art

Envy in the arts (and how to get over ourselves).

envy arts green jealousy flower

When I was seven, I wanted to kill my friend, Jeannie Stevens. Every year, our local supermarket sponsored an Easter-themed coloring contest with the hotly-desired prize of a giant Easter basket filled chock-a-block with glistening jelly beans, epic chocolate bunnies, and pillowy marshmallow Peeps.

As serious as a heart attack — I’d take out 48 crayons and, zen-like, shade and color the black outlined Easter scene to waxy Crayola perfection, this time sure of winning.

The entries papered the store by the thousands like an explosion of Buddhist prayer flags, yet every year, inexplicably, unfairly, tragically, classmate Jeannie Stevens won the contest and the grand prize basket. This annual travesty persisted, though I was sure my coloring was as good as hers.

Thomas Aquinas’ description of envy as “sorrow for another’s good” did not even begin to describe the toxic bile I internally spewed at having lost, yet again. I wished Jeannie nothing but eventual capitulation and annihilation — and she was my friend!

I would like to say my envy has been conquered in adulthood, but that wouldn’t be true. I flinch when a fellow singer (usually female) gets to play a desired venue and critique her performance, adding up what I possess that might be better than she. I obsess over festivals and clubs not booked and seethe about the method and politics involved in the choosing of acts. I’ve often said bitterly (in my head)

“Who do ya’ gotta know in this town to get a gig at …”

If you have never had that sour metallic taste in your mouth as another enjoyed success, advantage, acclaim, reward or publicity in your creative field, congrats and all that (barf). You can stop reading here and wish your fellow Miss America contestants the best of luck as you maintain your Vaseline smile and clutch your Miss Congeniality trophy.

For the rest of us flat-footed Hobbits, envy is a familiar, if not often admitted emotion. In fact, evolutionary scientists believe it’s a natural condition with hard-wired roots. Envy is a tool to evaluate our rank in the competition for resources. It helped our cavemen ancestors — and now us — know when to hit the gas and try harder for the goods.

But, let’s face it. Envy is ugly — one reason we deny it and pretend we’re above it. In fact, Evolutionary psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss cite research that we respond to envy with either ambition (I’ll show them!), submission (withdrawal, white flag, denial — it didn’t matter anyway), or destruction (@Jeannie Stevens). None of these strategies are particularly noble or empowering.

Maybe there is another way. In a search to better handle my still-operating envy and jealousy over other’s successes, I interviewed painters, singers, musicians, actors who admitted to not always being able to quiet the five year-olds inside them caterwauling “what about meeee?!?” — brave souls willing to cop to envy, but also share creative methods of coping and thriving with this very human emotion.

Reach higher.
Often, we’re most envious of those who are similar to us – our artist friends and acquaintances. This can poison a relationship but also limit our prospects and vision. Opening our eyes to world-class artists helps us to attain greater heights and exit the local rat race. Painter Phil Durgan doesn’t waste his time envying his peers their success: “I've only envied trailblazers (Duchamp, Picasso, Basquiat) because they discovered something before I did. Hats off to them! Because they, too, envied someone else.”

Believe in your own path.
When you have discovered your mission, you will not have time nor reason to focus on someone else’s. Actor and singer Kerrykate Abel states it this way: “The older I get, the more I realize how individual everyone’s creative path is. While it is true that sometimes it does seem that some people have more opportunities than others, it all evens out, and I am a firm believer in creating your own destiny and opportunities. If you want what someone else has, go out and make it happen — the only thing standing in the way is you!”

Work Harder.
As an adolescent and sometimes an adult, I’d respond to hearing a better singer by either criticizing them or taking myself out of the competition. Now, after reflection, I head to the basement and practice — my only competition being the voice that needs to improve – my own. The opportunities seem to grow in direct proportion to the amount of work I put in, or, as Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Learn from it.
Instead of blaming the process of selection, denigrating the actor she lost out to or avoiding the play she didn’t get cast in, Actor Loraine O'Donnell studies her own process: “When I don't get a part, I look back to see if there was something I could have improved on, learn from it and move on. Quite often not getting the part will light a fire under you creatively and actually help you to become a better artist.”

Actor Peter Michael Marino uses a similar approach when witnessing a superior performance: “I usually just try and figure out why someone in my field is doing better as opposed to resenting them for doing well.”

Josie DiVincenzo, also an actor, is refreshingly honest with her struggles with jealousy, wondering, “What's wrong with me that I didn't get the thing the other person did? Or, I get angry at the people choosing, thinking it's not fair that they favor that other person, and also wonder what magic or trick or ‘je ne sais quoi’ that person has that I don't have, LOL.” But, Josie ultimately derives insight from her feelings: “In the end, I always realize it's my internal work I must do to not hang my happiness or blame on someone else's choices or life.”

