Leafing through social media, which I’ve returned to, post-Lent (and “leafing” makes it sound more tender than “scrolling”), I happened on a snippet of a YouTube clip of researcher and author Brené Brown, from her keynote address at 99U, an event series from Adobe for design and innovation. The clip was interesting, but not quite fulfilling, and I saw that it was in fact part of a 22-minute address that was filled with ideas that interested me even more.
Brown is addressing a room full of “creatives,” which she calls her tribe, though she isn’t sure she’s really a member. She points out that “creatives are the kids no one sat with in high school and then everybody wanted to be when they grow up,” but adds ruefully that as a researcher, still no one wants to sit with her. Nevertheless, she wants to be just who she is, doing the work she cares about. She entitled her talk, “Sweaty Creatives.”
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
“No one wants to sit next to you.” I started thinking about all the kids “no one” wanted to sit with in high school. (Miss O’ raises her hand.) And then I wondered, who were all the “no ones”? Remember them? Me, neither. Isn’t that great?
Brown’s field is “vulnerability and love,” which I didn’t know could be a field—and really, shouldn’t that be part of everything human? She recognized, as she reflected on the daunting task of her 99U keynote, that “design is a function of connection because there’s nothing more vulnerable than creativity, and what is art if it’s not love?” She says these beautiful things so conversationally, I nearly missed the radical. I had to turn on closed captioning and watch the video again, go moment to moment, and copy some of the words. Great words.
Brown talks about how a particular quotation, which she will come to, changed her, about the arrival of words “you’re ready to hear,” and how as a result, “something shifts inside of you.” First, for context, she talks about the comments sections that followed articles about her, the devastating personal attacks by “critics” (see also: those “no ones” above) who felt the need to bring her down for having the audacity to do a TED talk that went viral, for sharing her creative work with others. (In that talk her thesis is that we as a species are in great danger because we are “losing our tolerance for vulnerability.” It’s interesting to listen to her in some ways, because her examples of “foreboding joy” and “disappointment as a lifestyle” struck me as very must part of the makeup of historically oppressed people, who often turn this negativity into successful comedy. But I digress.)
Meet the Critics, Part 1
Years ago, when I started writing my first Miss O’ Show blog on Blogger, I did it because I had a lot to say about the importance of teacher training, which is almost nonexistent in the United States, especially and ironically in colleges of education. After 15 years in the classroom teaching English 9-12, Humanities, Speech and Drama, and Theater Production, I had created so many lessons, amassed so much technique, I couldn’t let it all languish in my file boxes after I’d moved to New York and another career. So I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. A few former students followed me, a few friends followed me, and we had some lively conversations in the Comments section. I really enjoyed it.
A couple of close friends, I couldn’t help noticing—real writers, people who published beautiful writing in journals and even books—either didn’t read my work, stopped reading if they’d read at all, or else pointed out that my blogs were subpar, that I wrote without enough care for being artful. I had not stopped to think about what kind of writer I was, or how gorgeous I might make each sentence sound (I knew a writer once who said, “I’m physically incapable of writing an unlovely sentence” as his excuse for not rendering dialogue truthfully)—what I cared about was teacher training, to begin with; then it went to other, more personal stories, and perhaps I lost my way sometimes. One writer friend seemed to suggest I stop publishing, and I did, for a time.
So I was intrigued by the focus of Brown’s talk, which centered on a culled section of a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt from a speech known as “the man in the arena speech”:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Three things shifted in Brown, she explains, when she read the quote, all having to do with her 12 years of research into vulnerability: 1) “It’s not about winning, it’s not about losing, it’s about showing up and being seen”; 2) “This is who I want to be; I want to be creative; I want to make things that didn’t exist before I touched them; I want to show up and be seen in my work and in my life…and there is only one guarantee [if you do this]: you will get your ass kicked…if courage is a value that we hold, this is a consequence;” 3) “If you’re not in the arena, also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.” Can I hear an amen?
Speaking, however, of the friends who expressed unhappiness with my writing: they were and are, in fact, in the arena of publishing. They do the thing, and so their feedback is something I can’t discount. In addition, thinking of Oscar Wilde and his essay, “The Critic as Artist,” it’s obvious that a critic can also be a creative force, thereby getting his ass kicked. It’s not either/or, meaning you are a critic, or you are in the arena. The question any legitimate critic has to ask, though, is, What is the purpose of my critique? And the question an artist has to ask is, Do I listen to the criticism or do my work the best I can?
I think when it comes to critics to ignore, it’s about the critics in the Comments sections. We have all left comments, I’m guessing, on articles and essays, and some comments are very much worth listening to when they are genuine responses. But a lot of commenters are just out to be assholes. Brown is addressing the assholes. All those damaged, lonely assholes.
But something took a turn inside Miss O’ at another point in Brown’s talk, where I took a metaphor she used and made it literal. Brown said, talking about how to deal with the “self doubt, comparison, anxiety” that creatives feel before entering the arena, “You armor up, right?” Against uncertainty and fear, this is what most people do.
