On Value and Being Seen

Tara Brach

Longtime reader Sarah asked in the comments on my post about Edith Pearlman if I could share my thoughts on how I skate the inevitable line of doing work for work sake and doing work to be seen.  To which I say:

Oh boy–how much time do you have?

Every artist I know struggles with this dynamic–don’t you?  Isn’t this at the very core of wanting a life in the arts?  You have something to say and don’t you want someone to hear it/see it?  This seems like a very simple idea, though we know it is not.  The minute someone DOES hear/see/notice your work is when things get really FUNKY.  For me, it has been thrilling.  It has been thrilling and then addictive and then anxiety producing and at times even debilitating.  I went through a period this spring where I got some first inklings of attention for my comics and it freaked me out.  It freaked me out so much that I started to get anxiety attacks every time I tried to make a comic. What had just weeks before been something deeply satisfying and simple to me now became something I HAD TO DO OR I WAS GOING TO LOSE LOSE LOSE.  Eventually, I found my footing and this is what I’ve learned only in the last year:

Attention is not the same thing as being valued and ultimately I want to be valued.  Attention is easy to get (especially now with the internet), but it’s also fleeting, mercurial, and a cheap high that can leave you crazy with longing.  Being valued is a deeper long term project. I spent a long time mistaking attention for being valued.  I still forget they are not the same thing and can get stymied and caught up in desires for attention.  Attention depends solely on numbers of outside people and their momentary opinions.  The internet is based on an attention economy and so no wonder we crave attention.  But attention doesn’t pay–in money or in the long run of life.  Value on the other hand is about respect, a sense of trust, and a deep commitment between the artist, the art, and whoever else values art.  Attention does not require self-respect or commitment.  In order to be valued, you have to value yourself.

After I came home from SPX in September, I felt crazy with vulnerability at meeting the comics world for the first time.  I had handed out my comic to people I didn’t know, and who had been at this comic game for longer than me.  I met many people I had long admired and felt I had a kinship with them through their work–only to discover that I was one of MANY people who felt a kinship with them. I had a ton of conflicted feelings of longing and jealousy and all that STUFF that comes up in a place of artistic desire.  Finally I stopped and just asked myself the simple question: What is it that I REALLY want to do in comics?  This is what I wrote:

1. To tell the stories that are inside me.

2. To set them free by publishing them.

3. To be a friend, colleague, and peer in the comics community.

The minute I wrote that down all that ego shit and worry dissolved.   Here’s the thing: I don’t make comics to get attention.  I make them because I have stories inside me that are dying to get out.  I don’t publish to get attention.  I publish to throw my hat in the ring, to be PART of something I love and value. Attention is always just about ME.  Value is about something bigger–a larger effort that I want to be PART of.

So to answer the question directly–my work (meaning my personal work and not commissioned or illustration work) is always for work sake–if it hits a chord with someone outside of me, I am very very fortunate.  The minute I try to make something with an audience in mind, I am in attention seeking mode.  If it doesn’t affect my effort then, it will bite me in the ass after it’s out.

I am lucky that I am older and have a child, which means I don’t have nearly enough time to do everything I could have done as a younger and childless person.  I say “lucky” because I am forced every day to choose consciously what I am going to work on due to time and energy constraints.  This is a blessing for someone who lost years “getting ready” for my “real” work and who was desperate to please people and their ideas.  I used to hop-to whenever someone asked me to “contribute” a specific piece somewhere, but unless it is something I am already doing and/or it is a paid commission, I have learned to say no.  I am my only unpaying client (and also my favorite client), so I have to constantly prioritize my work.  I constantly have to ask: if I was to die tomorrow would I want to make this?  In this way, I both value my time and my effort.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE ATTENTION, but paying attention to rates of attention has costs that I can’t ultimately afford.  It has taken me 20 years and several attempts at various artistic careers (not to mention two books published) to learn this.  I forget this all the time, but the minute I remember it I’m home.

