Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Coming Back From A Creative Near Death Experience

It has been nearly three years since I wrote the three part essay, “The Death of Creativity”. Three years has seen my own creativity ebb and flow like a sine wave; deep dark valley’s rise to high peaks which crash down again; rinse and repeat. During those three years some amazing and some very difficult things happened to me. And all during this time I have been studying the effects of the destructive impact my own actions and in-actions as well as people and events have had on my creativity.

As you might recall from the original article I called out the education system and parents on the complete failure in developing the right brain in young minds. Little did I know that my little introspective essay would spawn so many discussions. I am finding that what I wrote about three years ago rang true then and remains true today, only now that I am three years wiser from my experiences, I see that it is a way of the world and not just limited to the education system.

Here is a little insight to who I am. For me, creating is like breathing. I cannot live without it. I have been creative my whole life. Sometimes I created openly but mostly I created privately. In high school I was in all three choirs and an active member of the drama club. I spent much of my free time during my four years in the military writing poetry, lyrics and composing music. I also wrote quite a bit of fictional stories for a small D&D club I was an active member of. I had boxes and boxes of these writings, poetry, music and musings that ended up being tossed in the dumpster by a girlfriend after I got out of the military. 

Then, when I got into Computer Gaming, I became creative again developing maps, levels and even entire mods for existing games some of which were actually used by the gaming organization I co-founded. I starting writing fiction again in my 30s, which I stopped doing after my now ex-wife read a particularly dark piece and stopped and looked at me with a particularly worried expression and said, “I am not sure if I know who you are.”

Creating is my sustenance in this life.
So let me jump to three years ago…

I was so burned out in my day job. In addition to working 72 hours a week and being the only after-hours support person 24/7/365; I had nothing left . Vacations were a joke as I was tethered to my job via a cell phone. After talking it over with my wife, we made the decision in August that I quit my job in the coming December and I would pursue a career in photography. I would go back to school to join in the Visual Communication program at the local community college and I would make a go at a creative career.

I published the “Death of Creativity…” article on my blog. A few short weeks later, in October, I was laid off from my employer. After the buyout of the company, the new owners decided to eliminate my position.This was a blessing as I was quitting two months anyways. Since I was laid off and I didn’t quit, I got a nice unexpected severance package on top of my expected 401k disbursement and I was eligible for unemployment. Again, this was an unexpected blessing.

I took my payout, purchased $4,000 worth of gear for my business and banked the rest to live on for the next six months while I collected unemployment. My first booked gig as a full time photographer was a wedding for a friend two weeks later. I did it pro-bono. My next gig was a free portrait session with a friend. My third session was a free pet portrait session with a friend.

Before I knew it friends of my friends were asking for a free or heavily discounted portrait sessions. I don’t blame them at all. I could have easily said no. The problem was mine. I got stuck in never-ending cycle of portfolio development with my friends.

The straw for me was after the holidays. People I considered friends had their first grand-baby delivered. I offered to shoot photos for them at the cost of the prints. What happened next confounded me. My wife and I meet them for drinks and the new grandma breaks out her iPhone and shows us twenty new photos of her new grand-baby watermarked by a local mall photography shop known for treating customers like cattle. I know she paid well over $150 dollars for the package and the photos were sub-par to what my personal standards are and my print package was only going to cost $45 and deliver twice the number of prints including a 16x20, which is twice as big as the biggest print they actually got.

After this I seriously looked at what I was doing wrong. I needed to know why I couldn't compete for a “friend’s” business against a cookie cutter shop known for poor customer service and where I provided 3x the value, not only in customer service, but also in tangible product. I did not have an answer and they stopped talking to us shortly after that so I never got the answer I needed.

I started by seriously questioning my work. My work quality was good. My pricing was on par for the region. I found no answers there.

I looked at my marketing. My marketing was obviously lacking. I couldn't afford to drop $800 a month for a newspaper ad. My online marketing was hitting the big two; Twitter and Facebook or as I like to call it; friends and friends of friends. But even when I had an article appear in the paper about my veteran owned business the only response I got to the article outside of congrats from friends was a creepy letter from a State Prison inmate, serving life asking for me to help publish his prison art. It was creepy because in the first paragraph he said, “What caught my attention first were your striking eyes.”  That had a stalker element that made me feel uncomfortable and then to find out he is serving a life sentence.

In the end it came down to I failed to market myself. Now I know that I can’t market myself out of a wet paper bag with a box cutter and a chainsaw.

