Lamplight Chat: Sitting Down With Vivienne McMaster

Lamplight Chats are informal little interviews, giving you a delicious glimpse into the paths of women who chased their dreams and found them. I like to think of these feature pieces as sitting at the timeworn kitchen table, chatting quietly over mugs of something lovely. A spotlight in such a gentle place would be far too harsh. Oh, but a lamplight, casting a soft glow from its iron lantern…. That seems just right. Pull up a chair and join us, won’t you? 

Today, I bring to you a Lamplight Chat with Vivienne McMaster, talented photographer, writer, body image activist and creative genius behind

I pictured it like this... Autumn thunder rustles gently as if marking the path for my guest to find the cabin door. A music track of Native American flutes paints an auditory backdrop of earthy browns and rich, healing greens. Welcoming Vivienne, we sit opposite each other at the old, wooden table. Rain plays down the window glass as we speak in quiet tones. Her unique beauty is striking. I smile over my coffee, taking in the way her eyes dance in the lamplight as she tells her story. In this Lamplight Chat, Vivienne shares her journey, her passion and the way she is turning her former struggle into her purpose-driven work. If you’ve ever wrestled with vulnerability, argued with the inner critic or wished for a way to make your mess into your message, this is especially for you.

(Jenny): On your website, you explain that the self-compassion work you do with others arose from your own struggle with a deeply negative self-image.  It’s been said that from our “mess” often comes our message to the world. Can you talk about how you realized that your work would involve helping others to heal from the struggle you’d been through?

(Vivienne): The evolution of this work started for me at one of the lowest points for me, when I realized that I couldn’t keep going with the level of self-critique and body hate I was living in. Something needed to change.

Unexpectedly, the camera and inviting myself into the frame became the tool for that change. I really believe that it is because the camera can be one of our biggest sources of self-critique that it can also be a place of profound healing...where we can change those stories. 

But my intention wasn’t to teach or make it my work. I think when we’re in the midst of these kinds of low points in our lives, the last thing we think of is it being something we can offer to help others (or that we’d have the expertise to). But the mess really does become the message sometimes and we realize that through the rough patch we’ve found a voice within ourselves that needs to be heard and will be helpful to people. 

What I did know, and what motivated me to make it something beyond a personal project is that the healing I was experiencing using the camera as a tool for body-acceptance and self-compassion wasn’t just something I was capable of experiencing. It was something that could help other people too. If I could help women make peace with their bodies and start to see themselves as worthy, I wanted to offer that. 

It didn’t happen right away though. I started teaching more artistic based self-portrait classes with a side of self-love and then over a couple years I made the shift to more overtly teach about self-compassion and share more about the healing potential of selfies.

(Jenny): Being in front of the camera can feel immensely vulnerable. What do you want our community to know about that kind of vulnerability?

(Vivienne): I think first and foremost, that the vulnerability isn’t a bad thing. That it is the work of learning to see ourselves with compassion. Being able to see photos of ourselves and not have our inner critic rise up isn’t something that happens instantaneously and without vulnerability. It involves our resilience, taking more pictures when our inner critic wants us to stop. It isn’t about the inner critic not being there (cause it will be at first) but about showing up anyways. Letting there be outtakes, ones that don’t work out and not letting that stop us. It’s about showing up again and again. 

As well, it’s a collective vulnerability. You aren’t alone in it. The work I do isn’t created for people who don’t feel vulnerable in front of the camera and that makes for a powerful and supportive community in the classes where we can be more compassionate to ourselves knowing this is something others are experiencing too.

(Jenny): Stepping out and making your passion your life work is also quite a vulnerable act. What did you find most helpful for dealing with the inner critic as she showed up in the beginning stages of your business?

(Vivienne): My inner critic was and still is a part of my business. I think often as folks who put our work into the world we do that thing where we ‘compare our insides with someone else’s outsides’. Right from the start the inner critic has shown up, especially because of the vulnerability and personal nature of my work. 

I remember when I launched my very first e-course (before the days of Be Your Own Beloved). I was utterly terrified and wanted to hide it away. I didn’t expect vulnerability to be a part of the process, and I think we forget that other people are going through the same thing. I don’t know anyone who does work that is important to them and doesn’t experience that vulnerability. 

A few things that have helped along the way is having a few trusted peers to go to when you’re in that stage where your inner critic is showing up and ask for support. Often just saying it aloud to someone else and having them mirror back that it’s going to be okay or getting supportive feedback on the work I’m doing helps calm that critic.