82 thoughts on “On Value and Being Seen

  1. Wow! You sure nailed the “getting attention” vs. “wanting to be valued” conundrum. I agree with you – ohhh- say, 220% . . . A graphic design career and five kids later, I’m on my 12th year of “retiring sideways” into watercolor & mixed media. I enjoy my life so much more now that I work for my own “self” and not always deadline clients. I still teach, enter watercolor events, and love family time. But I will now always ask myself if the art part is for attention or to be valued. Thanks so much.
    – Marla

  2. ” I LOVE ATTENTION, but paying attention to rates of attention has costs that I can’t ultimately afford.” – so true!! This is valuable advice for anyone in creative fields. Love!

  3. Over the past two years I am coming to the same realisation, though I haven’t managed to nail it down in the same way you have. Thank you for the amazing post and good luck with your comics.

  4. Being valued is something we receive from people who know how to value.

    Attention is something we receive from people who haven’t stopped long enough to engage, ponder, reflect, respond; from people who haven’t developed the capability of finding value.

    I think your tactic for dealing with those conflicted feelings, ie honestly answering the question “What is it that I REALLY want to do in comics?”, is a worthwhile and valuable approach that would cut through these dilemmas for many of us.

    I would love to stop looking daily at the Stats page of my blog. Perhaps an extra tactic for me to reduce an infernal internal focus on attention receiving will be to check the Stats page only once a week, or even once a fortnight?!

    Cool post. Well done.

  5. I can relate to this so well, as an athlete where “attention” is also a commodity that often needs to be demonstrated for the sake of finance and opportunity. Thanks for showing me i’m not the only one who feels uneasy about it.

  6. Does this strike a chord with most artists, or most people? I think it certainly does. I think you’re right, we all want to be valued. I think that’s a fundamental desire, it’s normal. Sometimes it’s confused with narcissism, but shy people need acknowledgement too, and it is often those who are the most interesting or creative in their own way. I found your article all the more interesting as I have just published my own on a similar topic here (http://t.co/AF45NpABVf), and how in our current materialistic society, narcissism may just be a reaction to our inherent need to feel valued, or as an equal member of the community. Thanks for posting 🙂

  7. Thanks. I think I really needed to read this. It comes at a time in which I wonder myself where life will lead me and what I am going to make of it. While reading your post, I’ve realised that attention seeking has been one thing that I’ve attempted to do rather than seeking the value in my work and myself. And yet that is what I am craving the most.

  8. Love this. I very recently had to deal with this very same situation….almost losing a friend in the process! You absolutely understand and explained this issue perfectly. Value and respect are harder to attain but so much more rewarding and long lasting. I hope to gain both at some point in my life. Great job!

  9. Thank you very much for this wonderful article. It was kind of funny as I read through, because earlier today, I prepared a draft poem scheduled to be published today in about 19.00 (Nigeria time). It is titled “Of Being liked” and the very feelings associated with wanting to get attention. Though I’m going to publish it anyway, I agree with the opinion shared here. I want to choose value over attention. Attention can be fleeting. Being valued is priceless. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  10. This: “I spent a long time mistaking attention for being valued.” Yes yes yes! As a blogging newbie I notice I’m overly obsessed with my stats page, taking every ‘like’ too seriously and feeling all angsty that not enough people are ‘following’ me!

    I love how you formulated your mission by asking yourself the question, “What do I really want to do…” I also appreciate that you shared your fear of success. Thanks for an insightful post!

  11. Insightful and wise words.

    As a social being the human need to feel valued by others and to be a part of a community (family) is very real, but as you say, to value oneself first is the key to a quality of life that can come from no other. We get so much lip service to that concept, yet are oppositely conditioned to collect external markers to prove our worth.

    As I was reading I immediately correlated the age old discussion about confusing sex for love.

    Eloquent post. It’s worth reading again and again.

  12. This captures my struggles too but as I entered the new year, I made a conscious decision not to place value on my works and by extension on myself based on the attention I get or not.