Count your blessings. When we are faced with another’s success it’s easy to forget our own creative wins — the phenomena of “what have you done for me lately?” Actor Peter Palmisano responds to envy by telling himself to “Stop being an asshole and forget it. I already consider myself to be very lucky in my ‘career,’ so I have no business being jealous of anyone else‘s success.”

Embrace your own bad self.
Like a beach ball forced under water, repressed envy can pop up and hit us in the face.  Accepting our emotions may be the fastest way to process through them. Pianist Michael McNeill freely admits his own struggles with envy: “I stew. Then I remind myself that I'm on my own musical path, and while the things we commonly associate with success can be helpful in developing one's music, the music comes first, and I can keep making my music without outward signs of success. But sometimes I still stew even after that.”

And if all else fails …

Ponder your mortality.
The Buddhists are big on picturing their dead and decaying bodies while meditating. Pretty grim, but it puts petty concerns like fame into perspective. Or, if you prefer, a gentler take from the Bible:

People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.
~ 1 Peter 1:24

In the bigger view, what we do here on earth is not nearly as important as it often seems and fades with stunning swiftness.

As I did when I was seven (and sometimes even now), we can allow envy to sour our souls and alienate us from our fellow artists, or we can let it be our signal to work harder, love more and let go of our self-importance. 

I’m still working on it.

Rockin’ this nose. The one I was born with.

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He meant well. “Have you ever considered a nose job?” He said it with great delicacy and care, feeling it would improve my chances of succeeding in bigger market cities as a jazz singer. My response was measured, “I hadn’t considered it, but wouldn’t rule it out.” He went on to share the long list of performers he knew that had, including himself. “Why do you think I look so young?" I had to admit, for his age, he did look good.

I have my beloved father’s nose — a German-Irish nose, a not-small nose that shows no sign of shrinking with age. It never bothered me. Or, hadn’t — until now.

I am 51 years old. Many of those years were spent in self-loathing and holding myself up to unattainable, model-like standards. I had a love-hate relationship with my body and it held me hostage from doing the thing I loved the most — singing jazz, instead, spending 12 years as a folk singer, a safe place where an ugly duckling like myself could hide. It was only after a painful divorce that I learned to embrace and love my form in all its glory, with all its flaws. And three years ago, I switched from singing original folk music to jazz — finally feeling sexy and confident enough to get out from behind the guitar and sing the music I was born to sing.

Last January I quit my pleasant, secure day job to become a full-time singer. In addition to the loss of a respectable income and benefits, I have paid a very high price to make this change; I take voice lessons from two coaches, work weekly with a pianist/arranger to build my repertoire, read books on music, study classic recordings and sing for hours in the basement, car and bathroom. Each and every gig is widely promoted with e-mail, Facebook, posters and press releases. On some gigs I compensate my musicians from my own pocket — just for the exposure. Maybe this nose suggestion could be filed in the “price I have to pay” column.

The doctor was highly regarded. He answered every question with intelligence and thoughtfulness. By his reckoning, he had performed more rhinoplasties than anyone in the area. I knew one of his patients, and his work was subtle and attractive. He did not overpromise. This was the guy.

I recently attended a benefit that featured a number of vocal acts from New York City. All of them were smooth and polished — most were beautiful, svelte and dewy-fresh. They had stage presence and some had great patter, astounding ranges and vocal clarity. And, while I enjoyed their performances and derived many good tips, the biggest treat of the night came from an outlyer.

He was the opening act bandleader — a well-known, local horn player. This man is not conventionally attractive. He weighs well over 300 lbs. and is around 60 years old. As a lark, he presented a song. He moved slowly and painfully, and got up. Then he sang Little Girl Blue
with pathos — his voice soaring to a glorious falsetto, in turn brassy and bold, then dropping to an intimate, paper-thin whisper. “Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue." I was stunned. I could not close my mouth or stop smiling. That night, he was the sexiest man on the stage and it was his performance that stayed with me the most.

As I lay in bed that night reviewing the performances, I began to think of why I loved my favorite vocalists: Jeri Southern, an obscure singer from the 50’s, touches me with intimate vocals and vulnerability; Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn impresses with truth and musicianship; Holly Cole, a jazz singer from Toronto, amazes with originality and focus; Alison Krauss draws with silvery timbre and musicality; Ella exudes warmth, precision and tone; kd lang explodes with power and dynamic range; Mel Tormé seduces with smooth style and phrasing; Jane Monheit commands respect by overall mastery, song selection and interpretation.

Compiling the list, I realized not one of them was a conventional beauty. More important, as a fan, their looks were something I never once considered, loving them instead for their artistry, humanity and talent. I respect their work ethic, dogged attention to detail and professionalism and admire their bravery and creativity.

I do not think about their noses.

