Claiming Creativity

When I was in the eighth grade, my art teacher pulled a stool up to my table in class one afternoon. “Sarah,” she said loudly, “Look at this. This is poor craftsmanship. This is just completely unacceptable!” In her hands, she held a slab of my pottery. I had pressed it by hand, and the middle section of the piece turned out to be thinner than the edges. Too sloppy for her standards, she said, well, more like announced to the whole class.

Blood rushed to my cheeks, my heart started racing, tears collected in my eyes, as embarrassment and shame rose within me. I felt instantly terrible. How awful my art must be, how awful must be.

After my mother and my English teacher had heard of the incident, my art teacher apologized, but this time, she spoke quietly, as I stood next to her desk. I accepted her apology, but the event left an indelible mark. “I guess I’m not any good at art,” I thought. Hers was the last art class I ever took. There wasn’t any room for creativity, no time, no patience, no need, I convinced myself.

Dr. Brene Brown writes, “One of the big reasons that we stop using creativity is comparison. I found that 85% of the men and women I interviewed remembered an event in school that was so shaming, it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives…half of those people had a shaming experience around creativity, they have ‘art scars.'” Since I am a highly sensitive person, this is just one of my art scars.

A few months ago, a dear friend, at her bachelorette party, made a quick comment that struck me, “Your parents got two very creative kids, where does that creativity come from, do you think?” While drinking out of my “Team Bride” pink plastic cup, I replied without thinking, “My mom was a teacher. She brought that out of both of us.”

But the next morning, I found myself puzzling over her question. “Me? Creative? Really?” It didn’t seem to track. I am measured and introverted, cautious and circumspect. My brother, creative? Well, of course. It’s obvious. Several years younger than I, my brother is already a salaried comedy writer, an actor, a filmmaker, and an editor. Geoffrey’s creativity overflows, scattering joy.

As I relayed this story to Jack, he stared at me blankly. “…But you’re a writer,” he said. Furrowing my brow, I replied, “No, no, no I’m not a ‘writer.’ Don’t be ridiculous.” “But you write…nearly every day. Writers write.” While I am not quite ready to position myself under the banner “writer,” Jack helped me realize that perhaps creativity is less about the product and more about the process, more about what it evokes in us than whether the world judges it to be good enough. It is about expression, sometimes catharsis.

It was also Brene who said, “I’m not very creative’ doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Unused creativity isn’t benign. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear.”

For most of my life, I have abandoned joy and creativity for the sake of responsibility. Instead of joining theatre – what I had always loved since childhood – I joined the debate team, practicing the most complicated and prestigious form of debate at the expense of my own health. I’d spend long weekends traveling to remote parts of the Midwest to compete, so nervous my hands were shaking, consuming nothing more than Mountain Dew. Instead of going out for the swim team – swimming was always my favorite sport, the only sport I had any natural talent for – I ran cross country because it was harder. Afraid of what others would think of me, I made such choices many times over.

I thought it was noble to suffer in this way. I thought I looked serious and strong. Either way, I was filled with resentment and fear. I was using my voice, my body, and my creative capacity for things I did not actually want to do. I was withering.

Writing has helped me recover a truer sense of myself. Though I have made a minuscule amount of money from writing this year, it is one of the most important parts of my day. When I sit down to write, whether the words make their way in front of others’ eyes or not, I see myself more clearly. I feel like I have edges again. I feel as though, even when I say 1,000 times a day I don’t know what I am doing with my life, I do know in part who I am, or at least, who I am becoming.

I see now that creativity is not about being good or bad at building a clay sculpture or designing a room or crafting a sentence or writing a poem or delivery a Shakespearean soliloquy. Creativity is the extension of our deepest selves. Whichever method of expression we choose matters not. It is the practice of creativity that does because it honors who we are at our core.

In this tangled world, creativity – which as Brene makes so clear requires our vulnerability – helps us become less frustrated, more compassionate, clearer, better, kinder, stronger.