    I alone am who decides how much I’m worth and not by the accolades or It’s lack thereof. Since taking that decision I have not been worried about how many people read my works or how many people rave about it.

    Writing for me is something I love, and it wouldn’t change whether people like what I right or not. I forgot this for a while and I was craving for attention so much that it hurts when I don’t get the praise and viewership I desire..

    But I remember now.. and I was nodding my head while reading your article.

  13. Oh, you’ve so pegged it. As a consumer/reader/viewer, the wise among us can tell when something was done from the heart with a message and when it was done for cheap success. Don’t get me wrong–love success–but not when it’s manufactured. Wonderful reminder for those of us who write, draw, ‘toon and otherwise put ourselves out there.

  14. I love the last sentence.
    sometimes we pass by the most important things just to get attention from persons that don’t mean anything to us, without noticing the full warm hearted attention from the important people.

  15. ” 1. To tell the stories that are inside me.
    2. To set them free by publishing them.
    3. To be a friend, colleague, and peer in the comics community.”

    I thought that was an amazing way to sum up a respectable perspective and ultimately all that I want in a writing career. I just got wordpress today and this is the first article I’ve read. Love it!

  16. I am just beginning to write and what you describe is what I want to emulate. I’m still at the point where the stories inside me are there but I don’t know how to translate but this post gives me hope:) Thanks!

  17. Thanks so much for your insightful comments on attention vs. being valued. So many times people mistake the two, and you have described very clearly the difference. I am going to remember this each time I sit down to write.

  18. At some point in time we have to stop trying to please everyone else, especially when pleasing others means sacrificing ourselves. We cant quit silencing our thoughts for the sake of pleasing everyone else but we cant always groom and polish them for the sake of getting attention or respect!

  19. Exceptionally well put. I will be following from now on! Thank you for this. I, too, am on time & energy restraints due to having small children and am also learning to be particular with my work.

  20. Beautifully written. You have summed this up perfectly. Most, if not all of what I write about is really for me because I have to get it out on to paper. If someone else likes it or takes something away from it, well then thats just a bonus.

  21. Fantastic. Being valued – being a part of something – really is so easy to forget in this world. I’m just starting out, and it’s so overwhelming sometimes trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. This post has me back on track. Thanks

  22. My answer to the anxiety is beer. I love it, enjoy it, and it loosens my attention and fantasies so I’m able to work on my ideas then. I used to smoke some pot as well, but then I started having headaches, which was not really helpful to my work as an artist. What is important is that I believe your story, and I believe that it gives you this ultimate satisfaction we all seek. Being a good guy is always a big plus, especially when you realize how many people are obsessed with the idea of money and fame.

  23. My first day at blogging and the first blog i see is yours. Really cleared my doubts and got me onto the right way. I will write for the reason i write. Not for fame. Thanks again

  24. This is what I am already struggling with as a newer blogger. Sometimes it’s even hard to decide personally what I’m writing for public opinion and what I’m writing because of passion. Ultimately, I agree that it is much better to be valued than have a bunch of attention, but obviously, it would be awesome to have the best of both worlds!

    Anyway, thank you for the insightful post. I think this first month in blogging I am going to focus every ounce of my energy on not being fearful of writing against popular opinion and instead writing from the heart.

  25. Reblogged this on linda lou and commented:
    I want to tell my stories. I have a passionate creative place too. I feel jealous that her can write so many words without getting tired.
    I can only keep exercizing my literary muscle and hope I can gain enough strength in writing to finish my ideas.

  26. I like the way you distinguished getting attention versus being valued. I can relate to what you said about creating because you have stories dying to get out. Love this post. Very insightful. 🙂

  27. Reblogged this on Saltworkstudio and commented:
    This is an amazing blog by the extremely perceptive Summer Pierre. Her “three reasons” were a gift to me that helped clarify why I am an artist. Her notes on commissions, pleasing others, and the Internet are invaluable. This was republished by WordPress in freshly pressed and recieved a lot of well-deserved attention. Enjoy.

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