the most badass thing you can do as a creative
“We write to expose the unexposed.
If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must.
Otherwise you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.
Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.” — Anne Lamott
I was trying to help a friend figure out the ‘brand story’ of her new company when I realized she was talking in two different voices.
One voice was charged with passion, talking rapidly and with vivid inflection. Her eyes would light up. This was the voice that I wanted to listen to because it was interesting. It seemed a pipeline to her inner life.
But then the second voice would step in and hijack it.
Her voice would fall toward a monotone and she would start talking in abstractions, rationalizations, explanations that undercut the things she had told me moments before.
This was supposedly the ‘logical’ voice – except the logic didn’t seem all that logical to me. It was as if its sole purpose was to talk herself out of the things she had been saying in the first voice.
But on some level she must have known that this second voice was bullshit – which was why her eyes would dull over, the vitality ebb from her expression, her whole body seem less alive.
When I called her attention to this, she said she hadn’t noticed.
I saw something similar when a woman in my writing workshop talked about the memoir she wanted to write. She was the survivor of narcissistic parents who had nearly sucked her dry. She would start talking about her experiences –
— when another, ‘logical’ voice would kick in. That voice would quickly reassure us that, sure, her parents had some flaws, but they were really good people and she was really grateful to them and appreciative of everything they’d done for her. The second voice was like a glossy magazine cover with all the right headlines – but no content underneath.
It was a façade. It spoke in platitudes and clichés.
It was boring, and if she allowed that ‘logical’ voice to dictate her writing she was dead.
True creation happens when we allow ourselves to speak with that first voice. It taps into the source of our originality: ourselves, what’s really going on inside us, what we’re honestly thinking, feeling, dreaming. There may be nothing new under the sun, but we make it new when we filter it through the unique matrix of our own personalities and quirky worldview.
The problem is how quickly we disconnect from that voice and switch over to what appears to be ‘reason’: the stuff that some part of you feels you need to say and do and think in order to fit in.
Psychologist Carol Gilligan writes extensively about how men and women lose their authentic voices in a culture that teaches us that in order to have power, you have to sacrifice relationship, and vice versa. So boys learn to disconnect from the language of feeling, vulnerability and empathy in the pursuit of personal power. Girls learn to submerge their sense of individual power for the sake of relationship: it’s more important to be ‘nice’ than to risk confrontation and possible exile.
We learn to not-know what we truly know when it cuts against the social grain, and accept a more superficial ‘knowing’ instead, shaped by outside forces rather than our own inner authority.
When that first voice – of true knowing – speaks up, the second voice steps on it.
(Carol Gilligan tells of a woman she was interviewing who suddenly said, “Do you want to know what I think…or what I really think?”)
Margaret Atwood once observed that silence and powerlessness go hand-in-hand. What goes unsaid can be more revealing than what is being said, because it’s those areas of our lives around which we feel powerless that we tend to keep secret. That’s where shame grows: in the dark, behind closed doors, isolated from any real sense of human community that would incorporate our experiences into a much bigger picture.
Training someone to be ‘nice’ can be a way of silencing that first voice. Too often it gets locked up in a vague sense of shame and a fear of exposure.
But as human beings, we long to know that we’re not alone. We crave access to the inner lives of others — we want to know what you really think — which is why projects like Postsecret become wildly popular and turn into bestselling books. We have an instinctive drive toward the truth, so we eat the apple or open Pandora’s box or unlock the forbidden door or choose the red pill. We want the authentic life, and not the illusion of it.
But the truth is subversive and chaotic. It will set you free, but first it will raise hell – and quite possibly create a whole new order. The truth is not polite, and it is not afraid to challenge the overriding cultural story otherwise known as the status quo.
The most powerful thing you can do as a creator is to shift the paradigm. To blow open the old way of looking at things. To bring something into the light and give it a name. You do this by using the first voice, which leads you to Bluebeard’s locked room and hands you the key.
The second voice only leads you to Bluebeard.