By David Johnson
Ranji stood in front of me holding the book and for a few moments it was impossible for me to take in what she was saying. How did she know? How could she possibly know?
We had been busy packing up our apartment in Berkeley getting ready to leave for Addis Ababa a couple of weeks later and had taken a break to go to a bookstore. Not having made the transition to ebooks (I still haven’t), I was stocking up for our time overseas. I would have a lot of time to myself when we went to Ethiopia since I didn’t have a job lined up. My partner Ranji had a position waiting for her and I was going as her dependent. After years of working as a humanitarian aid worker, I would be living overseas without working.
So I was looking for books, not for anything specific, just browsing. Well, that wasn’t completely true – there was an idea bubbling just below the surface that I had not fully acknowledged, so I wandered not quite aimlessly about the store, not looking for what part of me knew I really wanted. Then suddenly, Ranji was offering me a book, suggesting that it was something I might like. It was exactly the book I would have chosen if I had allowed myself – Old Friend from Far Away, a book on memoir writing by Natalie Goldberg!
While we were preparing to leave, I had been tentatively inching toward the idea that I might spend my free time in Ethiopia writing. I had not spoken to Ranji about this idea; I had hardly even admitted to myself that this is what I wanted to do. The idea was simply too outrageous to contemplate seriously. Yet here was Ranji, with the same idea.
This might have been the first moment that I saw I had the potential to be a creative person – I wasn’t quite ready at that point to call myself creative, but I had started down that path. From there it was a gradual unfolding and unlearning of the messages I had internalized for as long as I could remember.
My path to discovering my creativity has not been an easy and straightforward one. Even now, there is a part of me that struggles to consider myself really creative, falling back into the old, more familiar, more comfortable self-image of someone who is logical and rational, and not really artistic. That familiarity and comfort comes from messages that I received very early on: the work that I did that was more intellectual, more scientific, always seemed to me to be valued more, to be praised more than the creative work. In fact, creative work seemed not even to be expected from me.
An incident at the end of elementary school was typical of how I and those around me viewed my relationship with creative work. In June, with only a couple of weeks left in eighth grade, my final year before starting high school, we were given a special assignment for art class. We were to spend three full classes going out in the schoolyard and finding small, interesting things to draw in a small sketchbook we had each been given. As all the kids shuffled out for the first of these mini-excursions, the teacher held me back. When everyone else had left the classroom he said, “Look David, you don’t need to do this exercise. Why don’t you just take a book out into the yard and read during art class.” As he spoke to me, I tried to hide the novel I was holding behind the sketchbook in my hand – it seems as if we had both had the same idea. He and I shared the same assumptions here: that this creative exercise was not crucial for the development of what was really important for me; and that, in any case, I would not have done it very well. (Okay, there is no way of knowing if the second assumption was shared, but I certainly held it myself!) Before the teacher spoke to me, my intention had been to spend the art classes reading and then to throw together some hurriedly scribbled sketches the night before we had to hand them in. I didn’t think more was expected of me, and I certainly didn’t expect more of myself. This reinforced an earlier incident in which my fifth-grade teacher told me to stand at the back of the class choir and mouth the words to the songs. By the time I reached the end of elementary school, I was thoroughly convinced that I was not artistic – that was just how I was.
Back in eighth grade, and then on for most of my adult life, I didn’t see how developing my creativity could be in any way important to me. I just didn’t see what making the effort would give me. I could see the benefits of the work of creative people – being a devoted reader, I greatly admired the creativity of writers – I just couldn’t see the value of my creativity.
In Ethiopia, I started connecting with my creativity, developing a daily writing practice which has led to my writing memoirs of my time overseas as well as fictional pieces. As I did, I began to perceive benefits of a creative life which I had not foreseen. I had assumed that the value of creativity, the whole point of creativity, was in the work of art which is its end result. The point of sculpting or writing is the sculpture or book which comes from the effort. I began to see that the real gift of creativity is not the thing which is created, but the effect that the process has on the person creating.
In letting go of the idea of creativity as a results-driven activity, I have let go of one of the biggest blocks to my creativity: the idea that I have to be good at it in order for it to be worth doing. From time to time in my youth, I would consider what it might be like to be a writer, but always shied away from the idea because I thought I could never write as well as my literary idols, as if I could never be a writer if I wasn’t Graham Greene or James Joyce. Once I began to write, I found that writing itself felt good and did me good, regardless of what I wrote. I found myself writing more easily and with less self-criticism. And this, of course, led to writing with which I was more and more pleased.
I have begun to see that the seeming coincidence of the discovery of my creativity and my deepening personal work – through, among other things, NVC – hasn’t really been a coincidence but a natural extension of the work I have been doing. As I began to write more, I saw how my creativity was encouraging and reinforcing many of the areas of growth to which my other practices have led me.
Creativity, for me, has been a journey into deepening presence and vulnerability – two of the practices which NVC has shown me are key to connection both with myself and others. In order to tap into my creativity, I need to slow down and be quiet enough to notice what is really going on deep inside. The act of bringing that truth from within myself up to the surface and being willing to show it, even if only to myself, takes vulnerability. My experience has been that this willingness to be vulnerable has led to greater self-knowledge and to deeper connection with others.
I have found great healing in my creativity. Through freeing myself of the pigeonhole of non-creativity into which I had been placed (and willingly placed myself), I have also begun to see other ways in which I have pigeonholed myself. I now see that other longstanding beliefs I had about myself are as untrue as the idea that I am not creative, and I’m now breaking free of them.
For example, most of my life I have thought – no, I have known – that I don’t connect easily with other people. This belief led me to accept loneliness and isolation just as how things were – there seemed little point in trying to swim against the current of my natural state. I actually came to see being alone as a preferred way of being. In recent years, as I have loosened the hold of old beliefs, I have found this to be spectacularly untrue – not only do I prefer connection with others, I thrive on it, and, in fact, it comes quite easily when I get out of my own way!
My writing has been a pathway to healing from some of the experiences of my work overseas as a humanitarian aid worker which had left their mark on me. As I have been able to examine these experiences and share them through my writing, I have found that I am able to let go of them. The last two months, I have participated in the Vancouver Story Slam, getting up in front of a roomful of people to tell a story from my time overseas. Both times I chose to tell stories that were deeply meaningful for me and have been awed by how this vulnerability has connected me to those listening to me. (You can see a video of my first Story Slam here).
Society in general does not value creativity and artistic expression – which is why kids are often encouraged toward more lucrative studies, programs leading to “real” careers. I studied engineering in university, a choice made partly under that pressure, but mostly because I identified myself as a scientific and logical thinker. I am pretty satisfied with that choice – it led me to interesting and fulfilling work overseas – and I am not sure if I would make a different choice knowing what I know now. I did wonder for a while whether I would have made a different choice had I been more in touch with a sense of my creativity when I was eighteen. Then I realized that what most attracted me to science and engineering was the potential for creativity that it holds, although at the time I didn’t have the words to call it that. I have recently come to see the duality between creative and rational as illusory. We are all both creative and logical – two fundamental and complementary aspects of our shared humanity.
The rediscovery of my creativity and the writing that has come from it have helped me to realize more of my own potential. I’ve discovered that not only am I a creative person, but that my creative journey is now one of the things that most fulfills me, that most animates me. I want others to join me in this, to begin to transcend the self-limiting stories that they believe about themselves, because it is through this freedom that we can become more who we truly are.