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On having a backup plan

As a young artist, my dad always used to encourage me to have a fallback plan. The deeper I got into my creative work, the more looming this nebulous thing became.


What did it mean?

I assumed it meant there was no effing way I’d make a living in theatre and dance. Or it meant that I would probably fail, so I should have something else ready to occupy my time and pay the bills.

Over the years, it got so I wasn’t able to think about my creative passions without Plan B sidling up beside it, like a plus-one at a party. I didn’t necessarily invite the backup plan, but there it was, drinking rum punch.

Eventually, that connection solidified even more. Like: if I am creating, then a backup plan must be present.

This caused a series of problems.

First, it assumed that the creative work was not the backup plan. That these were two distinct, and probably antagonistic, entities. It implied that the backup plan would pay the bills and the creative work would not. And buried in all of that was the assumption that paying bills should be part of my creative work’s job description in the first place.

But, should it?

In the history of Melanie Makes Art, which began when I was a toddler, making money has almost never been part of the motivation, drive, and urgency to express my human experience in various forms.

Granted, Paying Bills becomes prevalent in life at a certain point. But why did it get suddenly and fervently get mushed together with creativity like an incredibly high-stakes blind date? Jane, meet Susan. Susan, meet Jane. You two will be moving in together now.

This doesn’t mean income can’t be part of the motivation to do creative work, or that motivations can’t change over time. But the danger comes when unconscious associations happen in our brains without our consent. Beliefs like these limit us in ways we aren’t aware of, because we can’t even see them. We don’t know they’re operating or how they got in.

And yet: there they are.

Somewhere along the way, Art + Backup Plan got linked in my brain. And Money was the unexamined bassline rumbling underneath it all.

So, for fun, let’s just sit for a moment and give a new idea some space:

Creativity can exist separately from a backup plan.

God, what could it mean for us?

If our creative work was free from backup plannery:

  • We could just do our creative work. Like, actually focus on it. Without feeling like we’ve left the stove on or forgotten our kid in a Target parking lot.
  • We might feel super motivated to kick all kinds of ass.
  • We might also discover we’re terrified. That the backup plan was our security blankie and, now that it’s gone, we’re really wigged out.
  • We might feel pressure. Uh oh, we’re actually on the hook for producing something.
  • The problem of paying bills would still exist and still be a thing we need to figure out. But it’s over there now. A little further away, like at least three inches.
  • We might feel lighter and looser, or we might feel untethered and lost.
  • We might fail at our creative thing and be mortally embarrassed and/or disappointed.

Okay. So nobody dies from cutting the lil’ imaginary umbilical cord between Dreams and Plan Bs. The sky does not fall. The earth’s crust does not crack.

But all of our problems don’t suddenly solve themselves, either.

In fact, we may have more problems. Raw feelings like fear and pressure to produce and vulnerability. Which might attract some tag-along barnacles like resistance and futility. We might have to encounter failure. And then we might wonder what the point of creative work is.

So, it’s worth acknowledging that we actually get some pay-off from this backup plan thing.

Plan B keeps a whole lot of complication at bay. It lets you have one foot in and one foot out of your dreams. It allows you not to fully commit, or to risk, or to fail. It’s a back-alley permission slip to not be 100% authentically you and, as a bonus, you get to blame someone else for it! Thanks Dad. Your backup plan crap kept me from being a really successful artist.

Oh dear.

Now, what the hell do you do?

For my money, you find a really comfy spot on the couch and settle in for a spell. Because this is officially A Lot To Process. In unpacking the unexamined connections between Plan B and your dream, you’ve also had to confront a bunch of big feelings about letting those two things be separate, and in the process realized that the payoff from not fully committing to your creative stuff may be holding you back, but that committing to it might mean failure and humiliation.

Here, have a muffin. Still warm.


So, here’s the real stuff. I only personally know one or two artists (and by know, I mean, like, I’ve met them in person a couple of times) who don’t have something resembling a side gig, day job, or patchwork of various forms of hustle in addition to their artistic practice. In fact, even the artists I know who can live off their art and solely their art still earn income from projects that are more work-for-hire than their own pristine artistic vision.

There is no Artist Rule Book in which it’s stated: Thou art not a real artist if thou hast a side gig.

So, reframing the backup plan as a standard issue day job is a possible strategy.