Brown meant this, as I say, metaphorically, but I took that and went full-blown NRA. America in the 21st century is all about fear and guns, and religious fervor as an excuse to kill. Fear and irrational hatred of the other as an excuse to kill. Literally “armoring up.”
Brown notes about the metaphorical armor (and Miss O’ echoes her on the literal armor): “But god that stuff is heavy, and that stuff is suffocating, and the problem is, when you armor up against vulnerability, you shut yourself off…from everything that you do and that you love.”
There it is. There it is. Brown points out that while vulnerability is about fear and uncertainty and shame and all that stuff, it’s also “the birthplace” of these other things, and she showed a list:
All this points to why I love the arts so much, and Brown’s list underscores my continual declaration that the arts are the great civilizers, the reason for all the work we do on earth. Whether it’s a Netflix binge or a trip to the Met or a podcast or a playlist, making theater or writing poems or knitting or making beads out of Sculpey, it’s the arts that feed us, that make life worth living.
And Brown’s talk also underscored for me the extent to which our society has lost its way as a civilization. Today in the United States, gun violence is the number one cause of death among children. How many mass shootings does it take to change this? Where does it end? Now random people, including children, are shot for simply ringing a doorbell, turning up the wrong driveway, retrieving a ball from a neighbor’s yard. Why are so many Americans feeling they must “armor up”? Why are they all feeling so vulnerable and afraid?
And why is one political party absolutely in denial that there is a gun death problem? Why does that same party rail against taxes on the rich for the public good, including funding the arts and building infrastructure, while at the same time using tax money to pay bounty hunters to stop abortions that are no one’s business but a woman’s? How can it be reasonable to think regulating guns is authoritarianism but forcing a woman to die in carrying a baby to term is justice?
Weirdly, a lot of gun owners identify as Christians. A lot of Christians freak out about children being molested, and while that is a legitimate concern, obviously, what’s not legitimate is blaming transexuals and drag queens. Many culprits, in fact, turn out to be priests and pastors. And it got me wondering if past abuses in the most sacred spaces have caused American Christians to assume that the whole country is even worse. Thieves live in a world of thieves, after all. Compound that damage with racism and misogyny and deep ignorance of humanity in general, and the easy answer is “armor up.”
Meet the Critics, Part 2
Brown talks about how when we enter the arena, there are lots of people in the seats, but we focus only on the critics. The three big ones are “shame, scarcity, and comparison.” Shame: who am I to create? Scarcity: how can I think that anything I’m doing is original? Comparison: how can I ever be as good as….? Speaking as a former teacher, I remember almost exclusively my failures to do my job well, for all three of the reasons up there, and rarely recall my reasons to feel successful. I agree with Brown that this is human—we want to be loved and rooted for and capable, and no one wants to feel they have failed someone. Our inner critic makes us nuts. And no one wants to hear the outside critics. We don’t want to sit with them, right? And they never wanted to sit with us.
But you don’t shoot them. You just don’t. Not in a sane world. Brown said she avoided doing things in her career, putting things out there, because she didn’t want any critics in the arena, but she knew she couldn’t control that. No one can. I think of the end of the movie Witness (spoiler coming), when Harrison Ford has killed off all the bad guys but one, and there the last bad guy is with a gun, and Harrison starts yelling at him, how many more are you going to kill? The killing would never end. You want every witness dead? You only create more witnesses as your crimes pile up. In American politics now, everyone wants the “other side” to just die already. Are they high?
At least three things are true in all this: 1) Living life is a creative act; 2) No one likes criticism; 3) Few people know how to give criticism in constructive and loving ways, I suspect because they often don’t know why they don’t like something. As to that third thing, I think that when people can’t exactly say why they are upset, it’s because a nerve was touched, a box in the attic of their mind was unexpectedly unlocked, and they want the lid to stay down. At other times, I think critics often project their own fears onto the creatives, resent a creative person’s willingness to reveal vulnerabilities that they themselves would never bring to light. (I remember poet Sonia Sanchez saying in the documentary The Pieces I Am that when she first read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, she would periodically throw it across the room.) Possibly, too, in the case of close friends, they can be hurt that we reveal something in a creative public space that we have not personally shared with them. Maybe a combination of all three. The fourth possibility is you do, in fact, suck at your art. But so what, really? You can still improve! And no one dies.
There’s a fourth critic’s seat in the arena, Brown says, after Shame, Scarcity, and Comparison—the teacher, the parent, the pastor, the person who made you feel less. The fifth seat, the final critic’s seat, is for you, or me, our personal self-criticism seat.
Damaged people, man. We are all damaged to an extent, but somehow we have to help one another to repair all this damage. The scary, confounding part? How to start. A famous (white) actress posted to social media to say, of the rise of fascism, that she didn’t know what to do, that she gives money, she makes videos, she calls her senators, and she’s feeling lost. She was taken down by another woman (a woman of color) who said she can’t understand why white women don’t understand they have all the power but don’t use it. And I, speaking as a white woman, still don’t know what I am supposed to do, either. That is how damaged and isolated many of us are. It’s hard to know how to show up, where to show up to, what showing up actually looks like sometimes. And that’s why I love good leaders, since most of us aren’t.
