I have a new intuitive painting student who has been surprising herself by how often she finds herself asking the question "You mean it's really OK to do that?"
This question comes up around simple things like " You mean it's OK to make a mess? Is it really OK to use this much paint? Or to use two pieces of paper if I want to make a really big painting?"
On the one hand she knows all these questions are absurd. I have made it totally clear to her that she has complete permission to do whatever she wants. But it was incredibly eye-opening for her to see how many unconscious assumptions and rules were governing her creative life.
One of the reasons it's hard to be as fully creatively as you might want to be is that we are all riddled with these types of erroneous expectations. We are constantly being bombarded, both internally and externally, with different messages around what is allowable, what is permissible, what fits in with who you think you are and who you think others will allow you to be.
We get pigeonholed. Locked into an identity. We all have a story about who we are creatively. And that story generally comes from what we've been told by other people.
Some of us were granted the artist title. But that designation can be just as inhibiting and suffocating as being told you don't have a creative bone in your body. When you are the "artist" you always have to be proving yourself. You are constantly trying to outrun the critiques. You can't make bad art, you always have to be original and you don't dare expose yourself as having substandard technique.
Some of us were stamped as "creatively defective". So we never even bother to try and pick up a paintbrush or write a poem because we are led to believe the myth of talent and the even bigger myth that we don't have any.
But there are myriads of other messages that we get around what is allowable creative expression, especially as adults.
One of my favorite activities is to go to a certain local city park where I can be out in nature. This particular park has a wide asphalt trail that winds through the trees and around a lake and is filled with birds and beauty and silence. It's popular but not overly crowded especially during the weekday afternoons which is when I like to be there. I also love bringing my iPod, wearing my Bose headphones and playing music as I walk.
There is one eensie-weensie problem which is that when I'm listening to some of my favorite tunes cranked up to maximum volume on my headset I am inspired to do more than just walk. I'm already pretty jazzed and energized just being outside but then the music makes me want to start toe tapping and even bursting into a little "the hills are alive" tra-la-la-ing , as well as indulging in some of my "I am a rockstar singer" fantasies.
I usually don't follow that impulse, however, because the ironclad cultural message that we all have deep in our bones is that we DO NOT sing and dance out in public on the streets if we are a grownup.
Now, singing and dancing where other people can see you is not COMPLETELY prohibited.
There are certain very proscribed places that it's OK to sort of spontaneously move our bodies to music. It's acceptable to shake our booty on a dance floor in a club or at a wedding. It's still within the realm of acceptable behavior to open wide and sing along with the performers if we are at a concert.
But walking along a trail in the forest and trying out my version of tap dance moves while gamely attempting to hit the high notes on an old Joni Mitchell song? Nuh uh. No way Jose. That is just wrong. If you do something like that you are plain weird. Unacceptable. Not normal. Way far out on the farthermost hinterlands of the bell curve.
However, even though I'm well trained in most popular social mores sometimes I just can't help it. My body simply wants to move when the beat takes hold of me. So I would find myself out there on the trail torn between the desire to appear sane by simply walking in an orderly fashion while fighting off the urge to break into a little impromptu twist and shout and risk being branded as a crazy person.
Occasionally, when I could stand it no longer, and only after making sure the coast was clear by furtively looking behind me and hoping that no one would appear around the next bend in the direction I was headed, I would allow myself to briefly prance and gyrate like Gwen Stefani on stage singing her hit song Hey Baby. And as soon as someone would come into view on the path I would immediately stop my hip twirling and pretend like I was doing nothing more than strolling.
This sneaky strategy was exhausting, completely unsatisfying and at a certain point became patently, obviously ridiculous. I actually like to think of myself as someone who is fairly uninhibited around the whole creative self expression thing. After all, it's MY JOB to help other people gain more freedom around their creativity.
I feel like it's important that I hold down that particular fort, providing some support and role modeling for people to let their creative freak flag fly, hopefully giving them permission to maybe take a few more creative risks. And trusting that if I am seen putting myself out there, it can help other people feel a little less scared and maybe even give it a try.
So I knew I had to change my approach to this whole thing. I knew I had to stop being so constrained by a cultural expectation and limitation that I think is total bullshit anyhow. I had to risk being thought of as weird and crazy. I had to break a social contract.
It was time for me to start dancing in the streets. Or at least on the city park asphalt.
I took the plunge while joyfully jumping around and belting it out to one of my favorite songs by the Ramones, I Want To Be Sedated. Because I was scared, I started my little experiment when I was alone on the path, but when a group of 20 something guys appeared coming over the next hill, I didn't stop.
This was NOT the group I was hoping would be my witnesses on my maiden street dancing voyage. I would have been much happier if it had been a group of 90 somethings who maybe couldn't see and hear all that well. But I knew it was now or never.
I needed to make a stand. And a shimmy.
I was highly uncomfortable because I could feel that it made them uneasy. I could see them looking at me out of the corner of their eye with a WTF? look on their faces that I could easily interpret as being judgmental. And they were also edging away from me slightly as if worried that my obvious unbalanced state could lead to something even more unpleasant than shaking old lady butt.
But we all survived.
They had a story that they could tell about this weird white haired woman they saw making a total fool of herself in the park. And I reclaimed a tiny bit more of my creative freedom to sing and dance wherever I damn well please.