Vulnerability and Creativity

TED Talks are cool.

I was at a retreat this weekend where I watched a TED talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability. In the middle of the talk she mentioned in passing that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity. This immediately sent me down a side road off the intended topic.

I’ve not created a whole lot in recent days years. Looking back over my life, I can see a few brief periods of prolific creative output nestled within vast expanses of playing along. Scanning my history through this new lens of vulnerability held up by Dr. Brown, I believe I can discern a complementary pattern in effect. It seems that in the obvious cases that I’ve considered I had much lower fear of vulnerability during the times of my greatest creative output. Sometimes this was due to lack of concern for what others thought of me, sometimes because I believed myself to be so isolated that no one would notice, and at other points I carried a much greater sense of worthiness – the idea that what I created deserved to be seen despite its clear and obvious flaws and shortcomings.

Much more often, though, I have had some sense that I am “not enough.” I’m not important enough, or good enough, or brave enough; I lack the character or wisdom or skill or talent or any number of other lacks and failings. These things rarely restrain my pompous and arrogant character, and they don’t often mute my larger-than-life style, but it seems that they do impede artistic creation.

Brené Brown, in the TED talk I mentioned, spoke of excruciating vulnerability as a primary component of shame and the “not enough” feeling. On the other hand, people who experience less shame, people who have strong feelings of love and belonging, who experience connectedness, these people differ from the other group in that they believe they are worthy of love and belonging. It is in the belief of worthiness that they gain their advantage. As she says, “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were.” This, it seems, is an absolute requirement for true connection. “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.”

(Sidebar: Please note that I said “less shame,” not “no shame.” Feeling worthy, being wholehearted, differs greatly from being shameless.)

Many people, I think, would probably not balk at using the word “wholehearted” as a proper descriptive of me. However, reflection as a result of this retreat has shown me that I’ve designed a sandbox for myself in which it’s entirely safe to be wholehearted with only minimal vulnerability. I’ve sterilized and polished my story of a broken life, complete with even my day-to-day failings on display, without much fear of disapproval or shame. I can describe my selfish thoughts and actions to nearly any audience; that manner of vulnerability brings no excruciating pain.

Artistic expression, on the other hand, particularly verbal artistic expression, including prose, poetry, and song lyrics, breaks out of the sandbox, exposing a window to my soul that I have not been able to sanitize. I can generally feel completely safe while making a fool of myself on stage playing music written by others, but my fear of shame, so it seems, bears at least partial responsibility for squelching my willingness to contribute my own heart to the creative process.

One of my current plans for generating income involves writing. Even before going to this retreat and seeing that video I had made a decision to return to a regular program of writing with the ultimate goal of being able to sell this skill / talent of mine. In watching this video, I realize that one of my hurdles in this process will be getting beyond the “not enough” feelings, exposing my vulnerabilities, and creatively inventing verbal expression with my whole heart.

Am I truly worthy of acceptance as a writer? Well, I guess that depends upon who judges worthiness. I do know, though, that only by actually writing will I ever have any chance to find out who accepts it and who does not. My recent return to Twitter has already yielded a gem from Donald Miller, a person I admire and respect, and who invites and encourages others to tell their stories and live great and expressive lives. He tweets:

Great characters make decisions and move. Life is 10% choosing and 90% movement.

Today I have chosen, and today I begin to move. I intend to create wholeheartedly. I may expose myself in ways I did not expect, but I am willing to be vulnerable with my life. I hope to create things inspiring and entertaining, but at the very minimum I intend simply to create.

Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability