The Complete Creative Part 1 : How “If-Only Syndrome” Derails Us As Artists


A ballerina by British street artist Banksy (Photo courtesy


When Gwarlingo readers give me feedback, I listen. You’ve been telling me that you’d like to see more articles about process and the challenges of being an artist. I’ve appreciated your emails and comments.

Today, I’m excited to launch a new series on Gwarlingo called The Complete Creative, an in-depth series that will examine some of the topics that most concern you and your creative life. During the coming months, I’ll be covering practical topics like money, social media, deadlines, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing, as well as a range of deeper, more complex subjects like fear, procrastination, technology, community, time, and limitation. (If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo).

Over twenty years of working with artists and arts nonprofits, I’ve noticed an intriguing disconnect. At openings, cocktail parties, and readings, the artist’s life appears glamorous and carefree: fascinating, talented, creative people hobnob with equally “fabulous” collectors, patrons, and members of the public, gawking at bad fashion choices and discussing the weather, real estate, and recent art news. (One of the best gallery conversations was recently overheard at Thomas Beale’s opening at Honey Space when a middle-aged man was spotted walking around completely naked other than his shoes and socks: “Is he part of the art,” a visitor asked, “or just here for the opening?”).


Garry Winogrand, Opening, Alexander Calder Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1969. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 17″ (Photo from SFMOMA, Gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein © Garry Winogrand Estate)


But what do artists talk about once the collectors, patrons, critics, visitors, and naked men have left the building? What do artists discuss when they’re amongst “their own kind?” Sure, they talk about politics, relationships, and literary agents. But they also discuss their struggles to make a living, to overcome self-doubt and creative blocks, to meet deadlines, to keep distractions like email and social media at bay, and to make time for creative projects, in addition to a fulfilling personal life. In other words, real artists discuss real concerns whenever the opportunity presents itself. (This is the beauty of artist retreats or arts and writers groups or simply spending time with like-minded friends — all of that flashy veneer is stripped away and we can dig deeper into subjects that really matter).

It may not be fashionable or hip to publicly own up to weaknesses or self-doubts; it may not be in keeping with the mainstream’s mythology of the inspired, confident artist, but it’s the reality. Why should there be a sense of shame surrounding these struggles when they’re something every artist experiences? Why in heaven’s name aren’t we discussing these topics with sincerity, openness, and intellectual vigor instead of suffering in isolation?

I blame the self-help industry and the touchy-feely, new age gurus who talk about process in terms of “the muse,” “the creative flame,” “the inner goddess” (no offense, but I personally find such a framework exclusive instead of inclusive, while also devoid of practical advice).

Professional artists understand that the best art emerges from good work habits, not from some elusive muse. As the painter Chuck Close once said:

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.



One of the most popular posts in Gwarlingo’s short history is a letter I posted from the artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse (shown above). Hesse was going through a creative crisis at the time of LeWitt’s letter. Here’s an excerpt:

Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!

…If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant

[sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!

Make the work. This is the phrase that the poet Walt Whitman posted above his writing desk. It’s so obvious, and yet it can be misery-making to accomplish. Whether we’re an emerging artist, a student, or an established professional, we all hit roadblocks in our creative work.


If only I was Banksy… (Photo © Nodge Lives via Flickr)


One of the central problems of starting, continuing, or finishing a project is that too many of us suffer from what I call “If-Only Syndrome:” If only____________, then I would ____________.

If only I didn’t have to work this terrible job, then I would have time to finish my documentary.

If only I could write like Nabokov, then I would have the guts to attempt a novel.

If only the carpet weren’t covered in cat hair, then I could concentrate on my play.

If only my health were better, then I would have the energy to go to art school.

If only I had more money, then I could afford to buy the new camera I need to start my next project.

If only my family weren’t so judgmental, then I would have the confidence to screw the status quo.

If only I had my own studio, then I would have the peace and quiet to compose.

If only I knew someone famous in the art world, then I would be featured in ArtForum.

You get the idea. (I’ll let you fill in your own blanks.)

One of the biggest problems with If-Only Syndrome is that it robs us of the present moment and all of the present’s potential. We aren’t thinking of the person or task in front of us. Instead, we’re allowing our mind to live in the future or past. Our mind and body are wasting precious time and energy stewing, time and energy that could be used for a better purpose (perhaps even to start the very project we’re talking ourselves out of tackling). Instead of focusing, we’re waiting: waiting for the perfect moment to act.

I have some bad news: there is no such thing as the perfect moment. The ideal conditions we’re waiting for are never going to happen. If we don’t stop worrying and waiting and start doing the thing that is most important to us today, we’ll never fulfill our full potential as artists.