But. It’s not really about that, is it?

It’s about the commitment piece. Fully inhabiting your unruly, creative, authentic self. Without reserve. Both feet in. No backup plan.

There is no fallback to being 100% You.

Even though being you is, at times, terrifying, expensive, confusing, complicated, inconvenient, upsetting, boring, exhilarating, unappetizing, exhausting, and about sixty-seven other very descriptive words.

Can I posit here that it’s not your creative work that needs to be divested from the heavy burden of The No-Fail QuikPay Securify Backup Plan 2000, but…you?

That your trembling, beautiful, tender-unfurling-leaf of a self just needs to be allowed some real breathing room? Without the pressure to deliver or perform? That you get to be an artist because you say you’re an artist and that self-defining is your right (and possibly your superpower)? And that the expansive, airy quality of running around naked with no backup plan has its own unexpected payoff, I promise?

You as naked, authentic person might fail. You might feel pain, or you might cause it. You might fully commit to a thing that just stops appealing to you at a certain point along the way. You might change your mind seventy-eight times. You might have dozens of false starts and never get a project off the ground and give up completely and sell the farm and dye your hair green and say fuck it all, I’m going to live on a boat and homeschool my children.

All of this is totally okay. I believe it’s what scientists call Living.

But, we can choose to live without burdening ourselves unnecessarily. And punishing ourselves for not carrying that weight “well.”


Set it down. Let’s go skinny dipping.


The edge of surrender

I call the year spanning from July 2014 to June 2015 My Lost Year. During that time, I had two miscarriages and two chemical pregnancies (miscarriages that happen so early, it’s like you weren’t even pregnant at all, but ah, you were, you were, you swear you were).

My body, mind, emotions, and spiritual sensibilities were chopped and churned. There was so much blood, so much confusion, so much pain. My memory of that year is shot—I cannot place anything in time, even now. The phrase ‘I’ve blocked it out’ is apropos, though that implies some kind of conscious choice in the blocking, which doesn’t feel like the case.

A year of my life was just gone.

I emerged from that time broken and enraged. I felt like a failure, and like I’d been robbed. After enduring all that suffering and loss, the world owed me a baby for God’s sake. I was a blood-soaked warrior, kneeling in the killing field, screaming pointlessly into the sky.

But I live in New York City. And pointless screaming, while common, doesn’t go over.

What I didn’t know then was that the very end of my rope was the perfect place to be: a potent moment of pure potential disguised as hopelessness, loss, and rage.

I was on the threshold of surrender.

Surrender gets a bad rap. Many of us were told early in life that a “quitter” wasn’t something you wanted to be. Failure was also terrible and to be avoided at all costs. Actually, any kind of poor judgment or lack of ability to predict the future was frowned upon. (You should have known better…) Really, what you wanted was to get everything right on the first try, stick with it, and succeed at all times.

But, we don’t always succeed in the conventional way. I’m stating the obvious, but is it, actually, that obvious? That we really don’t know, going in, what will happen or how things will turn out? That we’re often so obsessed with getting something right, we’re blind to the ways in which we’re getting it wrong?

And that the harder we struggle to reach our desired outcome, the further away that dangling carrot gets?

It’s like a boxer getting their ass kicked, but they keep staggering to their feet, only to get knocked down again. And again. And again. Why does she keep getting up? Why not stay down? Or more to the point, why not just get out of the ring altogether? Get some ice on that eye. Have a hot bath, maybe some tea. Crawl into flannel jammies and call it a day already, sheesh.

We try so hard for so long that we make ourselves suffer. We effort and persevere and strive ourselves to death. Why?

We forgot how powerful we are in surrender.

In surrendering, you set yourself free. The outcome that had you in chains, and the struggle that locked you up further is gone. The ego you built up around achieving this thing vanishes. The identity you constructed, I Am The Person Who…, disappears. You become, in that moment, your true, expansive, and unlimited self.

Just by letting go. Just by saying, with every cell of your being, Uncle.

When you truly and actually surrender, you shed your small self and step into the largest version of who you are. The self that is open and vulnerable. Majestic and unencumbered. The one who can see things afresh, and is willing to embrace change.

Because that’s all that’s being asked for here at the edge of surrender.

Only change.

Things aren’t working. It’s time to try another way.