Since wedding and portrait photography was not working out, I decided to follow my heart and passion and turn 100% of my focus on the fine art side of photography. I really wanted to get in touch with creating emotionally compelling pieces so I signed up for a workshop for photographers based loosely on the Artist Way. That decision was a blessing and a mistake for me personally. The blessing is that I made deep friendships that remain to this day. The mistake was that I jumped in with my whole being and the workshop did not deal with any of psychological issues that come up naturally as part of the Artists Way. The instructor had no intention of dealing with those issues during the 7 week workshop and I was not prepared for the emotional baggage that swept me into a cyclone of selfish loathing and self-destruction.  

Our money started running out and my family started to live only on my minuscule unemployment and my wife’s equally minuscule salary. Since I was drawing unemployment, I followed the rules. I applied for three jobs weekly. It took six months from when I was “laid off” to finally get a call to an interview for a job I really didn't want; I mean I am a photographer artist after all.

I interviewed, because unemployment rules said I had to. Two weeks later I get called and offered a different job with the same business. It was for less money; and by less I mean a 50% pay cut from what I made at my previous position. I can’t decline the job because I will lose my unemployment which would mean my family and I would be homeless in two months or less. I reluctantly accepted the position kicking and screaming the whole way. The deep depression began its dark onset.

Things spiraled completely out of control for the next six months. I announced my resignation from the board of my local photography club and agreed to hand over the position to another individual. I withdrew from any and all shooting opportunities. I stopped painting. I stopped drawing. I stopped everything but the one thing I should have stopped; blogging.

If you ever want to know who your true friends are, have a public emotional breakdown like I did. I made the mistake of blogging my breakdown. My blog was automatically published to Twitter, Facebook and eventually Google+. I was really trying to get a grip on myself and express the feelings I was experiencing, and begging for help because I lacked the tools to do it alone.

Those that are not true friends or are simply using you will scatter like cockroaches when the light turns on. I understand the scatter effect to some extent. The professionals I had relationships with were simply protecting their reputation and had a business first mindset. The “friends” I thought I had simply shielded themselves from my far-too-numerous-to-count moments of W.T.F.!

But when my best friend of 10 years, who was also the best man at my wedding, literally broke up with me via a Facebook message, claiming that he couldn't be a part of what I had become; well I was stunned. I felt judged by the one person who didn't normally judge. I got angry at that moment and I developed  a “Fuck You” chip on my shoulder for anyone who challenged me and that only made things worse. Friends began telling me I was selfish and uncaring and I eventually pulled away from them. This all fed into a destructive cycle that led me to rock bottom both creatively and emotionally.

I lost several business partnerships with people I at one time respected and trusted. I gave up my share of the studio I shared with other artist because I could not afford to rent a space, as beautiful as it was, when it made no money what-so-ever. I lost a business partner that I was developing a weekend long workshop with as he decided to take his ideas and my ideas and find someone else to execute them with after deciding that he didn't want to be associated with me. This particular relationship came to a head several months later in which he publicly declared I plagiarized him. It got ugly for a brief moment or two.

Then my wife quit her crappy job, with my support, because they treated their employees like shit. But that meant no unemployment for her because she quit. So her income vanished.

People stopped calling me altogether. Life became lonely. Life became quiet for a few months. Lonely was not a good feeling, as it rarely is. But quiet; quiet allowed me to heal. I kind of went off the grid for a few months as I worked things out and found a balance between this return to an office job I had to have to keep my family cared for and where my passion was. I started painting, drawing and creating again, quietly. In the fall, almost one year to the day that I was laid off, I rejoined and resumed my former role with the leadership team of my photography group.

Within a year of getting my new job, my wife and I were on the brink of complete financial ruin. I sold most of my photography studio equipment and that combined with help from a friend we were able to hold on until my wife was able to get a short termed position, which lasted a month. But once she was done with the job she got unemployment. Her unemployment lasted long enough for me to get enough promotions in two years to a position that had me back in a place to make enough to not completely sink month to month.

And while I remained busy working, creating, and helping to run the photography club I kept things quiet. During all of this quiet time I spent some time evaluating what happened. I had to know how I could go from living my dream to being an unraveled sweater lying on the floor exposing myself in the most uncomfortable and inappropriate ways. I needed to know how in six months I could go from my dream to be a photographer to being ready to walk away from it all and never look back.

Early on, it was easy to blame everything on something else. I would blame the economy on my business struggles. I would blame the community for lacking value in art. I would blame some people for betrayals, some people for taking advantage, some people for holding me back and even some people for abandoning me. I would blame my family for making things so difficult. I would blame everyone and everything for the failures happening except the one and only person responsible. 

