“I Feel Nauseous Doing This.”
first published February 6th 2019
I was coaching someone who experiences waves of nausea while making work. He’s hard working, dynamic, and persistent; and he has continued to push forward in a creative career that, for the majority, is frustratingly short of external rewards. However, he continues to make the work, he finds new outlets, gets sales, comes up with new strategies, and keeps going. Part of me feels admiration, and a wish that I could be so pro-active and dynamic within my own career. But I don’t envy him his relentless nausea. I’m not a stranger to feeling sick when faced with certain aspects of promoting my work and negotiating sales, the necessary, non-autotelic stuff that comes with working as an artist. I’ve found ways of reducing anxiety within those areas; and I’m ok-ish with that side of it now, much more of the time. In fact I thoroughly enjoyed the last couple of private views, despite the fact that on the way to them, my husband and daughter had to call on their deepest reserves of tolerance. And when I wrote about learning to see anxiety as a friend that nudged me to make changes and ask for help when it was needed, it seemed to resonate with a good few people. But nausea while painting? My vocation? Well, actually, yes, I’ve felt queasy while painting. I’ve noticed three types of situation where it occurs. The first is in starting, and the longer the gap between painting sessions, the more difficult the transition. It’s good old-fashioned Resistance, written about so eloquently by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, and by many other writers describing their creative process. It’s the feeling that I would rather do anything else than start painting. Even a pile of ironing can begin to have a certain appeal. And many artists and writers will do anything else rather than start work; I’ve known many who just stopped, and couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t start again. Some of those I’ve spoken to feel shame and confusion around it; there’s a belief that it shouldn’t be so difficult. It should be a small and unimportant issue but it feels big. It shouldn’t matter but it nags and hurts. So, for me, the advice often read, to do a little every day, isn’t about having a pressured work ethic; it’s about preventing a build up of resistance. There are times when either unavoidable or avoidable distractions get in the way of the daily habit, and after those breaks, I find myself facing extra resistance, often accompanied by nausea. Relief comes when nausea yields to sleepiness, and I recognise that my small controlling mind is at last preparing to yield to the bigger self/not-self that sees better. Nausea lets me know that I’ve ingested something that disagrees with me; perhaps even an idea – maybe the idea that I am nothing more than my small controlling mind. It takes time to get any toxin out of my system. To help the process along I usually write out the conceptual ones, the foolish stories I have been telling myself, in my studio journal – I have about forty years of notebooks each continuing an on-going whine about how I can’t paint. Which is going to read as somewhat negative and one sided, but obviously, during the times when I’m in blissful flow and painting my heart out, I’m not simultaneously writing about it in the journal. Just mentioning this, in case I pass away suddenly, and my nearest and dearest are shocked at the miserable, self-pitying wretchedness of those notebooks. As an added precaution, I have taken to adding an occasional end of session note saying things like, “the orange seems to be working out and I quite like the Prussian blue stripe.” Another thing that I’ve tried in an attempt to avoid nauseous discomfort, is to leave a painting session with a clear idea of the next change I intend to make, writing it down, and hoping that carrying through that one act at the start of the next day will lead seamlessly to the next mark. Sometimes it helps, if in the process of making those changes, my seeing wakes up. But the benefit of a regular practice, is that the small controlling mind gets less threatened by having to yield to the bigger self/not-self once it sees that it’s a regular occurrence that doesn’t actually mean that its controlling and obnoxious little self has to die. And I get to stop thinking about myself as one self or the other, but remember more often that I’m both or more. Years ago, I often felt nauseous when looking at the first hideous marks made on a new canvas. Did I really produce something so revolting? Back then, this filled me with anguish and shame. I feared someone coming to my door and seeing the ghastly thing. But I’ve got kind of used to the initial vileness, and quite like the challenge of trying to make something worthwhile out of something repulsive. Fighting it, coaxing it, squinting at it until I see just the tiniest hint of a possibility. Shameless. There’s another situation in which I’ve experienced nausea. While I’m painting, when I’m not sure where I’m going or what to do next, as I look and look and analyse and try to find a direction or solution, I can suddenly find myself getting a bit queasy. Although it’s not intense, it can be disruptive, and make it difficult to continue. I mentioned it to someone helpful, who said matter of factly, “you’re pushing too hard.” And that’s what it was. I watched for the next time it happened, and I backed off. Gave it space. It eased the process of the painting, as I didn’t force a solution (from the small controlling mind!) that I later had to undo. Yup, patience is not one of my virtues. But I’m learning. And I thought of the person I’d been coaching, the one who gets nauseous, and I recognised that he too doesn’t suffer from an excess of patience. The sudden switches of sensation, thoughts and feelings that can occur within the creative process are truly bizarre, and we make ourselves ill when we gave them authority and agency in our lives; “It’s over, I can’t do this, I feel sick, I'll never paint again,” can transform into “I love this, I feel madly in love, painting is all I ever want to do,” in a moment. The nature of the creative process means being over sensitive on the one hand – how else will I know I need to change that shape, colour or word if it doesn’t make me flinch? It means being alive to subtleties, wincing at a cliché; recoiling from a badly drawn leg that’s been shrunk to fit on the page; tensing at a bum note. And so we also need to develop strength and stability, and to have a sense of who we are, recognising that we are not our feelings, thoughts and senses, but that these are part of our glorious vocabulary, our palette or our musical scale, filled with possibilities. Even nausea.