For those who may be interested to read my Wyong Writers festival speech on Doing Awesome Broken, here it is
There once was a woman who loved to walk in the wilderness. At night she dreamed of the scent of the trees, the feel of the earth beneath her feet and the sound of the wind moving through the tree boughs overhead. Every morning, she packed her knapsack and tied her boots, and headed out on her favourite track, excited for all the new experiences which lay ahead.
As she walked along one day, suddenly she heard a small voice coming from somewhere. “Where are you going?” the voice said. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous out here? Do you have a map?”
“No, I don’t need a map, I’m exploring,” she replied to the voice, “but excuse me – exactly where are you?”
“I’m here”, said a small child-like creature who suddenly popped out from behind a tree. “And I’m concerned. In fact I’m WORRIED.”
“What on earth are you worried about?” said the woman. “I’m fine, and you appear to be as well.”
“How silly you are,” said the creature. “If only you KNEW all the things that could go WRONG for someone just wandering about unprepared. I think I should go with you and warn you about ALL THE THINGS.”
Despite being already annoyed with this little bore who seemed bent on spoiling her adventure, the woman agreed to take it with her. They headed off with it perched on top of her knapsack where it could easily chatter into her ear.
“Always look down, there’s so many things to trip on. Look out! Those leaves are poisonous. Did you hear that? I’m sure that’s a dangerous animal in the bush waiting to pounce. Did you bring snacks? We might starve. You can’t go there! I did once, and what happened was HORRIBLE! Oh my God! How far are we going? Can’t you walk faster? Slower? I think we should go back. This was a stupid idea. I want to go home!”
Exasperated, the woman stopped and put down her knapsack. Sitting opposite her passenger on a stump, she watched as it sobbed and rocked itself. At first, the woman felt afraid. Clearly this little creature was terrified out here, even though this was its natural habitat. The noises and strange movements seemed ominous rather than interesting, and suddenly she was afraid of becoming lost, despite the fact they hadn’t left the path. Perhaps wandering out here was a stupid idea, they really were both in danger, and it was time to go back. Dreaming of the wilderness was turning out to be much more pleasant than actually being in it.
But as she sat looking at the little creature sobbing, she was moved to compassion. This little one was much smaller than the woman and seemed to have suffered much in the past. She realised all the chatter and foreboding was nothing more than fear. All the wonder and enjoyment of the wilderness, the mystery, adventure and peace to be found there were invisible to it, overcome as it was by its private fantasy of everything that could go wrong. The woman gathered the little creature up and comforted it for a long time. “Everything will be all right. You are small, but I am big. I think if you come with me, rather than me obeying you, both of us will be much happier.”
And so they set off, the woman with the little creature on her shoulders. It never did cease its chattering and foreboding, but the woman now understood all it uttered were only little fears, not irrefutable facts, and so carried the little passenger with patience and love in her heart.
What we have come to know as the inner critic is that little frightened passenger who lives in our unexplored wilderness. Every time we venture from our comfort zone, its ominous little voice will begin to pipe up and try to have us return to where it’s safe and everything is familiar. But every creative, explorer, artist, adventurer and lively spirit knows our inner critic is not the voice of fact, but of fear. It wants to keep us safe from failure, from harm and from shame.
Rather than hating or obeying the inner critic, it’s better to give her the compassion, comfort and understanding she deserves and craves, and simply forge ahead. Better to try, fail and learn, than to assume failure at the outset and never have the opportunity to grow.
We all have a wilderness we dream about and wish one day to explore. A book to write, or perhaps one to read. A discipline to undertake, an adventure to have. I own a boutique and for some of my customers, trying on a dress in a brave colour, or even one without sleeves to cover what they believe are upper arms ugly enough to make planes fall from the sky, is terrifying. They fear criticism. They fear judgment. They have a permanent passenger screaming in their ear, shaming them about their bodies and asking them who the hell they think they are to not be INVISIBLE. When we have been shamed for the way we look – and shaming for many of us begins with our physical bodies – the desire to be unseen can be deep-seated, and painful when challenged. I have a sign in my fitting room which reads DARLING, YOUR ARMS LOOK FINE. You see, I like to address the passenger directly but with love and humour. That little blighter takes itself way too seriously and often, when called out, can be helped to see how out of perspective it’s demands really are. Nothing makes me happier than when a customer leaves my shop with an outfit she would never have worn before, having been given permission to feel, look and be the amazing woman she is. The inner critic does not speak truth, she speaks fear. And rather than obeying her frightened, and frightening, monologue, we can regard her as what she really is – a spinning nucleus of unanswered fears, driven by the desire to keep us safe. But obeying the inner critic won’t keep us safe. It will keep us small. The wilderness we dream of will remain a dream unless we find a way to comfort our fearful thoughts and feelings. They may be borne of experience, but they are also borne of our memory. The wilderness we desire is best travailed with our imagination.
