When I first read The Artist’s Way (still the best book on creative recovery out there), I kept searching and searching my memories for those Creative Monster moments. Those are the ones seared in your memory, where someone makes you feel about 2 inches small over some creative effort. The teacher who crumples up your precious doodle and throws it in the trashcan, and lectures you about not wasting time. The person who sniffs at your very first attempts at writing poetry as “not exactly Shakespeare, is it?”
Except, I couldn’t really dredge up anything. I had no huge scarring experience to heal from. I felt so wimpy—why couldn’t I just get over my fear of doing something highly creative, of writing the novel I long to write?
Hell, I coach people all the time about vulnerability, and I practice it in many ways. I am pretty darn good, I must say, at detaching from a lot of society’s judgments and not feeling “less than.” I often go without makeup (at 47, this is getting more and more daring!), I don’t value myself by how much stuff I have or whether or not I go on exotic, glamorous-sounding vacations.
But yet, the fear ran deep. And I kind of despised myself for being unable to just get over it. (Yep, we all have our issues, life coaches included.)
Peering into the Past
A few months ago, I got together with both of my sisters and their kids. It was the first time in a couple years we had all gathered at one of our houses. We embarked on a game of Quelf. (If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it. Lots of wacky yet intelligent fun, great for a wide age range.)
In Quelf, one of the possibilities is drawing a card that requires everyone to come up with synonyms to a word. The word on one particular turn was “night.” There was the predictable “dark,” and a few other equally predictable synonyms. Then it was my turn.
“Inky,” I said.
“WHAT????” exclaimed both sisters. “How is that about night?”
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.
“No, how is ‘inky’ about night?” they demanded.
My inner dialogue went like this: “Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right, maybe it’s a big stretch. Maybe I am just weird. No, wait! I’ve heard ‘inky darkness’ a gazillion times. Surely they have, too.”
There was laughing, but there was also a very distinct accusatory undertone. Jennifer was being weird, again. And she needed to stop that, thank you very much.
Finally, when they wouldn’t back down, I said, “Seriously, y’all need to read more!”
“Well YOU need to read LESS!” said one of them.
And suddenly, there it was. My whole childhood dynamic about creativity, in one exchange. Only finally, I saw it for what it was. A very big reason that my deepest creativity remains so incredibly frightening to me, after all these years: It was either conform to the family way of thinking, which just wasn’t how I thought, or be excluded and shamed. Adults have a difficult time with such a choice; for a child, it’s searing.
Creativity, Analytic Skills, and Lawyers
Creativity requires vulnerability. It requires taking a risk on something different, something new, something not quite like what has come before. Something unexpected. This is why creativity requires some courage.
It wasn’t that my sisters were trying to be mean or even unkind. They just seriously didn’t get the place I was coming from, and still come from. They are both very intelligent women, but they prefer the tangible, the more predictable, the known. If I had to guess, I’d say that one is a very strong S (Sensor) on the Meyers-Briggs, and the other is on the S side, but maybe her preference isn’t as strong.
On the other hand, I am definitely an N, with a pretty strong preference for it. It is, in fact, the strongest preference of all my MBTI characteristics. And just to review, N’s “tend to focus on the future, with a view toward patterns and possibilities.”
Artists are often N’s, because seeing the pattern that others don’t yet see is one of the hallmarks of art and creativity generally. My own view is that frequently, creatives arrive in Lawyerland because pattern recognition is also an important part of analytic thinking. I can’t tell you the number of clients I’ve had who tell me they just can’t take a job that doesn’t require analytic skills. They say that they get huge satisfaction out of analyzing problems and finding solutions.
Some of those clients really are meant to use those pattern recognition skills as a lawyer does, but most of them, not so much. What they crave, but don’t understand they crave, is using pattern recognition in pursuit of creative projects.
What do you do if you recognize the shame dynamic toward creativity in your own life, either from family, teachers, or the community you inhabit or inhabited?
How To Embrace Your Creativity, Even with Sucky Baggage
First, and perhaps most importantly, don’t discuss your creative longings with the source of the shaming. At least, not yet. Remember, they didn’t get you then, and they aren’t likely to get you now.
With your new insight into how creative shaming can work, it’s worthwhile to do some digging in your past to see where it shows up, and who the perpetrators were.
Quite often, they are people you love or respect. Even if you know they were well-meaning, that doesn’t mean they wounded your inner artist less deeply. In fact, because that person was close to you, they could, and likely did, wound you more deeply. And unless they’ve done some work on themselves about judging others and keeping their mouths shut, it’s best to avoid them during creative recovery.
Next, examine your current life for sources of creative shaming. It’s very human to surround ourselves with people who are like the people we grew up with. Something along the lines of “the devil you know.”
Sure, the crowd you hang with now may be more educated or sophisticated, but do they remind you of anyone from your past? What role did that person play in your creative development? Is there a belief system that’s hauntingly familiar, like “Creative stuff is only for your spare time. You have to do your job first!” Which, for lawyers, means pretty much that you’re never allowed to do creative stuff, because there is always the maw of billable hours to feed.
Be brutally honest with yourself in assessing your current cadre of friends and acquaintances. Watch out especially for the ones who say they support your desire to do something creative, but in the next breath tell you a story about their cousin’s daughter’s friend who tried to become a filmmaker in LA but it still waiting tables after a decade. That’s basically a message that they actually don’t believe in you or in creativity generally.
The Thousand Cuts of Law
Also, understand that the law, by its very DNA, is going to wound your creativity nearly every second of every day. The whole purpose of lawyers is to make things certain, whether it’s a contract, advice about a business venture, rules for hiring employees, or a lawsuit to end a competitor’s damaging conduct. Your mind cannot be focused on this sort of endeavor 10–12 hours daily without the penchant for certainty leaching into your thinking. Even more difficult to combat, though, are your colleagues who reinforce that desire for certainty over vulnerability at every turn.
I don’t say all this to make you feel hopeless and stuck. It’s more “forewarned is forearmed.” Keep the people who wound you with a thousand cuts at arm’s length or further—you can and should have only inch-deep relationships with toxic people, even if you’re related to them.
And, to combat the thousand cuts, you need to play. Really play. As in, don’t have any concerns about the outcome of what you’re doing. Be in the moment, whether it’s painting, dancing, or just exploring somewhere new. Simply enjoy what you’re doing, and don’t worry about your vast to-do list or that this piece of art needs to look pretty good to justify the time to your spouse.
Play revives the soul. (There are whole books about this.) If you, like me, had a childhood where truly following your creative leanings was stomped on with spiked boots, play is really the key. From play comes your inner wisdom. Start reconnecting with that today.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who loves nothing better than helping lost creatives find their path out of law and into joy. If you would like some help with that, contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org for a discounted sample session.