Insecurity is a gift!
An end-of-2022 reminder from the photographer Sally Mann (and me)
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.
Researching the careers of famous writers and artists—a longtime hobby of mine that has become, unexpectedly and delightfully, the center of my professional life—one encounters a lot of ego, determination, bravado, and chutzpah. As much as I enjoy these stories, I also find them dispiriting. The supremely self-confident artist or thinker who is determined to press her ideas onto the world regardless of the world’s willingness to receive them—that is not me. And I have often wondered if lacking that kind of nerve is a fatal handicap for someone who hopes to make a career as an independent writer. I mean, if I received a letter like the one Sally Mann describes, I would burn it, tell no one, and pray that the Harvard professor never contact me again.
At the same time, though, my favorite works of art are palpably rooted in feelings of doubt and uncertainty—and they were, inevitably, realized only after long periods of trial and error (and error and error). So I know at some level that insecurity is not a handicap at all but an advantage, or at least something that can be converted into an advantage.I just need to be reminded of it periodically, and I’m grateful to Mann for doing so in a way that feels authentic. It’s because she admits that it’s excruciating that I trust her and believe her.
At this point you may be wondering how Mann’s Massey lectures actually went. Did she survive delivering them in 2011? In her memoir, she doesn’t say—because the lectures themselves end up being beside the point. It’s the invitation to speak at Harvard that prompts her to examine the boxes of family artifacts stored in her attic, which leads to the writing of the memoir itself—a wonderful end result of that initial “spasm of self-doubt and fear.”
SPEAKING OF GIFTS . . .
As you do your holiday shopping this year, may I humbly suggest my two Daily Rituals books as gift options for the writers, artists, musicians, and performers in your life? In them, I compiled stories about how more than 300 brilliant minds tackled their daily work, and I do genuinely think they’re useful sourcebooks for creative people trying to figure out how to best channel their limited time and energy.
Thanks for reading! And, finally, please accept special holiday greetings from Uno the dog, unofficial newsletter mascot and editorial assistant par excellence 🥰