Jenny Anne Mannan

American Songstress

Creative, Part 1

I create, therefore I belong.

I used to believe that.

Creativity for me was a re-interpretation of the greatness I loved and admired, "mediocre copies of another man's genius." (Name that movie!) It was all about what was outside of me - the inspiration, the material, the medium, the work, and the critique. Now I realize it was about a search for connection and belonging. If I was good enough to fit in, then I was good enough. A few decades and failures and mercies into this life, I see the need to belong informing everything I did, artistically and otherwise.

Sometimes self-expression was a genuine motivator as well, but as all burgeoning artists know, imperfect execution of an imperfect vision can lead to frustration, fierce self-censorship, and an eventual climb straight up into the Tree Of The Knowledge of Good And Evil (or as I like to call it, the 'Is it good or is it bad?' tree). We talk about fear of failure and how it keeps us from being creative, but I think for me, the certainty of failure kept me from being creative. I was driven more by the result than the process and I was never satisfied with the result. Of course.

The timeline of artistic development is different for every person, but in general I think everyone has certain phases in common. Phase 1: Listener. Phase 2: Student. Phase 3: Performer. Phase 4: Artist. Clearly there is a lot of overlap between all of these, but I think the focus is on one or the other as we grow from eager listeners to confident creators.

It is incredibly natural to apply the same criteria for success to all phases of development, and incredibly harmful. Success as a student has to do with diligence, work ethic, competition, imitation, praise and recognition, satisfaction of learning something new. Success as a student depends on the student and the outcome they produce. It depends on their performance. It is about evaluation, critique, measuring oneself against some standard and adjusting the input to produce a satisfactory output. It's about learning everything you possibly can. Being a student is the pathway to being an artist, but if I measure success as an artist with the same standard I used when I was a student, I will only place value on the output and the product. I will fail to see the importance of the input and the process. I will look outside of myself and my work for evaluation, and I will measure my success in terms of performance.

I got stuck here for a really long time. I didn't realize it, of course, I just knew that I wasn't enjoying the process anymore. I wasn't happy with anything I did. Every effort at creative expression came across like a narcissistic cry for validation. Gross, right? That's when I realized I wasn't in love with music for its own sake anymore. I had been stuck in Phases 2 and 3 for so long that Phase 4 seemed unattainable and Phase 1 was a distant memory. I felt empty; in making music I was trying to make something out of nothing.

I took a really long break. I moved across the country. I got married. I decided I needed to find out who I was in the world without identifying myself as an artist or a musician, because those words were not happy words anymore. I didn't play very often. I thought I didn't care to, and I didn't at first. It was deliciously liberating to find out that I was okay even without my music to recommend me. (Remarkable, the reasons we think people love us! All that time, I always thought I was valuable because of what I could do. No wonder everything I did sounded desperate and sad.) Thanks to my husband's absolute insistence on listening to music all the time, I went back to Phase 1. I just listened. I listened without that sick feeling of envy, that inability to appreciate music because I'm so tied up in knots that I didn't think of that or that person is succeeding even though they're not technically as proficient as they should be. I watched MTV. I listened to Tom Waits and Roscoe Holcomb and Radiohead and John Hartford and Jamey Johnson. I realized I responded to people whose music was rough around the edges, people with stories to tell, with life and flaws and desperation and ghosts and history in their voices.

That's when I realized I'd had it all backwards. I'd been trying to polish everything up before I wrote it down. The qualities that made me so successful in Phase 2 - perfectionism, attention to detail, give me the formula so I can get it just right - became obstacles to Phase 4. I threw everything out the window. I tried to forget everything I'd learned. I didn't know if I'd ever create anything worthwhile, but I also knew I didn't want to live without music anymore. So I decided to start writing what I know. And then I realized I still didn't know the answer to the most important question. Do I belong?

The road to belonging was long and super painful. A crisis of faith, personal failures, family tragedy, and slowly, slowly, the underlying, constant theme of love restated in a thousand ways went beyond my subconscious until I heard it and recognized it. I came to believe that I am loved just because I am. I belong. I am part of a family, and my place is not dependent on anything I do or don't do. I am one unique expression of God's infinite creativity, and as such, I am free to put bow to strings and pen to paper and work it out and see what happens. It doesn't have to be good or bad. It can just be. What I write and play and sing is no longer artificial matter I've conjured to fill a void. It is real. It is an overflow of joy and freedom and love and good things.

Sometimes I don't really care about what I write and play. Objectively, I can tell it isn't that great. But it doesn't matter much, because I can try again. Every note, every song, even the bad ones, are all part of the process. I'm not trying to do anything amazing, and most of the time I'm not looking for credit. I can honestly say that I would make music even if no one ever heard it. And now I know why.

I belong, therefore I create.


Copyright 2016, Jenny Anne Mannan. All rights reserved.