As well, I’ve learned over the 5 years I’ve been doing this work that the inner critic is just going to be a part of it. If it isn’t rising up, it’s actually a sign that I haven’t got vulnerable enough yet, that I’m missing something. I’ve learned that when it’s there, and in fact is fiercer than ever, it’s a sign that I’m onto something. 

(Jenny): What is a typical day in the life for you, at this stage in your business and life?

(Vivienne): It took me a long time to let go of trying to make my workday look like what I thought a creative entrepreneurs should be and let it be what works for me and my work. What does work for me is to spend each morning working on computer-based work: writing e-course or e-book curriculum, creating sales pages, answering emails, commenting on class photos...whatever needs to be done that day. It’s the time I feel most alert and engaged and when it works best for me to do writing based work. 

Then in the afternoon I often take out my camera for a photo walk both as a break from the computer and also because this is what is at the heart of my work. This time is less about crossing things off the list and more about cultivating creative space. This is the time when I practice what I preach in my work and show up in front of the camera, take a photo in response to the prompt of the day if Be Your Own Beloved is in session, and where new ideas and realizations happen. I always shoot a couple dozen photos too, but they evolve out of what I’m finding or pondering in the moment, not posed or planned photos. This means that I always have new photos to work with, which is important for my business. Also, the danger with doing the creative work you love as business is that it won’t be something you love anymore, right? This time keeps me connected to the love I have for what I do and why I do it...and that is pivotal for me. 

In the later afternoon I usually process photos, do design or website work or whatever I’m feeling excited by from the morning work, but usually less writing based and more creative or visual. 

(Jenny): You do such beautiful work and you’ve developed a wonderful community. If the you of this moment could say something to the you that began this entrepreneurial journey, what would you want her to know?

(Vivienne): Thanks so much! I’m so grateful for how this whole entrepreneurial journey has unfolded, albeit unexpected and imperfect in so many ways. If I could whisper back into the ear of Vivienne from the beginning that there are no mistakes, as there truly aren’t. 

Everything that has happened over these years whether it was successful and lots of people said YES to it or things that felt like they weren’t as well received...are an opportunity to gather information. The low points along this path, classes that didn’t get as many participants as I’d hoped or events I went to where I felt deeply alone, were all experience that I got clarity from. The failures are as vital to this path as the successes (and lead to them in fact). When I finally did realize this a few years into the business, it made all the difference because when you see it as an opportunity to learn it helps us shift it from being something that we take personally and take on shame about. 

I’d also love to whisper into the Vivienne of that time that she’s amazing and brave and that I love her...she was freshly on the other side of that rough patch and stepping into her personal power again. I’m so grateful I didn’t let the fear of putting myself out there win way back then. We never know how it’s all going to unfold and it’s worth the risk. I have a feeling the future entrepreneurial me might be looking back at the present day me and saying that same advice about some of the elements of the business I’m looking to grow right now but feeling fear around. It’s just part of the process!

(Jenny): If someone is reading this and considering chasing her dream and starting her own business, is there a piece of advice you’d give her? 

(Vivienne): Let go of the need to have it perfect in order to begin. Your work will evolve as you put it out there in the ways it needs to, in ways you can’t theorize or plan just need to experience. 

Be Your Own Beloved evolved out of an earlier self-portrait class which, after teaching it for a year I realized that it wasn’t aperture and shutter speed that lit me was talking about self-compassion. All along there have been points where something wasn’t feeling like it lit me up to teach or work on and those are signs that another direction is awaiting you. Follow those leads and your work, your message, will get clear and clearer. Had I waited until it was all ‘perfect’ or even until I felt totally ready, this wouldn’t have happened, I’m sure of it. Start now!  

One other tip I have is kind of like selfies (I can make selfies a metaphor for everything)! I really encourage people in my programs to know how they feel about their selfie before sharing it so their value isn’t based only on other people’s response to it (likes and comments). As much as all of us are going to feel wildly vulnerable about our business and we do need people to like it in order for us to make it a viable business, know how you feel about it first and foremost. Get clear on why you’re doing it and why it’s important to you and to the world. Then, those external measures of success are a benefit but at the heart of what you’re doing is a belief in yourself, that you know why you’re doing the work and why it’s important to you and to the world. People feel that grounding energy in your work too and respond to it. If they don’t, clarify who your audience is because perhaps the people you’re pitching it too aren’t your desired audience and others will welcome your work and sign up/purchase/say yes! Grounding yourself in why you’re doing this work and what it means to you will make such a big difference in how it feels to you, the clarity you speak about it to people and also how it’s received. 

*Click the image above to learn more about Vivienne and her unique heart-centered work.

2-Minute Takeaway (Journal Prompt): Write about something(s) you've overcome along your journey. How can this be woven into what you offer in your business or your personal life?