One of Chuck Close’s earliest paintings. Chuck Close, Still Life, c. 1950. Oil on canvas board. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Close via Chuck Close: Life by Christopher Finch)



Chuck Close, Big Self-Portrait, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 107 1/2 x 83 1/2″ (Photo courtesy of Pace Wildenstein, New York)


Artistic perfection is an illusion, a myth we impose on the successful artists we envy most. Artists don’t arrive into the world like some visionary Adam and Eve, fully formed and at their creative peak. Do you think Chuck Close began his art career by creating large-scale, highly memorable portraits? Was the first story Jane Austen wrote a masterpiece? God no. (Like many writers, Austen kept a few early unfinished novels “in the desk drawer,” including Lady Susan and The Watsons; Chuck Close’s earliest paintings were still lifes and landscapes).

Many artists destroy their early work out of embarrassment, an act that only perpetuates the notion that they were talented geniuses from the get-go. But this is rarely true. (The Mozarts and Picassos of the world are in short supply.)

When the acclaimed painter Agnes Martin first saw the mountains of Taos during a residency in New Mexico from 1946-1951, she was moved to capture the scene in representational paintings like this one…


Agnes Martin, Landscape-Taos, c. 1947. Watercolor on paper, 11 x 15 3/16″ (Photo courtesy The Harwood Museum of Art & the Jonson Gallery of the University Art Museum, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque)


“I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like ant hills,” Martin wrote in “The Untroubled Mind.” Through the process of painting, Martin realized that a representational style couldn’t capture the essence of the New Mexico mountains as she experienced them. Martin was in touch with nature in a way that most people are oblivious to. She realized that what she was trying to convey in her art was not the mountain itself, but the feeling of transcendence she experienced when she saw the mountain. Here is Martin writing about her epiphany in “The Untroubled Mind”:

I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends
I don’t like circles — too expanding
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like
you’re expanding over the plane
Anything can be painted without representation
I don’t believe in influence
unless it’s you, yourself following your own track

Eventually, Martin would reject her early representational style for a minimalist approach — a unique and original style that would make her one of the most respected and famous artists in North America. Here is a New Mexico mountain as Agnes Martin imagined it in 1960…


Agnes Martin. Mountain, 1960. Ink and pencil on paper, 9 3/8 x 11 7/8″ (24 x 30.2 cm). Ruth Vollmer Bequest. © 2012 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Click to Enlarge)

I have great respect for artists who include their earliest works in presentations and catalogs because it tells the whole story about how their art evolved, not a carefully edited version. To see the entire arc of a career is especially important for students. Young artists need to understand that being a professional artist is a process that unfolds over time and that there is no way to get there without going through the painful phase of producing crap. The awful first drafts, the embarrassing early paintings, the horrible first songs are a fact of life. The gap between good taste and skill can only be closed through the process of making more work, painful or embarrassing as it may be.

Do I believe that anyone is capable of becoming the next Mozart, Joyce, or Picasso merely through persistence? No. But I do believe that art is more about hard work than we like to admit. We have a vested interest in perpetuating the false idea that talent and inspiration are more important than labor. It gives us an excuse for not getting down to business.

Perfection is a myth, just as the romantic notion of an inspired muse is a myth. We can create conditions that are ripe for us to do our best work, but to muck about and wait for some divinely inspired lightning bolt of inspiration is ludicrous. We laugh at the idea, but this is what we’re doing each time we allow If-Only Syndrome to keep us in its grip. We’re waiting for a miracle.

Before we can make the transition from worrying and waiting to actually creating, we need to understand what if-only statements are looping around in our heads. These conditional requirements, however false they may be, have power. They can derail a creative project faster than a broken track (and that’s exactly what these if-only statements are — a broken mental track).

In the next installment of The Complete Creative series, I’ll take a closer look at limitations, both real and imagined, and how they can hinder or help the artistic process.

Until then, here’s a short exercise…

What creative project is most important to you right now?

What if-only phrases pop into your mind when you think about starting or completing this creative project?

Write your answers down and take a hard look at them. Are the phrases you’ve recorded really true? Do you really need these perfect conditions in order to make art? What if-only beliefs are keeping you from doing your best work?

I’d love to hear your feedback on If-Only Syndrome via email, on Facebook, or in the Comments section below.


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About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. kathy bollerud September 12, 2012 at 8:16 am

    I call the belief that everything should come easily “permanent eighth grade”….when you could get an A without having to do homework.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 12, 2012 at 8:27 am

      I love the idea of the “permanent eighth grade,” Kathy. Not only is it the belief that we don’t have to do the homework, but like eighth grade, this mentality causes us to sit around and wait for “the adults” to make all of the important decisions in our lives. It keeps us in a child-like state waiting for some external force to prompt us into meaningful action. It’s a great parallel!

      Thanks for commenting. You have years of professional experience to draw on, and I always enjoy hearing your perspective.

  2. barbara September 12, 2012 at 8:42 am

    Having just watched a video of the pianist Gabriela Montero improvise magnificently on the piano, I’m not sure that ALL creative ventures require work. Some do just flow. So I can’t dismiss the muse entirely.