It’s so simple, but we complicate it. We make ourselves bleed. We make ourselves feel bad and wrong. We followed the rules to a T, but the rules screwed us over so fuck them and fuck you and fuck everyone in your apartment building and on your knitting team, too.

Hey, it’s okay.

It just isn’t working.

I don’t know why. Probably none of us do. It’s not the right time for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. It might never be the right time. So let’s back ourselves out of this box canyon and find something else to do.

This? Might be called failure. (And don’t we have a lot of baggage around that whole scene?) But it might also be called embracing what’s real.

The key here, and the hardest part, is to actually surrender.

Not just a little. Not for the afternoon. Not by keeping one foot in the door because maaaaaybe if you tweak your approach slightly and re-write the copy and work nights for another couple of weeks…no. I mean honestly and courageously face the fact that you and this particular thing are not working out, and let it go wholly and completely. For real.

Let your ego feel that punch to the solar plexus, that full-body oooof, and also that moment of free-fall afterward where a lot of existential room opens up under your feet and you plummet for a good long minute or two. (You might need to cry a little at this point. I support that 100%. Go ahead and let some pressure out of the tires.)

And then feel what happens next.

It might be a little like: in breath, out breath, blink. It might sound like a bird chirping or a taxi driving by. You might notice, say, the way the light falls on the sofa or how the woman across the room shifts in her seat.

That’s what surrender feels like. Grounded and free and simple. Like the present moment just flashed its boobies at you and smiled as if to say, “See? It’s not so bad here. We’ve got birds. We’ve got snacks. What took you so long?”

And what, oh powerful, surrendered one, do you want to do next?

Stop holding yourself back

My Big, Beautiful Dream, the one that took my breath away and filled me with sparkling hope and promise, was to spend a year in Paris writing a novel. I saw myself so clearly: speaking French fluently, typing away in small cafés, wearing ballet flats, and stripy boat-neck tees.

I didn’t do a thing about it.

I talked about that Paris dream for ten years. The entirety of my twenties, which is the readymade decade in which to spend a year in Paris. It’s what your twenties are for. But I put it off. Or rather, I put my dream on a pedestal where it could remain perfect and unsullied. Like a rabbit’s foot I would rub occasionally for luck.

One of your fellow readers expressed a similar conundrum.*

She said, “Part of me doesn’t want to start because then I won’t get discouraged.”

That’s a real thing. I think we’ve all been there. And for a lot of us, inaction is a very safe, very comfortable default setting.

First off, this is not a character flaw. This is just a natural manifestation of fear (of both failure and success), and a very human desire not to be rejected or disappointed.

And the other thing is, all of our limiting beliefs are like that.

What are limiting beliefs?

Little mental buzzkills that are actively preventing you from moving yourself into first place and getting your dreams done. They’re like sweet lil’ grannies who just want to keep us safe and sound indoors where they can see us.

But the stuff we need is outside.

Just beyond what we already know and have experienced. Risk. Adventure. “I don’t know if this would work, but…”

Now that you’re all pro meditators and experts at watching your thoughts, I have a challenge for you. Pay attention at how limiting beliefs pop up in your brain.

They can (and will) be about anything. How much support you deserve. How creativity works. How much success you’re allowed. You’ll likely project your limiting stuff on everyone around you, and famous people, too. (We all do this.) We assume Famous Person X had a rich daddy, which is The Only Way People Get Ahead In Installation Art.

Notice how that lets you off the hook.

Notice how it lets you not try. How it keeps you safely away from change. Limiting beliefs are the go-to parachute for anyone looking to get the hell away from the business end of their comfort zone.

They are a very efficient way to shut down a dream and stop the power of creative thinking in its tracks. They cast you in the role of victim and take away your power.

I refuse to let that happen.

You have resources that you don’t even know about. You have resilience. You have creativity and intuition. You have a brain in your head that can learn all those things you don’t yet know and adapt to all those situations you yet haven’t encountered. You have passion. You have drive.

And the things standing in your way right now aren’t even real.

They are thoughts. Electrical impulses in the brain. Probably habitual, meaning, patterned in years and years ago by God-knows-what dubious source.

Habitual thoughts sound like The Truth.

Trust me. They aren’t.

What limiting beliefs have you discovered lurking in your brain box? How might you diffuse them? Share your experience in the comments below.

