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Dark night of the soul

If I hear myself say one more time, “It was a great learning experience,” I’m going to wash my own mouth out with soap. Or my salty tears. Or my signature drink (if I had one).

I’m being melodramatic. I did sell some of my fine art photography at last month’s big time, three-day, out-of-state art festival and made a real connection with a potential collector. And yes, I did learn a lot. It’s just that for the first time since I joined the art festival circuit about 20 months ago, my expectations greatly exceeded reality rather than the other way around.

While I’ve had high hopes and low moments at other festivals, this one was different. It had massive potential to expose my work to a completely new market. It had a reputation for being a real money-maker. Festival organizers were second-to-none, and their marketing budget seemed endless. One of my photographs earned a place in the festival’s exclusive fine art gallery.

This is it, I thought. Time to soar.

By the middle of Day Two, other artisans were beginning to ask me and each other if we’d ever do this show again. That’s a euphemism for, “This show sucks for me; how about you?”

In previous shows, I’d smile and say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” or “It’s a little too early to tell,” and more often than not, that proved to be true. But this time I just wasn’t feeling it. “It was a long way to come to break even,” I sighed. By the end of Day Three, that’s about what happened.

Returning home felt like a retreat. Some wallowing may or may not have happened, but I will admit to the pie consumption. Between bites, I shared my malaise with my multitasking marvel of a friend, Kim Packard, a communications executive, fitness beast and published author.

“Sounds like you’ve just had a Dark Night of the Soul,” she said.

Sounds to me like a Tell Me More moment. So, she did.

“There’s a saying that every story has been told,” said Kim. “Like every house is built with the same fundamentals — foundation, piping, framing, doors — every story shares this same basic architecture with every other story. This has been true for 2,000 years, and the reason this structure persists is that every story follows the human story.”

Wow. This sounds a lot bigger than one festival. Let’s take a step back and see how prototypical I am by overlaying Kim’s story architecture with my artistic journey. Maybe you’d like to play along with your story, too.

The Inciting Incident

Kim: The call to action that gets our hero out of her comfort zone, but it’s something from which she can’t turn back. It’s the moment that changes everything.

Amy: After years of contemplation and quiet practice, about two years ago I quit my previous career to become a full-time artist and creative type. Check.

The Journey

Kim: Our hero gathers allies and meets antagonists along the way. Little victories ensue. Life is good!

Amy: True friends stuck like glue and I started to cultivate connections with other artists. I leapt into the juried festival circuit, created public art, had my first solo show and participated in group gallery exhibitions. My fine art photography is selling, and I’m also getting work as a commercial photographer, writer and communications expert. Life is good!

Plot Point or Mid-Point Reversal

Kim: Everything changes, and this reversal is the first step to what I believe is the most critical point in any story.

Amy: After a stellar first year, I start to realize that I’ve spent much more time selling and showing than creating. While my festival sales continue to increase, promoters start pressuring me to pander. Fellow artists capitulate, groaning that “the art business ain’t what it used to be.”

The Dark Night of the Soul

Kim: Our hero faces the moment of utmost despair. The hero is losing, it can’t get much worse, but she also can’t go back to her previous life.

Amy: Instead of embracing long-term creative projects or listening to my trusted advisors, I put my eggs in one end-all-be-all basket of a festival. As some of the eggshells break, the pessimists say, “We told you so.”

OK, Kim. Now what?

Recommitment

Kim: It’s the Suck it Up, Buttercup moment. This is our hero’s chance to dig deep, push up her sleeves and come back swinging.

Amy: I take a long, critical look at my to-do list and see nothing about becoming a better artist…. which, as I recall, was the whole point. Does this mean I start over at starting over?

Storming the Castle

Kim: With renewed resolve, our hero goes all in for that thing she wants and needs more than anything. There is a final battle – either literally or figuratively – and she will be victorious.

Amy: I (gulp) chuck the to-do list and — at least for now — exit the festival circuit, quieting my inner demons that tend to confuse exertion with productivity. Rejecting the antagonists, I pledge to draw my allies closer and spend every moment gained on creative study and practice.

The New Normal

Kim: Our hero is changed, life is changed, and we begin to glimpse how she’ll handle it all moving forward.

Amy: To infinity… and beyond!

This story was originally published on June 13, 2017.