But the vast majority of us humans, fortunately, don’t see building a literal arsenal as an answer to all our power problems and struggles with others. But neither should we stop caring what other people think. Brown points out that “when we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection.” I think this is true: if shooting random people doesn’t shame you, you are diseased. If your answer to every criticism is to shoot (or shoot down) someone, you are diseased. On the other hand, Brown notes, “When we become defined by what people think, we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.” Artistically speaking, if I try to write something in order to please one person or to avoid criticism, the writing always fails. This is not a coincidence. When I am not vulnerable, I see now, I don’t write from an authentic place. When you aren’t authentic, the art fails. And the artist feels like shit.
But whatever else you feel, if you want to grow, you have to show up. As Brown says, “If courage is my value, I have to show up. Whether it’s successful or not is irrelevant.”
Brown sees two crucial things to the life of a creative: 1) clarity of values; 2) one person in your corner to be there for you no matter what. I don’t have the second thing—I suspect most of us (looking at the numbers of single/never married/never partnered people, esp. women) really don’t have that second thing. Speaking artistically, I suspect I can’t really become anything like a true artist without that person. People who tell me otherwise always have that one person in their corner. They cannot imagine life any other way. They really can’t. And yet I persist. As most of us do.
I suspect that murderers and gun-clingers never had that one person in their corner, either, but something else is going on when the gun is their answer to every one of life’s questions. Even if we other the killers, we have to acknowledge that almost all our television shows, our “entertainments” on screen, feature guns. The only power is might. But in real life, we don’t live like that. Every moment is not about murder and terror. Why do we like watching it? Why do we all accept these mass deaths by guns? How damaged are we?
Brown closes her keynote with the importance of making a seat for yourself in the arena, noting that very often we have an ideal of ourselves, and in trying to reach that ideal, “we orphan all those parts of ourselves to fit what we think the ideal is supposed to be, and that just leaves the critic.” Creating is, after all, about self-discovery and connection, and who is anyone, really, to try to drive away that impulse? Unless, of course, a person’s “creative act” is about destroying others.
Most of us don’t have the quiet, the space, the health, or the support to reflect on our personal growth let alone create. And that shouldn’t be. So, if I have the privilege of the reflection that I can do in this creative act of a blog, I need to keep trying to do it well. As Brown says, “nothing is as scary as getting to the end of our lives and thinking, what if I would have shown up?”
Show up. Somehow.
Love to all.
6 thoughts on “Showing Up”
1st off, I LOVE the pic! 2nd I love you! 3rd it’s so good to know we can always improve! Miss ya!
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Regarding your supposed lack of “artfulness” in your writing: they are aware, aren’t they, that not all writing is “literary”? that style is sometimes dictated by other concerns? Blogging is a form of journaling (a very public form), which traditionally calls for a certain immediacy and is therefore less concerned with style. I would argue that if you’re blogging, you’re inviting your reader in, asking them to sit down for a nice chat, perhaps with a hot beverage and a snack, and there’s not much call for artifice there.
I hope you smacked Mr. Physically Incapable of Writing an Unlovely Sentence—he sounds very rarefied, and perhaps he needs to get off his fainting couch. As you point out—as you were trying to point out, I’m guessing it was you—truth and “beauty” aren’t necessarily the same. Scholars thought for a long time that we could follow along with Catullus’ tumultuous relationship with the very married Lesbia, that his expressions of passionate love and hate were outpourings of raw emotion. They seem not to have noticed how very polished those outpourings are.
Probably very few writers haven’t had to sweat over every sentence. Vergil supposedly wrote ten lines of poetry every morning and then spent his afternoons licking them into shape, like a mother bear with her shapeless cubs. It’s a craft, it takes time and effort. (Really, smack him again—a good old Vivienne Blake slap.)
(On a different, but related, note: have you had the pleasure of reading George Eliot’s essay “Silly Lady Novelists”? A hoot and a half.)
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Thank you, Steve! That Mr. Physically Incapable… was in a playwriting workshop from over 20 years ago, and I STILL want to smack him. Thanks for all your encouragement. Love.
This is what I tried to post in response to your post. I’m out of town right now, and can’t recall my password, so your site wouldn’t allow me to post the following (below.) I literally feel I want to take notes on your post and then have a conversation with you as there’s so much to talk about.
There is so much worthy of thought a discussion in this post, the connections and interconnections you make it’s difficult to know where to begin to respond. Thank you for your writing and for over and over again “showing up.” Creativity in its myriad forms allows us to feel alive, and when that creative expression is powerful, allows others to experience life more deeply as well.
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Thank you for your thoughtful response, Anna–there is so much to talk about; and thank you for sending along the Vimeo of Roseanne Cash reading “Power” by Adrienne Rich. YES. Love.