My favorite writing professor once told a class of poets that we shouldn’t worry about being original, because we already are. As a young writer, I was a bit taken aback by the idea that being uniquely myself could somehow be enough. Each of our voices, he said, is distinct and different and important. No one else can write a poem or story or report that you've written. Nobody else can create the art you’ve created, and that is the wonderful, beautiful, frustrating thing about creating something new.
Creating unique, original art requires the artist to have a strong voice. You must have a clear idea of what you want to say and a bold understanding that whatever you say matters. Artists must necessarily be confident. Speaking with confidence breeds believability, and believability breeds rapport. There is a world of difference in saying “thank you,” or “I’m sorry” and meaning it, or not. So it is with creating art. The artist can inspire no one if they themselves are not inspired.
Years after my writing professor assured my class that our voices do, in fact, matter, I still write and perform poetry, as often as I can. When I perform, I don’t like to have paper or my phone in front of me, so I memorize my work. The quickest way to memorize a new piece is to record myself reading it and listen to it back, speaking with myself until I know my own words by heart. Performing those words in front of an audience is a different skill entirely, and necessitates a heightened sense of assuredness and confidence. If you do not have a strong voice, performing will be terrifying for you, and lackluster for your audience.
Often, we struggle to make authentic art because we are afraid to articulate what is on the heart. What is perhaps even more common is not really knowing what is on the heart in the first place. We are afraid of not being good enough, so we think our art will not be good enough. We are afraid that people will judge our art, but any mean-spirited consumer of art is missing the point entirely. We are frightened of our truths, but even more frightened to write them down, much less speak them aloud.
There is great humility, beauty, pain, and redemption in living truthfully. There is great sadness, shame, discomfort, and dissatisfaction in ignoring what is on our hearts. Many of us know this, but ignore all of it in fear. Eleanor Rooselvelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Consistently doing things that scare you, and realizing that you can, in fact, do the thing that scares you, will teach you a few things: 1) that you are strong beyond belief and, 2) that you can, and should, trust yourself.
It may be helpful to consider who you are creating art for: if it is for you, it should not matter what anyone else thinks of it. If it is for others, realize that whatever you create will exist in your world and through your eyes. Bringing someone else into your world is a hefty task. If someone doesn’t like your world, understand that they have their own, full of experiences, triumphs, and struggles you may never understand. It may seem vulnerable to uncover your voice, but it will not, cannot, harm you. If you love yourself and believe in what you have to say, your voice will come, and you will not be frightened by it.
Sometimes, your voice will come calmly and gently, and sometimes, your voice will scream. Often, artists wait until they are screaming to create anything at all. We call it “inspiration,” but it is often grounded in extremities. Extreme sadness, hurt, happiness, joy. But few of us live our lives in extremes. Consistently tuning into the calm voice is where the meat of creation lives. Extremity often lends itself well to great creativity, but honing your voice in the between-times will make your shining moments exponentially brighter.
If creating unique, original art requires a strong voice, how can you tell when you've turned the corner from uncertainty and quietude to confidence and strength? My answer may be frustrating, because there is no good way to measure the strength of a voice, simply because strength manifests in myriad ways. As artists, we live in the grey spaces, where cut and dry does not exist, where black and white are inextricably mixed. We fully understand that there is no one answer, there are always many answers, and many more questions than can ever fully be answered.
Finding your voice is as simple and simultaneously complex as speaking, or writing, or creating the very thing that frightens you the most.
P.S. Check out The War of Art by Steven Pressfield for insight and inspiration on expressing your creativity, finding your voice, and removing self-doubt or any roadblocks you may face.