Let me give you the definition of the phrase ‘art form’:
Any activity regarded as a medium of imaginative or creative self-expression.
Self-expression being to communicate one’s thoughts, opinions and experiences from a point of honesty.
Now let me give you the definition of the word ‘courage’:
Deriving from the Latin word ‘cor’ meaning ‘heart’. In one of its earliest forms, ‘courage’ originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.”
So in order to express oneself fully, we must have courage enough to tell the story of who we are and what we know with our whole hearts. Everyone can tell the truth. Everyone can create something. But only by communicating truth in our work can we create something that is truly brave and truly beautiful.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me to speak at a performance poetry workshop he is hosting for students at our old university campus. Adhering to my new motto of ‘just say yes’, I agreed to join him at the workshop and talk about the medium of slam. Pretty soon after accepting his invitation, however, I began to question my decision; while I may have seen my fair share of performance poetry during my time in the South West, I have never actively participated in it myself. The niggling voice of doubt crept into my thoughts and what it said was this: “You are not a performance poet. What can you possibly have to say to these people that will be in any way relevant? Who do you think you are?”
Every person who makes art will hear this intrusive voice like a swelling question mark in their head from time to time. It’s natural to be nervous about bearing our soul, to doubt ourselves and what we have to say. This is where courage comes in, but first I think it’s important to address the problem at its core. The voice we hear in times of doubt belongs to shame.
I started seeing someone back in February who has been helping me work some things out in life and this person introduced me to the works of an American research professor called Brene Brown. They loaned me some of Brown’s books and told me to watch her Ted Talks recording, claiming that it would most likely be helpful in regards to understanding what I was feeling at the time.
So I got online and typed her name into the search bar. Brene Brown: researcher and storyteller. I watched one video of hers and when that was finished, I watched another. And another. And another. I then proceeded to share these videos with many of my close friends who in turn shared them far and wide and frankly, it was a snowball and a steep slope.
Brown considers the idea of shame and how it can dictate our lives for the worse, holding us back from taking chances and suppressing our hope, our belief that we can succeed.
It goes like this:
As humans, we all seek connection; the ability to feel close to one another is pretty much the whole reason for us being here. Shame unravels that ability to truly connect with others. Shame promotes fear, embarrassment. It is the thing in our minds that tells us we are not worthy of love or belonging. ‘I won’t go to the party because I don’t dress as fashionably as everyone else there, I’m not funny enough, I’m too shy’. ‘I won’t submit my work to this competition, I won’t apply for this job that I really want because I don’t have the experience, I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough.’ Shame serially prevents us from going for what we really want.
So how do we tackle shame?
Brown says that the only way to defeat our insecurities and live courageously is to show our true selves to people when we are at our most vulnerable, that in order for genuine connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be really seen as we are with all of our fear, embarrassment, anger and insecurities laid bare.
On the whole, vulnerability is often seen as a negative thing. How often do we interchange the words vulnerability and weakness? Frequently, if you’re me (but again, that’s something I’m trying to work on.) I’ve been trying to live my life of late in a more overtly vulnerable way, but still find myself slipping up by referring to my insecurities as weaknesses from time to time. It’s a common misconception built up by our society: you’re weak if you cry, you’re weak if you’re scared, you’re weak if you tell someone that they have hurt your feelings, you’re not strong enough to deal with criticism. How many times have we been told after a break up or a funeral that we were ‘so brave’ because we didn’t cry, didn’t scream, held it together by not making a scene? Is that bravery? Talk about bottling it all up.
Personally speaking, I have discovered of late that one of my biggest fears is the possibility of being rejected. This comes from a lot of different aspects in my life: not being able to say ‘I love you’ first, not sending off that script, not writing that blog article, not auditioning for that play. If I don’t try, I won’t fail and no one can accuse me of not being good enough, worthy enough of merit, praise, acceptance, love.
Brown talks about ‘whole-hearted’ people who see the necessity of being knocked back every once in a while, because even if you open yourself up to another person and they decide they don’t want to see it, at least you were honest, at least you had courage. Yes, it may hurt at the time but that only makes being accepted feel all the more wonderful when it occurs. Having courage is not about being dismissive or overlooking the things that hurt us, it’s about having acceptance towards the possibility of those things that could potentially cause us pain.
By being courageous enough to allow others to see us at our most vulnerable, we hold the key to being able to express ourselves truly, to feel worthy enough of love and belonging, to feel joy in true connection, to create boldly and without shame.
And this is why vulnerability in our art is so important.
A few years ago, I wrote a play that came very much from a personal place, relating heavily to a relationship of mine which had recently come to an end. I submitted it to a showcase for local writers and performers that was being hosted at the time and was overjoyed when it was accepted on to the project. Smoking in Bed is a play that will always be very close to my heart as it was the first play I ever had taken to stage. While thrilled to see it performed, I was also very nervous about the reaction it would elicit: I knew the people who would come to see the show, who would see my play, listen to my words and they knew me – what would they think? I sat through the performance half in the action and half biting my nails, almost as eager to hear the opinions of my peers than I had been to watch the play itself. After the curtains proverbially fell, people inevitably began to approach me. There were a lot of ‘It was really good’s and ‘You must be really happy’s but the one that got me came from a girl who said, “My ex used to say exactly the same thing to me.”
And in that moment, an understanding passed between us, a truth that we both recognised through a shared experience. With my art, I had spoken a truth to someone I might never have known had been through a similar situation and I empathised with her greatly for that.
So when shame came to me and asked, ‘What can you tell these people about performance poetry if you aren’t even a performance poet?’ I looked at the situation from a difference approach.
Art at its purest is a method of communication and we can’t achieve connection without being honest. When we write a story, a play, a poem, it’s essential that we convey something true, something real within ourselves or else genuine connection, real empathy cannot take place and its potential worth is diminished.
So I say we need to utilise honesty when creating; be bold and courageous and showcase our truth by being vulnerable, laying ourselves bare for the world to see when making art. Because I can guarantee that as long as we fill our work with personal truth, no one can tell us that we are wrong or not good enough; someone somewhere will see it and say, ‘I can really relate to that.’
People, this has been a promotion for connection and healing through art. Be true to you and remember that there is no such thing as perfection – it’s a shitty concept.
I wholeheartedly wish you fortune in all of your endeavours, friends.