One Question Quiz
Patricia Highsmith, a magician of spite. (Image: Archi Banal)
Patricia Highsmith, a magician of spite. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 14, 2023

Help Me Hera: How do I stop ruminating over a rival and make art again?

Patricia Highsmith, a magician of spite. (Image: Archi Banal)
Patricia Highsmith, a magician of spite. (Image: Archi Banal)

I fell out with a creative collaborator and now she’s an industry It Girl. How can I move on and do my own thing? 

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Dear HMH,

I can’t help ruminating on the success of my past creative collaborator.

I always thought being a nice person should be the priority in life, and yet I have seen her rewarded for her bullish, selfish, and manipulative behaviour. She is also very driven and confident, the latter of which are admirable qualities which I struggle to have. 

I am the reason we stopped making work together, which I did through ghosting her after I tried to share how I felt hurt by the way she had treated me. This included her saying things like, “I can’t bear to look at you,” yelling at me, and deleting what I had just written without reading it. 

I am afraid of being close to her and don’t want a relationship, but also can’t stop thinking about her. She is gaining some success and recognition at the moment; a real ‘it girl’ with a big social media following. And so I find myself constantly reminded of her and feeling as if I am a failure in her shadow. 

I love her and am grateful for how her ambition motivated me to create at the time. However, how do I put the energy I am constantly sending her way to my own practice? 

I want to re-find my voice as an artist and feel like the constant rumination is a big block to me doing that. I definitely struggle with a fear of failure and so I know that really this has nothing to do with her, but I also don’t know how to get past it. 

Yours sincerely,

Ruminating Artist

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear Ruminating Artist,

It seems like you have two different problems here: how to rediscover your voice as an artist after a setback, and how to stop ruminating on a painful relationship breakdown. Two things which are incredibly hard to do in their own right. Let alone when they’re fused together, like some kind of horrible chimaera, with zero heads and two poisonous tails. 

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound like you actually ghosted this girl. You tried to tell her how you were feeling and she refused to listen. That doesn’t mean you were the reason your collaboration ended. In order to have a strong and enduring artistic relationship, you need to be able to discuss problems honestly. Even Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog made the effort, when they weren’t actively plotting to murder one another. 

Maybe one day you’ll be able to talk about what happened. But it doesn’t sound like either of you are there yet. Honestly, she sounds like a nightmare. But being an unkind person doesn’t mean you can’t make good art; it changes the kind of art it’s possible for you to make. But for now, her having an allegedly bad personality is beside the point.  

It must seem impossible to move on when you’re both in the same industry and she’s becoming a rising star.  Especially when you can’t go online without seeing her name every five minutes, or stumbling across a Vogue “50 things in my secret underground bunker” video. It might be worth trying to reduce the internal friction by muting her name, but it’s hardly a foolproof solution. If you work in the same industry, it’s inevitable she’ll crop up from time to time. 

Envy is one of those complicated emotions. On the one hand, it can be instructive; showing us what we’re lacking and desperately want. It can even, in the right circumstances, be galvanising. But it’s also a real pain in the ass. 

The internet is a uniquely unhelpful place when it comes to dealing with envy. Not only are you constantly bombarded by news of other people’s success, any advice on the subject is notoriously unhelpful. The internet is brimming with well-meaning but functionally useless advice, that boils down to “keep a gratitude diary” or “smile and get over it!” But difficult feelings don’t just vanish by having the right attitude or shining an industrial strength spotlight on them. Just because we know why we’re feeling a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily make the feelings any easier. 

The first thing I’d encourage you to do is go easy on yourself. Beyond making the sign of the cross every time your ex-collaborator’s name is invoked, and praying for her to be run over by a slow-moving tractor, the only thing you can do is surrender. You can’t banish horrible emotions by staring at a screenshot of a waterfall until you reach enlightenment, or bargaining them away. 

I wonder if one of the reasons you’re struggling so much is that you’re trying so hard to resist these feelings. Some feelings can’t be resisted. The best you can do is acknowledge you’re having a very normal and human response to a difficult situation. Instead of castigating yourself for feeling this way, try to acknowledge the situation makes you feel insecure, and there’s not a lot you can do about it. Think of the feelings as an old, incontinent donkey, who is always breaking into your house at inconvenient moments. There’s no point raging at the donkey. The donkey will just look at you with mournful brown eyes and piss all over your carpet. Instead, try making peace with the donkey. Say, “hello, you horrible donkey bastard, back again for more hay I see,” and then lead it gently back outside. 

For now, you and the donkey are stuck together, and you may as well try to treat it kindly, as a minor cognitive inconvenience you have to temporarily work around. The more you’re able to notice these thoughts without judgement and practise shrugging them off, the less emotional power they’ll eventually wield. It’s called mindfulness, and unfortunately, it helps. 

The second thing that might help is trying to decouple your own sense of artistic worth from this person’s success. Oh great, I hear you say. Another near impossible cognitive task. But the only way to do that is to build up your own artistic confidence. 

It’s hard to try to focus on making something brilliant when you’re in a slump, and paranoid that everyone else is so far ahead you’ll never catch up. The panic can be debilitating. But infuriatingly, the best remedy is to get to work, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. Even if you’re certain that what you’re doing isn’t any good. Even if you are only capable of putting raw and unfiltered feelings down on paper, and there’s nothing remotely artistic about them. 

It’s impossible to give concrete advice on how best to accomplish this, because all artists are motivated differently. Some people are uniquely inspired by rage and can drill down into the swamp, draw out the poison, and make something electrically nasty with it, like Patricia Highsmith, a magician of spite. Then there are people like George Saunders or Elizabeth Strout, who have that talent of transforming any instance of moral confusion into a kind of curiosity for forensically dismantling the human heart. But I’m also of the firm belief that not everyone needs to transform their bad feelings into art. For all I know, you might be making a whimsical video game about dragons. 

Part of the trick is figuring out what works for you. Are you able to harness feelings of competitiveness to your advantage? Or does that only depress you and cause you to give up and watch reruns of Frasier? Can you thrill yourself out of your slump by revisiting the work of artists who inspire you? Does it help to try and cultivate a posture of cognitive dissonance, where you convince yourself nobody is paying attention and will never read a sentence of your script? Will you work towards a deadline? Out of a sense of habit? For cake? For the grave? 

This is a really hard and fucked-up situation that almost anyone would struggle with. So forgive yourself for being humbled by it. Take your time. Pay attention to anything that lifts you out of that feeling of despondency, and motivates you to put that energy back into your own work.  And if you still can’t focus, why not write a play about two creative collaborators having a catastrophic falling out? If nothing else, it’s great source material. 

Wishing you the best of luck!

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