The Friction of Being Visible for Creatives (inspired by Mark Nepo)

Mark Nepo, the friction of being visible

In his wonderful book The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have, Mark Nepo talks about something he calls “the friction of being visible,” meaning, as he says, that “no matter what path we choose to honor, there will always be conflict to negotiate.”

He explains:

In effect, the cost of being who you are is that you can’t possibly meet everyone’s expectations, and so, there will, inevitably, be external conflict to deal with – the friction of being visible. Still, the cost of not being who you are is that while you’re busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside; in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with – the friction of being invisible.

Though he’s talking about living more authentically in our day-to-day lives, those of us in creative fields will instantly recognize the friction he refers to as it relates to our creative work.

When we choose to make a living by sharing our creative output with the world, in whatever form that takes – graphic design, photography, fine art, interior design, illustration, writing, flower arranging, web design, architecture, underwater basket weaving, or whatever our gift happens to be – we commit to this friction over and over again.

Part of this friction comes from trying to live up to the expectations of well-meaning friends and loved ones who suggest that maybe we should take a more realistic approach to career and money-making. Or from those who judge or criticize our work, including, sometimes, our very own clients.

In other cases, we are own worst enemy. We’ve limited ourselves by buying into the notion that to be fully self-expressed in our creativity is enough, that if we’re able to practice our creative work and make a living from it, we should be happy to “settle” for barely scraping by. Or that doing our creative thing on the side while working a “real” job is all we’re allowed to ask for.

In my case, I’ve done this number on myself. I don’t recall any adult in my life ever saying to me, “be realistic, you can’t make a decent living writing, that’s something you do on the side,” or any variation thereof.

Even when I was actively practicing photography, shooting rolls and rolls of film (yes, it was actual film then), studying the masters, soaking up as much info as I could, taking photography classes, and applying to art school, no one ever said to me, “be practical, you can’t make a decent living as a photographer.”

So I can only assume that I was making the argument to myself, internally. That somewhere along the line, I had bought into the notion that choosing the path of the creative, at least in terms of career, would mean certain poverty. Or that putting my work “out there,” possibly to be scrutinized and criticized, would feel like being gutted, just too uncomfortable.

But once you understand that the friction of being visible is the price you pay for getting to make a living from your creative pursuits (or from practicing your creative thing with abandon if it’s not your primary source of income), and you make peace with that dynamic, you can go on about the business of your business with less internal conflict.

The friction of being visible, at least for creatives, seems less of a price to pay than the alternative, as Nepo describes it:

Still, the cost of not being who you are is that while you’re busy pleasing everyone around you, a precious part of you is dying inside; in this case, there will be internal conflict to deal with – the friction of being invisible.

While the friction of being visible may make us uncomfortable, the friction of being invisible is potentially much more destructive. It can be ruinous to our mental and emotional well-being, and even detrimental to our physical health.

Many of us go through our lives doing work we don’t love, participating in relationships that don’t light us up, keeping schedules that wear us down, and saying yes to people and obligations we’d rather say no to, all the while putting a happy face on the whole shebang, as if it was our most fervent wish to go around feeling deeply unfulfilled and perpetually dissatisfied.

Then life may throw us a curveball to get our attention. My curveball came in the form of a terrifying episode one fine day in June 2014 while driving to my onsite freelance writing gig at a medical center. Out of the blue my heart started racing wildly and my breathing became shallow and labored.

I pulled into the parking lot of the medical center’s marketing department and struggled to get just one deep breath into my lungs, just one. Then sat in my car gasping for air and crying. I felt like I was drowning. Not fun.

A few minutes later, still not able to breathe fully and deeply, I composed myself as best I could, went inside, and sat through the morning meeting in which we discussed the day’s priorities. I ducked out of the building afterwards to call my doctor to make an appointment for the next day.

Luckily, a chest x-ray and an EKG revealed no immediate cause for concern. But the heart racing and the shallowness of breath (which I now refer to as “SOB” for short, ha ha) continued, sometimes pronounced and nearly debilitating, other times mild and almost imperceptible.

Message received.

That was my call to change some things. And so I did. I left that gig, as wonderful as it was, eight months later. While I enjoyed the work, my colleagues, and a steady paycheck, I felt hamstrung by the 20 hour a week commitment and the requirement to work onsite, and I knew it was keeping me from fully embracing the work I really wanted to be doing – working with creative entrepreneurs, and writing.

My response to this internal conflict, “the friction of being invisible,” as Nepo calls it, was to high-tail it out of that situation and go towards the light. Ah yes, the light – the light of doing work that’s much more in line with my preferred mode and style of working, working with clients I love.

So while it’s true that, “no matter what path we choose to honor, there will always be conflict to negotiate,” I chose the friction of being visible. And I’m much happier for it.

Which reminds me of the Henry David Thoreau quote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Don’t let’s do this.

Or you may find yourself, one day, gasping for air in a medical center parking lot, wondering what the heck is going on and ruining your mascara with your salty anxiety tears.

I don’t recommend it.

Comments

  1. I found myself having a similar experience when I realized I wanted to spend my time in the studio rather than in the classroom – I became more and more tense and shorter-tempered with my students. This was totally unfair to them. Making the change brought such a sense of mental well-being. Now I can teach creativity in shorter spurts and have lots of time for my own creativity. Happy sigh…

    • Kimberly says:

      Yes, what you’re saying makes perfect sense! Awareness of what really makes us happy — what a gift. 🙂

  2. My ace and I closed our retail and teaching shop and moved to making in our studio last year. We are still recovering from the constant anxiety and rushed feelings. It’s getting better, and knowing that just because we are “good at teaching / sales doesn’t mean it’s our calling or our right living.

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