Navigating scarcity, shame, & validation as a creative
Around this time last year, I was obsessed with my creative output — churning out blog posts like this one on disordered eating (still my most-viewed post), practicing & recording music, promoting my work on social media, while working 5 days a week in food service. Wrestling with my deepest beliefs at the time, creative work seemed the only way to channel this negative energy into something meaningful.
So I hurled myself into creative work. Within weeks, I was burnt out.
Since then, I've learned to honor my body's limits. But beneath the surface, the same insecurities that fueled this feverish approach still affect my creative process today. Only a year later have I begun to understand & dismantle these insecurities. In this post, I examine three related to validation, scarcity, & shame.
1. No matter how much I create, it's never enough.
At the start of an artist's career, external validation tends to come from our immediate social circles. Without the auspices of an institution, the impact (and by extension, value) of our work can feel marginal — visible only when, for instance, someone drops a comment on social media to say they related to your post.
Comments like these encourage me to keep writing. Yet I've fallen into the trap of diminishing their weight because of their informal context — an attitude that belies why I create in the first place. I create not to climb a social ladder, but because creative expression is inherent to my lived experience, a natural bridge between myself and others.
From this angle, it doesn't torment me that my work's visibility is at the mercy of social media algorithms.
So many times, I've poured my inner world into a piece, only for it to last a heartbeat in the vortex of social media. So many times, I've chosen to interpret this as a sign that what I created wasn't good enough.
As an independent creative, defining "enough" used to be simple. Then in 2020, I launched a Patreon to generate income from my work. As people subscribed, I felt a growing sense of obligation to maximize my creative output. I began to feel crushed by self-inflicted pressure to ensure that, month to month, people's investment in my creative career was "worth it."
Fast forward to 2022, I approach Patreon as a tip jar, not transactionally. I've come to trust that others' support of my work isn't conditional upon a certain amount of content. However much I create is always enough; Patreon is a simply way for people to say that the things I've shared are meaningful to them.
2. My creative inspiration will run dry.
At different points since graduating, I've feared that my creative inspiration depends upon instability, being in my early 20s, not working full-time, being single, and even sadness.
These fears seem ludicrous, but it's true that I've looked back — in 2021, my strongest pieces were written during (to escape from) a season of internal devastation — and associated my creativity with certain difficult experiences.
On the verge of leaving those experiences behind, I wondered if I was closing a door to what enabled me to write so prolifically. I've wondered if I'll ever write "the way I used to" — especially when weeks pass without any impulse to write.
Inspired by other creatives, I've grown to think of creativity as a matter of time — not in an extractive or linear sense, but in seasons that vary freely in length & activity. I'm beginning to trust that the inspiration to create comes & goes on its own timeline.
Some seasons, words seem to fall straight from the sky. Other seasons, I have nothing to say. But far from something to be ashamed of, dry spells are inherent to the creative process, what people call ebb & flow.
"I'm not sure artists/writers are meant to produce & distribute regular creative content two times a week to optimize audience growth & retention. This isn't how making good art works... It is how a media business works. I'm afraid we've conflated the two" ~ Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator & journalist
3. My creative work is selfish, therefore inconsequential.
Two creative projects I admire are:
Caretakers (2021), a documentary series by writer, director, & trans advocate Geena Rocero on Filipino nurses & care workers in the US.
I love how these projects take the unseen, essential labor of care & bring it to the level of visibility enjoyed by the arts. They bridge the gap between what is bodily, mundane, yet intimately human, and what we aestheticize & elevate as "art."
In both cases, art is used to center often marginalized people on whose labor society depends. Like migrant healthcare workers. Like mothers.
When I compare these artists to myself, I experience guilt for using my creative platform only to center myself. For now, here's how I've chosen to reframe this:
My creative work — having the audacity to express myself publicly — is not only a reflection of myself, but a tribute to the stability my parents provided for me — no small feat for immigrants raising a large family.
Chances are, if I had grown up amid instability & scarcity, I'd spend my young-adult life pursuing stability, rather than exploring the possibilities opened by it.
So while my parents may not love my career choices (nor my sacrifice of certain notions of respectability), I hope they feel pride & some sense of ownership over anything admirable about my work as a creative.
Lastly, I'm reworking the shame of being selfish into a deeper sensitivity to the bravery & generosity it takes to be vulnerable through words & music — to insist upon giving my work a platform, when no institution has authorized me to do so.
As a creative, I’ve taken on the pressure to divulge my inner world — sometimes emptying myself, baring myself — for the sake of connection, not renown. This shatters the illusion that creative work is purely selfish, and translates long seasons of rest into necessary self-care.