Unequivocally Ambiguous

Humorous Stories on Parenting, Culture and Life

Entangling the Approval and the Pleasure of Your Art

by | Mar 8, 2022 | Personal Essay, Society | 0 comments

My younger sister just bought a vacation rental in Arkansas and I’m jealous.

Actually, I’m envious. Jealousy implies I have something I’m afraid of losing, whereas envy means I want something I don’t have. I don’t have a vacation property, so the accurate statement is, “I am envious.”

I don’t want a vacation rental, mind you. All the mental bandwidth I have goes to keeping my job and my two children alive.

My sister lives in Texas, and she is closer to Arkansas. Having a vacation rental in Arkansas would be too much for me to take care of from California, and I don’t want to leave California.

I love the weather, the green rolling hills and the vineyards. I love to be surrounded by socially liberal individuals, even if, at times, it can be frustrating when they adopt paternalistic stances on political issues.

I also love that the handlebar mustache, armadillo boots and ten-gallon hat per capita are almost nonexistent.

But sometimes, I look at my sister and think, “it would be nice to pocket 12% of my income and not pay state taxes. Imagine all the toilet paper I could hoard.”

Am I making a mistake by not moving somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper? Am I making a mistake by not moving to a place where I don’t have to pay $6/gallon for gas? And where driving your car doesn’t feel like you are living an extravagantly rich life?

Again, I don’t want to buy a vacation rental in Arkansas.

But I want to have the option.

These feelings trouble me. 

I love my sister, and I only want to have positive feelings towards her, especially when the feelings are a reaction to her accomplishments.

We are social creatures; it is natural to look around to see what others are doing and compare our timelines to theirs. When they are doing the same, we feel at ease. When they are doing better, we might question ourselves, our decisions, and our breakfast choice.

It’s natural.

It is natural, but everything natural is also primitive. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Primitive instincts were developed to keep us alive. But they were also developed in times of scarcity, and even if the scarcity is real, it doesn’t mean that the decisions we make from this space of mind lead to good outcomes.

I also felt sad that I didn’t feel good about my sister’s success immediately.

So, I tapped into all the good emotions that come from the result of my sister being in a place where she can buy a vacation house:

She and her husband work very hard.
She and her husband are caring parents.
She and her husband are generous to their families and communities.

They deserve every single good thing they have worked hard for. Plus, it makes me feel so much better to know that this is how her life is going. I’d never get any satisfaction from her life not going well; that would be a source of preoccupation and stress for me.

Once I break down my feelings, I feel genuinely happy for my sister. I am in a place where I can congratulate her for her accomplishment and mean it. I can make plans to visit her house and have a great time in it. More than anything, I am happy I overcame the petty feelings that were my initial reaction and transformed them into genuine happiness for her.

Feeling good for others is a higher-order feeling. I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but I have a lot of low-level initial reactions in my life. I do my best to look at the ones that bother me the most without judgment and find a way to flip them around.

I experience similar feelings about my art, or more accurately, about the approval of my art.

I perform spoken word pieces at story slams.

Story slams are designed to engage audience participation by allowing them to vote for their favorite piece of the night. Each month’s winner qualifies for the yearly ‘Grand Slam’ where all the monthly winners tell a story and compete once more.

I recently performed a story, and it got second place. I would feel good about such an accomplishment; getting second place from ten solid stories is not bad.

But this time, I walked out of that slam that night and felt disappointed, almost sad. Add to the mix the shame for feeling that way and you can say that I was spiraling.

This was very troubling for me for several reasons but the most important one was that I loved the story I performed and my feelings about the competition were tainting my view of it.

I didn’t want that to happen because the piece is a declaration of love to my wife and my daughters and how their existence in my life has opened the doors to a world of wonder.

I wanted to put an end to those feelings because I always want to feel proud about what I created regardless of the approval and acceptance it gets from people.

I talked to my wife and other friends about my feelings.

As we talked about art-making, explained the ‘intentional fallacy’ to me. The‘ intentional fallacy’ criticizes the idea that we need to know the artist’s intent to make meaning out of a work of art.

I wholeheartedly believe in this fallacy because I think of works of art as messages that are decoded by the receivers through their filters and baggage.

Then, I was hit with my first realization, a corollary of sorts from the ‘intentional fallacy’ that I call the ‘valuation fallacy’. The value you place on your art doesn’t align in the same way, or at all, with the audience’s valuation of your art.

This was a mistake I don’t think I had made before.

I started drafting this piece I’m talking about four months ago, I published it three months ago, I’ve been editing and cutting it since then, I recorded it two months ago, I’ve been memorizing it for one month and I practiced its performance for a week.

This piece is so personal and vulnerable that I believe it to be one of the most important pieces I’ve created.

But my valuation of it was not the mistake. The mistake was assuming that the audience would place the same value on it as I did, and that’s where the lines got blurry.

As an artist, we have no control over what the audience will make of our work, especially in a competitive setting when you are up against other people’s great work. So we can’t expect the audience to make of the work what we make of the work.

The second realization came after having all these esthetics conversations and a good night’s sleep. The realization was the first sentence that came in my head the morning after a conversation with my wife, “have fun.”

So simple that seems moronic.

The pitfall of simple truths is that we often abandon them in search of more complicated ones because we think to ourselves, “this can’t be that simple.”

The best thing about having fun is that it solely depends on you.

Competition and feedback are great ways to level up our craft. But they are both third-party processes. 

They are essential, don’t get me wrong. 

Competition focuses all of our energy and attention on making sure our pieces are the best they can be. Where feedback gives us insight into the blindspots of our work or the principles of the craft we don’t know yet.

We can’t disregard them. 

We are constantly balancing them with our innate desire of making art that is meaningful to us and having fun at it while also expecting recognition.

And we are all expecting recognition in one way or another because if we weren’t, we would just keep our art locked away in our closets.

But as we strive for it, it is just as important to adamantly protect the whimsical and childlike exploration that attracted us to art-making in the first place.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the first place, but at least now I have a lake house to spend some time licking my petty wounds.

I Shit on your Mother — Performed by the author at West Side Stories. Petaluma, California.

I am workshopping a few sections of my longer monologue at the prestigious Marsh Theater. They will be streaming it for free on Zoom. You can find the link here: https://themarsh.org/runs/mnmarshstream/

I’ll be performing two separate 20-minute sections from my 80-minute monologue Racially Ambiguous on March 14 and 28 at 7 PM PST followed by a brief Q&A. 

I’ll make sure to have fun!

Synopsis of Racially Ambiguous. The Marsh Theater. 

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