    Something not often mentioned as a huge deterrent to creativity is the fear of revealing oneself to others. Poetry, in particular, says: “Getting to know me – what I really think and feel.” That’s pretty frightening.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 12, 2012 at 8:54 am

      Great thoughts, Barbara. Yes. Fear is a HUGE topic of conversation and one that I’ll be writing about very soon in the series. There are so many things artists fear, including revealing themselves, as you mentioned.

      I agree that art isn’t all hard work, but it does require DOING. One of the subjects I’ll be discussing in the series is the idea of “play” and how important this is to the creative process. Gabriela Montero’s improvisations would fall into this category.

      But the first challenge is getting into the studio, office, etc. and making time and space for “play” to occur. Too many artists never even take that essential first step. Once we’ve shown up and created the possibility for play and inspiration, it doesn’t feel like work at all. As you said, “flow” is the ultimate goal.

      You’ve touched on some important subjects here. Stay tuned for more posts on these topics.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Joseph September 12, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Thank you for all of this. I recently read (twice!) a book that I found amazingly inspirational–Creativity: Unleashing The Forces Within by OSHO. xoJ

    • Michelle Aldredge September 12, 2012 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for the tip, Joseph. I’ve never heard of this book, but will check it out!

  4. Frank Carsey September 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    What a refreshing read. Others have of course looked at this; my favorite is Art and Fear by Bales and Orland. Punch line: Let nothing stop you from working, especially yourself. It is wonderful that Guarlingo also continues to develop.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks, Frank. I discovered the book Art and Fear through the MacDowell librarian, Colette Lucas, and have included it in the Gwarlingo Store. I agree that it’s a great read and much more pragmatic than many books in the same vein. I’d love to tackle some of the subjects I rarely see addressed in these kinds of publications, subjects like money, presenting yourself online, health insurance, etc., as well as more philosophical topics.

      I also have a special feature coming up on the poet and writer Christian McEwan. She has an excellent new book called World Enough & Time, On Creativity and Slowing Down. Christian has agreed to let me share some excerpts here on Gwarlingo. I think you’ll enjoy her writing and her insights.

      I’m always interested in reader’s “go-to” books when they feel stuck creatively. Art and Fear is a good one to add to the list (and it has an excellent punch line)! Thanks for recommending it.

  5. Anna Dibble September 12, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    This sounds great – looking forward to the series! Twyla Tharp’s book on creativity is good too.

    • Michelle Aldredge September 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

      You were one of the readers I was thinking of, Anna, when I created the series. You have given me some useful feedback over the past few months.

      Thanks for the Twyla Tharp recommendation. Her perspective is unique as a highly successful artist. I love her ideas about routine and habit. I look forward to discussing these topics in the weeks and months ahead!

  6. Rosemary Washington September 12, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I will be looking forward to this new series with great anticipation. I’m also thinking a lot about creativity and art these days. Thank you!

  7. Maree Dew September 15, 2012 at 1:21 am

    Thanks (again) Michelle!

    I have a break from studies coming up very soon & this will be at the top of my priority list…. it will be such a treat to delve into…

    I am SSSSsssssOOOooooo looking forward to this series!!!


    • Michelle Aldredge September 15, 2012 at 7:57 am

      Thanks Maree! I’m looking forward to digging into these subjects too. There’s a lot to discuss, and I hope the series will provide me with the motivation I need to complete some of my own creative projects. Stay tuned!

  8. Angela October 5, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I’m so looking forward to this series, Michelle. It’s such a necessary topic and, as you mention, these are things I enjoy discussing with my writing group and like-minded friends. It comes down to the heart and soul of our work as artists, and it IS work.

    I did read Christian’s book this summer and found it so inspiring. Looking forward to reading your article on her as well.

    Best of luck as you work through this series — and thank you so much.

    • Michelle Aldredge October 5, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      Your welcome, Angela, and thanks for sharing the story on Persephone Writes. I too am looking forward to this series. We teach what we need to learn, as they say, and there are so many areas of the creative life that I struggle with myself. I hope that Gwarlingo can be a useful hub for these discussions and provide artists with the community and support that we all need. Thanks for reading!

  9. The Reading Room « Persephone Writes October 5, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    […] How “If-Only” Syndrome Derails Us As Artists, by Michelle Aldredge at gwarlingo (This is part 1 of a new series on art and creativity and highly recommended if you are involved in any creative work….or if you have been putting off a project you really want to start.) […]

  10. […] sense of possibility. We develop a mindset of scarcity, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by If-Only Syndrome: “If only I had more _________ (time, help, support from my boss, money, the latest […]

  11. Amy Goh April 30, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    Good advice. I’d add, too, that once you ‘show up for work’, you do get moments wherein you feel like everything in the universe is in tune with you, and things just fit in the right place. But I also realize that every moment that feels like agony usually just means that what will come out from the reaping is more worth it. Childbirth is usually the analogy I think best fits the creative process for me 😛

    I am really enjoying reading all of these articles. Please keep them coming!

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