Creativity, Vulnerability and Shame

Creativity, Vulnerability and Shame

There’s a piece in 12 Rules Of Creativity by Michael Atavar that says;

At all times in the creative process, great care must be taken to protect your soft and vulnerable qualities.

I wrestled with that statement for a long time. I was always taught that creativity was being vulnerable on a page or canvas or so on. The whole thought of bleeding out onto your art was something I totally got. Leave nothing on the field, as my baseball coach used to tell me, was how you lived. Well it turns out that only leaves you empty and with nothing left to create with the next day.

I wrote poetry for a long time that was marginal with the occasional okay piece of work. It was how I coped with a lot of stuff in high school and college. You could find me scribbling in coffee shops, furiously taking notes and then rewriting until only the most essential words were left. Sometimes I came up with some good stuff, but most of the time, I just left tired. I see now that all I was doing was taking my vulnerabilities and pushing them onto other people instead of actually dealing with them myself. Atavar calls this “working with shadows,” and encourages the creative person to have a network of people around them to bounce ideas off safely. I struggle with being told my work isn’t good enough, even if it honestly isn’t. My vulnerability quickly turns into shame when there’s push back, shame of not being good enough, not having a proper education or simply not being creative enough. Some days I’m a walking bag of doubt that comes from my shame and it totally kills my creative spirit.

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown writes, “Curiosity is a shit-starter. But that’s okay. Sometimes we have to rumble with a story to find the truth.” As creatives we are constantly curious, looking for that beam of light that glints off a building in just the right way to pique our imagination. We have to be vulnerable, chase down the story and wrestle it until it comes out looking like something that we knew it could be.

In college I wrote poems about drug use and being a rock star, not because I did or wanted to do anything of those things, but because it insulated me from writing about my real self.

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Sometimes on Friday I dream up

how easily I could become a cokehead.

Cutting lines with my friend's razor blade,

I would never keep my own in case of

horrible binge nights. An ornate mirror

would sit majestically in the middle of an

imaginary French coffee table that my parents

got at some antique barn in Indiana.

People would beg to do lines next to my gold

records and ’72 Telecaster Custom.

“Just one more before I drive home,” my

girlfriend would say, but I wouldn’t let her.

Even cokeheads have limits.

Maybe I would be involved in some type of

Eastern European supply chain that decided it

was easier to move the dust in through airports

in Kansas. Who’d expect that?

“Stuff’s good this month,” I’d snipe at the

Mafioso who switched bags, only to settle

in close to my Parisian throne.

Sometimes on Friday I dream of being

a cocaine addict, only to realize that it’s

Saturday morning and I’m too broke

to even afford prescription meds.

You can debate how good or bad that poem is, but what you can’t debate is that I was being vulnerable in a completely different way than I should have been. I was being risqué just to be risqué. I grew up pretty conservatively in the South and drugs were never something I would have dreamed of doing. So instead of being truly vulnerable and talking about my struggle with appearances or commitment, I daydreamed scenarios that were completely nonsensical. Needless to say, it didn’t really connect with anyone.

Atavar writes that you have to “work with small parts of your personality” to be creative and stay sane. I think this is what David Bowie did when he changed looks, costumes, names and hairstyles all the time. He was slowly letting us into his world just enough every time, so we could handle it.

I used to think that art was all about abandonment, but now I realize that only leads to losing yourself. A creative life is a life that shines a light onto things, however small that may be, so that others can enjoy the same view as you. That doesn’t take abandonment, just courage.