If I don’t succeed as a jazz singer, I suspect it will be because I got tired from the immense amount of work it takes to be great with so little initial return. Or, it will be the drain of preparing books and setting up sound equipment, or lack of venues for serious jazz. Possibly it will be the ridiculous amount of work it takes to promote a gig and get a crowd, or living in a small market city. Or, a creative block, beyond which I can’t go.

I don’t think it will be about my nose.

Monday morning, I’ll call the good nose doctor and cancel my pre-op appointment. And then, like most days, I’ll go down to the basement, open my book of tunes, and start working — hard.

 

Getting to “no.” How embracing rejection can set you free.

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20 press kits had been sliding around in the back seat of my car for weeks. Knowing I should drop them off at bars and restaurants, instead, paralyzed — unable to walk in the door and “cold-call.” My winter depression was seriously kicking in, and all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and forget this pipe dream of being a jazz singer.

I had been singing as a hobby my whole life, first in high school, then in a rock band and in mid-life as an acoustic singer-songwriter, producing two CDs of original music. I studied voice for years under wonderful classical teachers, then switched to jazz, found an arranger/pianist, chose a repertoire, hired a vocal and acting coach and had charts written for over 50 songs in my key. It was my dream to go professional, and I was stalled at the starting line.

To intensify the pressure, I broke the 11th commandment and “quit my day job,” announced grand intentions to anyone who would listen, and, at the age of 50, risked failing publicly and quite spectacularly. I felt as crazy as it sounded.

One day, my sister Linda called, and immediately sensed my malaise. “What’s going on? You sound really low.” It was no use hiding from her. She grew up observing my moods, tracking my triumphs and failures, and could read my voice in a nanosecond. I described my inertia with the press kits, which she airily summed up in one succinct phrase: “You’re afraid of rejection.”

Was it that simple? Was I just afraid of rejection? And, did success lie on the other side of hearing a lot of no’s? As it turns out … it did. 

Linda’s offhand comment kicked me into gear. I gave myself a goal of delivering the kits to 20 restaurants or bars, including the many Wegmans Market cafés in Western New York. It took about two weeks, and I did get a lot of no’s – quizzical, stressed-out bar and restaurant owners fielding yet another unfamiliar musician who wanted to play their establishment and drain their thin resources. But I remained cheerful, upbeat, and optimistic as I collected my rejections, “maybes” and “we’ll sees.”

Two weeks after the press kit drop, my gig calendar was still empty as I headed off to Pennsylvania to help out in a family emergency. Halfway there, I got a call from one of the Market cafés. Would I like to play the Alberta Drive Wegmans on May 25th? Two days later; another Wegmans. Soon after that, an art opening, then a birthday party at a private club, three benefits and two more Wegmans. It was happening, and no one was more surprised than me.

There is a new game out called Rejection Therapy. The Game

The game has one rule:

You must be rejected by another person at least once, every single day. In this game, rejection is success. You actually collect rejections to win. Terrifying.

In my old life, I avoided rejection like poison ivy. I gravitated to fields I knew well, was talented in, that ensured, if not easy, at least eventual success. Jazz was a journey for which there was no road map. And like jazz, it required improvising.

Embracing rejection is still a powerful piece in the puzzle of seriously following my passion and believing in my art. So, I tirelessly promote and connect with club owners, and those who know club owners. Some call me back, some don’t.

I apply to every festival this area offers and haven’t heard back from any of them yet; however, rejection has become, if not a friend, a fellow traveler on this journey to deep career satisfaction.

And lately, he’s been a little quiet.

An artist’s prayer.

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Dear Creator,

Allow me to make art with integrity, using my own voice. It’s the only one I really know anyway.

Give me patience that my art will find its audience, however big or small. One enthusiastic fan is worth a large, indifferent crowd.

Help me let go of my creations without expecting return. I’ll produce the quantity — you can be in charge of the quality and distribution.

Remind me to encourage other artists — young, brilliant artists. In this way, my art multiplies without me doing much work.

Allow me to be generous. Supporting and giving praise to other artists does not diminish my gift in the least.

Keep me from making comparisons. They foster jealousy and superiority — both places I do not want to live.

When I wonder if it’s worth it, help me remember, you too are a creator and want to see my gift flourish and heal others.

Let me know that shame has no place in my art. Give me the courage be outrageous, exuberant and tell the truth in the face of fear.

Assist my taking chances and risks. I know you hold the net.

Give me the courage to keep working in the face of discouragement, indifference and failure. They are to be expected when I take chances and try something new.

Surround me with trusted, encouraging voices. Let me be that for them.

When I am tempted to think too much of myself, I get nervous. Let me remember that sharing my art is a gift. In the end, it is about the receiver, not me.

Help me do the work today — it’ll pave the road for my success tomorrow.

Oh, and don’t let me forget the fun. Sometimes I get so grimly focused on end results, that I forget to play with this gift you gave me. Thanks!

Note: Thanks to Julia Cameron for the concept of quantity and quality from “The Artist’s Way.”