanted to make a living… and at the end of it all, I wasn’t bringing in as much money as it seemed. At least, not enough to justify sacrificing every part of myself to that career path.
Lastly, I asked the most difficult question: “Is my life bringing me joy?” Taking the previous response into consideration, the answer was a resounding hell no!
Basically: I looked at the canvas in front of me, and it was a mess.
Pulling the Proverbial Trigger
That’s not to say it was an easy decision, of course. Continuing on with that career would have been easy because it didn’t involve drastic change. It would’ve been validating to see my business continue to thrive and grow after devoting so many years, resources, and aspects of myself to it. I would’ve felt so proud of persevering through the stress and anxiety. And, certainly, there was an emotional attachment to everything I had built: the network, the friendships, the movements that affected an entire industry. No, nothing about that was an easy decision. I had never faced a harder decision, but I knew which choice I had to make if I wanted to live the life I actually wanted.
How did I know it was the right choice? I didn’t. Not until I made it, at least. But the moment I made that choice, the moment I shut down my business and deleted all my social media channels, the moment I cancelled all my collaborations and corporate deals — I felt only relief. Pure, utter relief. The stress lifted from my chest. For the first time in years, I breathed without the feeling of being strangled.
There’s No Time to Waste
Dearest reader, if you relate to this situation; if you wish you could erase your messy canvas; if you know you need to restart but you’re hesitating… please, I implore you: take the jump. Take it. Close your eyes, hold your breath, and jump. Do it for your art, do it for your happiness, do it for your life. We only have so much time on this earth, and it makes no sense to spend it living in a way that makes you miserable.
Time is our most valuable resource, and wasting it is all-too easy. Starting over is hard, yes, but sometimes, we must do the hard things to find joy. And the joy that comes from tossing out that ruined canvas and placing a fresh one on your easel?
Why, it’s the definition of possibility, and possibility is the greatest joy of all.
P.S. Have you ever made the choice to restart your life? How did you know it was time? What convinced you to push that reset button and begin again? Let me know in the comments, or write me a letter of your own!