I have a friend who created a wonderful project based on the concept of human happiness. As a psychologist, she studied the subject for years, writing content, conducting interviews and gathering data. She packaged it all up into a program she planned to launch as content on a website. I helped her create the site, and she set a date for the launch – her birthday. On this auspicious day, her baby would be introduced to the world. As the day grew closer, she began to baulk. She’d been working on her first blog post for months, and it still wasn’t ready. She was convinced the day the website went live, ninety eight percent of internet users would visit it, read that first blog post, and judge both she and it as rubbish. So, she wrote, edited, wrote, ditched everything, began again, procrastinated and panicked, all the time trying to make that blog post PERFECT. Her birthday came and went, he blog post was unpublished, the site remained invisible. I don’t know what happened to her project, but the irony of her being so miserable creating content on human happiness was not lost on me. There is no such thing as perfect. Sometimes it’s okay for things to be a little bit crap when you let them go into the world, including yourself.
Often when I’m sewing in my shop, people comment on how CLEVER I am. I dislike the word CLEVER – it always sounds a bit smarmy to me. I like to answer, “well, if nothing else, I’m prolific!” I used to be a bit of a slap dash creative, but I learned it’s good to take on skills which will bring about a better result. I employed a guild-accredited patchwork teacher once to teach in my shop, and when she saw my sewing, she was horrified. I was glad for her guidance. However, I’ve also learned attaining to perfection is a burden. Author Malcolm Gladwell famously stated you need 10,000 hours to be a phenom (not an expert, as is often misquoted.) An expert is different from a PHENOM. A phenom is a person who is outstandingly talented or admired – in other words, CLEVER. Call me a phenom any day. But let’s not miss the bit about the 10,000 hours. That’s a lot of time doing something. That’s PROLIFIC.
Aiming to be prolific is possible. Aiming for perfection is a recipe for disappointment. It is self-sabotage. Prolificity (say THAT three times fast) is actually very easy when you love doing something and, importantly, you give yourself permission for it to be a little bit crap when you release it to the world.
I worked with an acting teacher who shared with me a phrase he learned from a successful screenplay writer. KILL YOUR DARLINGS. Let your dear things go. Launch them. Send them away. Give them permission to fly. So often we wilderness-seekers are paralysed not by potential failure, but by our former successes. We fear a change to the formula or exploring new ground will bring disapproval instead of the accolades we enjoyed when last we tried. My acting teacher friend encouraged me to move beyond what people appreciated before to explore new ground. Publish the blog post with its imperfections and move on to the next one. Thank people for their compliments, then sit down and make something new. Don’t find yourself in fifty years singing the same old songs to the same old people, just because they clap each time. Our darlings need to be allowed to fly away, so something new can come. Our little passenger likes to keep us repeating past successes because they’re safe, but the wilderness is for PHENOMS. Past successes can be as inhibiting as past failures, but both need to be released to move forward.
You and I are not perfect. Our message, creations, words and work can never be. We are all, in both little and significant ways, broken and imperfect. Ben and I lived as caretakers for a time on a sheep station in rural Victoria. It was a magnificent place, established in 1850 with a bluestone mansion of 12 bedrooms and six bathrooms. My job was cleaner and housekeeper. Even though nobody was in residence but us, our days were full. I loved to spend my free time wandering around the property, through the many historic outbuildings and across the beautiful landscape. I got in the habit of picking up pieces of broken pottery and glass which were everywhere, and which came to the surface every time the sheep scoured a section of a paddock down to the dirt. I imagined a story for every bit I collected. Elegant wine glasses for celebrations, elaborately decorated dinner plates for reunions and rustic bowls for end-of-day meals by fireside. Medicine bottles clutched during fervent prayers murmured on bended knees. Liquor vessels for blessed relief and raucous laughter. Scent and cosmetic jars for luxury and indulgence. Milk bottles for sustenance and nourishment, preservation, nurture and health. Coffee and teacups for conversation – sit a while? Pass the sugar. Share a moment with me. I bring my treasures back in plastic bags and the cradle of my shirtfront, washing them carefully in the kitchen sink. I hold each one and give it a story, bless it, place it aside with all the others around the house in bowls where I can see them. Now, I muse, they all have a story. No longer worthless, they belong somewhere, to someone, again.
We all are wounded by our past – shamed, embarrassed by failures real or imagined. We are plagued by doubts, and by our little frightened passenger who just wants to stay safe. We have hurt people and been hurt by them. We have tried to save what would not and could not be saved. Just like all those fragments I found in the dirt, we too can be broken, dropped and forgotten, our stories rendered useless or imperfect in our eyes or those of another, but we are not ever lost, worthless or invisible. The value of us, and of our stories, is not negated by imperfection. Each fragment of us holds not only beauty, but also the fullness of our lived experience and our essence – where we came from, where we have been, and what is to become of us. We are broken, but we are not unseen or lost. We are all a beautiful, broken, if sometimes buried treasure. Even though it may seem so at times, despite the things that happen to us our intrinsic value, and that of all the gifts we bring, is never removed. Our worth is in our very dust, in our grains, in our shards – and in our stories. And it remains ready to be found, by us, and every friend, lover, seeker and storyteller willing to get their hands dirty.
© Jo Hilder 2019