*And please send me your biggest struggles and challenges related to dreams and self-care. What keeps you up at night? Email me at melanie at redballoonacademy dot com.



Start now. Start badly.

When I started creating this site, I was so excited. I was finally coming out as a teacher, which for me was A Very Big Deal. But, I got stuck writing the copy. I knew I wanted to be of service, but I also knew that something felt wrong. The text felt off somehow, and I couldn’t figure out why. I stopped writing, sent the draft to a friend, and waited for their feedback.

When it came back, it brought my worst fear to life.

My friend called out my writing for privilege. They showed me how my unexamined power as a white, straight, educated, middle-class person alienated and excluded the very people I’d intended to serve. They showed me places where I was just plain wrong.

This was a powerful, painful moment. I could have pushed it away. I could have made them the bad guy and kept doing what I was doing. But, I didn’t. Because I knew my friend was right.

I also knew that I’d been trying to avoid a moment exactly like this for a long, long time. I’d been on the run. I felt my privilege dangling above my head like a guillotine. I knew intuitively it would fall one day, so I spent my time hiding out, guilty, and afraid. I sent my writing into a void, blogging on a Tumblr account maybe ten people knew about or followed. If I keep out of sight, I thought, I won’t cause any harm.

(I was wrong about that, too.)

I was also withholding what I have to offer. I have a perspective I know people need, because they’ve told me they need it. I know people’s dreams are the source of their power and authenticity. I know the profoundly transformative power of radical self-care. And if I kept those things to myself out of fear and self-protection, I’d be doing a great disservice to those who needed what I have to give.

So, I stepped out exactly as I am and that guillotine fell.

It fucking hurt. It was also deeply and profoundly healing. My secret fear had come true and there was nowhere left to run.

I got myself to an undoing racism workshop where I learned how white supremacy operates in me, and how I’m complicit in keeping oppressive structures alive. I learned to see myself as a responsible part of something much larger than I am. I started a lifelong process I’m just beginning to understand—and I committed to making sure my work, this work, doesn’t leave anyone out in the cold.

This site sat, half-finished and waiting, for three months while I did this necessary self-education. This wasn’t a detour from my dream. It was work my dream demanded.

Dreams transform us by asking us to grow.

And most of us learn by making mistakes.

But there is something deep within us that says when you make a mistake, you are a mistake. And that keeps us from progressing. It keeps us from falling on our faces and feeling ashamed, sure, but it prevents us from gaining the skills and awareness to do better.

I want you to start now and start badly.

I want you to make mistakes. I want you to trip over your feet and fumble and fail. Not because I want to embarrass you or cause you harm, but because I know of no other way to improve. Because I know you have something in you that people desperately need. And unless you’re willing to suck hard at the beginning, it’s never going to get to those of us who need it.

When you were small, did you learn to walk by thinking about it really hard and strategizing the perfect approach? No—you fell on your ass. You fell down hundreds of times. That was okay and expected, but when you become “old enough to know better” (whatever that means), you stopped failing forward like you did as a kid.

Making mistakes stopped being okay.

Well, I call bullshit. And I swear with everything I am: you must start from exactly where you are, right now, because this is no parallel universe where you are already perfect at whatever it is you want to do.

The mistakes you’ll make are the ones you need.

They’ll draw you to the exact lessons and the specific skills you have to master to get where you want to go. I don’t know why this is the case, but I know implicitly that it’s so.

It is okay to suck. It’s more than okay—it’s necessary.

But, it’s not okay to keep waiting and hiding. Because those ideal conditions you’re waiting for aren’t really a thing, and that magical self-preparation that you hope will happen won’t. You have to get in the ring, shaky and wobbily and out of shape, and do your goddamn best.

Stop trying to be perfect, for all our sakes, and just let ‘er rip.

Do the most terrible, half-assed, no-freaking-clue version of that thing you want to do. Ask them out. Make the phone call. Write the play. Have that difficult, necessary conversation, suck at it, and ask to start again. Be honest. Cry in public. Get called out. Get rejected, so what? Go bomb at an open mic (like every great comedian has). Write something awful. And then walk home, draw a bath, and cry on the phone with your best friend. Nurse your beautiful broken heart until clarity arrives, and it will. Wake up to a brand new morning. And do better next time.

How have you started now and started badly? What painful learning experiences have helped you move forward in your dreams? Share in the comments below.