In the end all of the struggles, hardships and failures were nobody’s fault but my own.

That realization hit me hard, but I accepted it.

First and foremost, I accepted that I was a failure and more importantly I was responsible for that failure. That acceptance is a lot harder than it sounds as I don’t usually fail. What I mean by “don’t usually fail” I mean:

·         I have applied for 39 jobs in my lifetime.
·         I have had 37 jobs in my lifetime. That is a 94.8% success rate in obtaining a job.

·         Of those 37 jobs I was fired from only 2, laid off from 2 (one voluntarily) and I quit the remaining 33.
      That is an 89.1% success rate in keeping a job for as long as I wanted it.

·         I taught myself computers enough to get an IT job two years after buying my first computer without any formal education.

·         I played my first live gig with a guitarist and two singers for a church audience of 15 two months after buying my first bass guitar.

·         My first painting since elementary school was a full wall Noah’s Ark mural on a 10’x13’ wall 25 years later.

Those are just some examples to help you understand what I mean with the statement of “I don’t usually fail”.  It has been my experience that if I set out to do something I succeed. I figure it out and I get it done: Usually.

Failure was and still is a hard pill for me to swallow. The human ego sucks. The ego is like a hemorrhoid; you don’t notice it much until it gets some pressure applied to it and failure is life’s jackhammer to the hemorrhoid known as ego.

I failed to understand my market as not only a wedding and portrait photographer, but also as fine art photographer.

I failed to realize that I am unable to say no to friends. Ask me to shoot a wedding, a portrait or whatever and I would have said yes. That isn’t so much the case any longer, but it was then. I am not a good businessman because I cannot separate business relationships from personal relationships.

I failed to protect my friends and my family from my vacuous spiral into negative void of my rampant despair.
I failed to hang on to the real reason I wanted to become a photographer; the love of art and creation. Instead I was becoming the guy who would not pick up his camera unless he was getting paid. I was refusing to make art unless there was going to be a paycheck involved. That was not who I was at my core, but I was well on my way to becoming that.

I failed to be thankful for the opportunities I was provided. I landed a nice job in a time when most jobs, let alone nice jobs, were not plentiful and I hated everything about that opportunity. I hated being in the corporate livestock trade again, so much so that I nearly walked away from my desk, several times, in the first few months without so much as a mention as to where I was going and whether I would return or not.

I failed.
Friends did not fail me.

I failed.
Customers did not fail me.

I failed.
The economy did not fail me.

I failed.
My family did not fail me.

There it is.

I failed.

It took me nearly a year to be able to say those words and know they were true.

I failed.

Today I am doing better. I am doing more. I give more. I create more. I am involved more.

Today I am better. I am a better man. I am a better husband. I am a better father. I am a better friend. I am a better employee. I am a better artist.

I still have my ups and downs today as everyone does. I can’t even measure today’s down cycles with the same measuring stick I would've used back then; I would have measured my down cycles by the mile back then. Today my down cycles are measured in millimeters in comparison to those days. Do you know how many millimeters are in a mile? 1609344.

It was a long painful road to go down. And while I gained much knowledge, wisdom and appreciation during that time, I also lost a lot. I lost friends, professional resources and passion. I have everyone around me to thank for the things I learned and only myself to blame for the loss I incurred. I am simply blessed that the loss wasn't considerably more, because it could have been more and worse.

Today I have balance in my life. I work to live, rather than the other way around and that is balanced with I live to create. Today I give so much more than I take and I am happier being that person because it is who I am at my core. It takes so little energy to give, in contrast to the enormous energy it takes to try and take.

Balance is found by being who you are and I am well on my way there.

I would like to thank my family and friends for all of their support, inspiration and compassion. It is because of them that I have had the support I need. It is because of them that I have found the balance I need. The last year has been amazing and the coming years are looking so very promising. I can’t thank each of you enough for everything you do, but I have to start somewhere… so I start here with a thank you to each of you.

My Wife
My Kids

My Dog and Cat
and everyone else around me that give each and every day!

1 comment:

Matt Dillon said...

Hi Steven. The title of this piece intrigued me so I decided to give it a read. To be honest, not quite what I was thinking it was. That said, I see a lot of myself in this article but don't really want to get into that. What I do see though is that there is hope and by examining the things in my life I may be on the right path to a better place. Thanks for spending the time to write this.