December 28, 2016

Here is my Soft Spot, Handle with Care—On Courage & Creativity.

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” ~ Rumi


I am brave. I am sh*t scared. I am vulnerable. I am resilient.

I signed up for the Elephant Academy to improve my writing skills. I expected this to be a clinical process, a bit akin to honing my financial modelling skills.

Instead, I found myself sliding through a rabbit hole straight into my own version of Wonderland.

What ensued was an epic battle between sense and sensibility, with a lot of surprises and lessons along the way.

At the beginning of this journey, one of the first responsibilities I was given as an apprentice was to curate one of the elephant journal Facebook pages. In addition to a feeling of apprehension about the responsibility of the task, I was also getting clammy hands at the thought that my personal intros and choice of articles would reveal more of my soul to the wide world than I ever had to my nearest and dearest.

Fast forward to December, and I went on record writing about my “date” with anxiety and dealing with failure and rejection.

Talk about transformation!

It has been a winding road, starting with a leap of faith into the unknown.

“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” ~ Edward Teller

A year and a half ago, when I left my corporate job to head into uncharted territory, some people called me brave. I’m not so sure whether it was an act of bravery as much as one of self-preservation.

When we are dissatisfied with the status quo, and wanderlust pulls at our heart strings, we get scared by the unknown. We try to gain courage from asking ourselves: “What’s the worst that could happen?” Alas, our imaginations have no trouble coming up with a plethora of doomsday scenarios, usually keeping us stuck in an uncomfortable comfort zone.

How about a different question: What if the worst that could happen is already happening to me right now?

“A creative life is an amplified life.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

The full details of my one-year meanderings are ample and might make the subject of an entirely different article, but suffice it to say they involved a strong pull toward creative pursuits: photography, dancing, and writing. It’s not that I deliberately pursued creativity—it felt more like creativity was chasing me.

This came as a surprise to many, not least of which was my family, who had always labelled me as decidedly “left-brained.”

We tend to think in dichotomies: rational vs. creative, pragmatic vs. artistic.

This was confirmed by a conversation that I had recently with a fellow former banker: she confessed that she felt as though “her right side of the brain was functioning at five percent capacity compared to her left.”

This is a common belief among the “numbers people.” We might have confidence in our abilities with an excel spreadsheet, but feel embarrassingly low on creativity.

I think this is the result of social conditioning.

We put creativity on a pedestal, and hold the belief that it is only accessible to a chosen few.

This is why Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic spoke to my heart so profoundly—along with her definition of creativity being the brainchild of curiosity! Okay, so I might still feel a little self-conscious about calling myself an artist, but I’m certainly curious. Let’s start with that, and see where it leads.

I grew up with the idea that creativity was the result of “talent,” a gift that was bestowed on us (or not) at birth, and would become apparent early in life with no pre-requisite nurturing. The recurring example to support this “indisputable” theory was that of Mozart, writing music at the tender age of three, and performing in public at six years old.

Based on that argument, and the fact that I didn’t seem to manifest any obvious signs of artistic genius by the age of seven, I settled in my belief that I was simply not blessed with the gift of creativity, and I should therefore follow the more accessible path of pragmatism.

That was until the story of Paul Gauguin planted another seed in my heart—or maybe just watered the seed that was there all the time, hidden under the…manure of discouragement.

See, Paul Gauguin couldn’t have been more different from Mozart. In fact, he started his career as a stock broker, and he was in his mid-30s when he fully dedicated his life to painting, becoming an influential post-Impressionist artist. I guess there’s a hero archetype for everyone.

I may have felt inspired at the time, but was by no means ready to turn my back on my career in the city; in fact, I didn’t even know what avenue my creativity would choose to express itself in—I felt no pull toward paint brushes.

I did however start to tentatively dabble in photography and took up dancing. Eventually, my old love of the written word returned, once the muse made sure the ground had been prepared for her come-back.

You see, perhaps we do get early signs about the direction of our creativity—they might just get overlooked and go into hiding for a while. My finger paintings might not have announced a next generation Picasso, and my ability to hold a tune had been mediocre at best, but I did love to write! How could I forget that? I wrote poetry, short stories, and even wanted to write a novel around the age of 10.

The results of those early endeavours are now long lost in the archives of time and multiple moves (and quite possibly ended up fuelling a barbecue). And unfortunately those interests were put aside when I was asked to choose “between left and right” (sides of the brain)—as was the custom in the education system I grew up in. As the daughter of two engineers, I might have been biased in my leanings.

Rediscovering my creativity brought with it a wave of child-like delight!

Playing with words and images to create messages that resonated with others filled me with joy.

But I was soon to discover that this was just the tip of the iceberg. Creativity likes to swim in the deepest waters of our souls, it likes to stir things up. I found that my muse got most excited about the things that I most wanted to silence.

So my next lesson about creativity was that in order to honour my authentic voice, I first had to find courage.

“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert

My initial fears of sharing my creative self with the world soon proved to be unfounded. I was pleasantly surprised to find that by presenting a more “technicolour” version of myself, many of my relationships became more profound.

But could I move from saying: “Look, I made something pretty,” to saying: “Here is my soft spot. Handle with care and may it be of benefit”?

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” ~ Brené Brown

I found that much of my writing inspiration came from moments of deep vulnerability. There were stories in me that I wanted to express, but at the same time I feared the judgment they may attract.

But I sensed that in those things that I most wanted to silence lay the key to my connection with the readers.

Thankfully, this seems to be familiar territory for many writers, and I found encouragement in Waylon’s paraphrase of Kerouac: “it’s what we least want to admit to that the world is most bleeding to hear.”

I was also inspired by my fellow apprentices, who led the way by sharing their own brave stories: stories of stigma and prejudice, stories of love and heartbreak.

In the nurturing, inspiring space of the Elephant Academy, I discovered my true courage.

“You have made a difference to my future existence.” ~ Rob Smith (elephant journal reader)

I found that courage has a payoff: sharing my own vulnerability, far from being met with criticism or rejection, seems to have connected to a soft, unspoken spot in many readers. The feedback that I got was humbling and heart-warming.

Finally, my last lesson on creativity is that more often than being “child’s play,” it’s rather gritty business; to me, it feels as though it simultaneously lifts a load off my chest, while claiming an emotional pound of flesh. But my life does indeed feel amplified for it, and there is no way I’m chasing away the muse again, now that we have been reunited.

So—does this mean that I am “switching sides” and vowing allegiance to my “right brain?” Actually, it turns out that the whole “right vs. left brain” theory is only a myth. I no longer believe in separation: brain vs. heart, creativity vs. reason.

Rather, I am reminded of this charming yoga teacher I met in Buenos Aires, who finished all her classes with an invitation to bow our heads to our hearts, and with this blessing:

“May your intelligence be loving, and may your love be intelligent.”


Author: Hermina Popa

Images: Author’s Own

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Hermina Popa