Welcome to the 105th issue of Subtle Maneuvers, my fortnightly newsletter on wriggling through a creative life. Please note: I’m taking the next four weeks off, returning to your inboxes January 9th. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can become one here:
Sally Mann (b. 1951)
In the prologue to her 2015 memoir Hold Still, the photographer Sally Mann writes about receiving, in 2008, a very unexpected invitation: A Harvard professor, John Stauffer, had written to ask Mann to deliver the Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization, beginning on her sixtieth birthday in May 2011. Mann greeted this news with shock, disbelief, and dread. As she saw it, there was no way she could reasonably decline—and yet what business did she, a photographer, have delivering a series of three scholarly lectures on the history of American civilization?
With trepidation, Mann called up the Harvard professor to ask about the parameters of these lectures. Could she speak about her own photography career—and not just her controversial family pictures from the early 1990s but her later work as well? The professor’s answer: “anything, speak about anything you want.”
Oppressed by this indulgence and uncertain how to proceed, I went into a spasm of self-doubt and fear so incapacitating that it was nearly a year before I told Stauffer I’d do it. And then, as often happens to me, the self-doubt that had dammed up so much behind its seemingly impermeable wall allowed the first trickles of hope and optimism to seep out, and through the widening crack possibility flooded forth. Insecurity, for an artist, can ultimately be a gift, albeit an excruciating one.
I can’t tell you how comforting that paragraph, and especially that last sentence, has been for me. I first read it a few years ago, while researching my second Daily Rituals book, and I read it again while thinking about my recent series on creative blocks. Insecurity is a gift! I really want to believe it’s true—and I think it is.