Creativity means not caring what people think. Need help not caring? Summon the defiant spirit within. Martha Beck reports.
It was about the fourth time my daughter Katie had made cookies on her own. She was 12, which is precariously close to 13, which in humans is not an age but a serious mental disorder. As Katie whipped the flour into the butter before adding the eggs, her father nudged her aside, taking the electric mixer from her hand.
"No, not that way," John said. "Here's how I do it."
Our usually timid daughter yanked the mixer back and said, with cool conviction, "I really don't give a damn how you do it."
John and I stared at each other across the kitchen, thinking, as it later turned out, the very same thoughts: that neither of us ever would have spoken to our parents that way; that Katie's collision course with puberty was revealing new, profoundly bitchy aspects of her personality; and that we couldn't have been prouder.
It had taken each of us nearly 30 years to claim clear identities, to stop censoring ourselves in deference to the social pressure that weighs so heavily on every human being not raised by wolves (wolves are bitchy by definition). Yet here was our little girl, barely out of childhood, already baring her teeth and growling at someone who presumed to override her personal style. What a great kid! What an auspicious display of a healthy inner bitch! Maybe we were doing something right after all!
It's no coincidence that Katie became a highly creative cook, the kind who can not only follow recipes but invent new flavor and texture combinations. Snapping at her father was an important step in establishing a safe place for her creativity to thrive. All creativity relies on this resistance to the opinions and interference of others. To be truly creative we must be willing to say to every other person on earth, "I really don't give a damn how you do it."
This is a very dangerous undertaking. The uniqueness that allows us to be creative is also the place where we stand absolutely alone and are, therefore, most vulnerable. It's not true that "there is nothing new under the sun": There has never been, and never will be, anyone who sees, thinks, or responds exactly the way you do. Whether you're revolutionizing physics or making a quilt, you must display your differences to make a difference. But idiosyncrasies are often labeled weird, unseemly, even evil. The immense risk of creativity, then, is that it requires expressing your truest self, with a very high likelihood of being misunderstood and condemned.
To attempt this without a good, strong inner bitch is not only reckless, it's impossible. Your creativity will likely never emerge if you don't let your bitchy side do its work. When I taught studio art at Harvard, I saw a host of incredibly bright, talented, cooperative students who followed academic rules to perfection—and drew exactly as they had in fourth grade. Why? Because that's the age at which self-consciousness typically sets in, making young artists fearful of looking inadequate or doing something "wrong." My biggest task was not to pass on the rules of perspective or color theory, which these students learned easily, but to stimulate their inner bitches, so that their growing technical competence could channel an authentic personal vision rather than hollow imitations of some style they thought "safe."
If you are a stymied creator—a born dancer who's too self-conscious to move, a social reformer afraid of communicating your ideals, or a poet so blocked you've never written a word—you don't necessarily need more classes in dancing or speaking or writing. Training is important, but it won't take you anywhere unless you frolic with your inner bitch.
There are bitches, and then there are bitches....
At this point I would like to clarify my terms by relating the following joke: On freshman welcoming day at a prestigious college, two roommates meet for the first time. One is a small-town girl on scholarship, the other a wealthy prep-school graduate. The small-town girl greets her new roomie with a huge smile and asks, "So, where you from?"
The preppie sniffs. "From a place where we know better than to end our sentences with prepositions."
Her roommate, jolly as ever, replies, "So, where you from, bitch?"
The important concept here is that there are two types of bitchiness going on in the story. Actually, if you think about it, the preppie's scornful, shaming behavior is more "catty" than "bitchy." As we all know, the word bitch refers to a female dog, and dogs are virtually incapable of scorn. If a dog witnessed the most embarrassing moment of your life—if it were standing right there when you committed a horrifying act of flatulence in front of the entire ladies literary league—the dog's immediate and sincere reaction would be "Whoa! Awesome!" On the other hand, if you breached protocol with a cat—for example, by offering the wrong brand of tuna—it would give you a look that could freeze hydrogen, then ignore you.
It is crucial to remember that catty thoughts or actions do not really represent your inner bitch. Cattiness appears when shame-bound people shame others, out of anxiety or spite. The message is, Do it my way, loser. Actually, the small-town roommate in the story is the one who displays genuine connection with her inner bitch. She remains cheerfully impervious to scorn, holding her own with humor and dignity. Above all, she refuses to play the shame game.
Whenever you feel shame, consider it a signal to act forcefully—not by beating yourself up, but by siccing your inner bitch on the shame itself. So you've made mistakes? Big, fat, hairy deal, your inner bitch will say. Learn from your errors and do better next time. Afraid you'll fail and look stupid? Your inner bitch doesn't give a damn how you look; she'd rather try and fail than not try at all. Let your bitchiest side attack your shame, actively and aggressively, until you are certain that no choice you make is based on either the fear of being shamed or the intent to shame anyone else. There is enormous power in this, in holding your head up and refusing to be shame's prisoner. It is the prerequisite to all creativity. Remember, a dog's role is to chase catty things, and cats typically run like hell when they're jumped by a feisty bitch.
Next: How to embrace your bratty side
Once you've established your inner bitch in her rightful watchdog capacity, it will be time to help her go beyond simply defending your creative space. As shame recedes, your inner bitch's natural canine qualities of playfulness, enthusiasm, curiosity, and affection will begin to emerge. She may be a bit timid if you've kept her locked up too long. It's your job to allow her to romp.
I advise many of my clients to spend at least two hours a week "romping." Creativity consultant Julia Cameron calls these expeditions artist dates. Simply take yourself for a long walk or on a trip to a favorite locale, and then explore whatever sights, sounds, and smells arouse your most visceral interest. Buy toys that make you loll out your tongue with desire, from shiny beads to a high-powered telescope. Sniff restaurants. Hang out with the people you want to lick.
If you do this, I promise the result will be an upwelling of creative energy. You may want to yank back on the leash at this point, afraid your bitchy side will run off and do something immoral, if not illegal. A certain amount of restraint is good, but remember, your inner bitch has instincts your practical side does not. Let her run once a day and follow whatever trail she sniffs out. Speak the words or pay for the lessons or embark on the voyages that are outrageously illogical but set the hair prickling on the back of your neck.
Expecting the unexpected. The moon shone brilliantly full as I left my favorite restaurant with five of the most amazing women in the world. Our dinner had been delectable, the company even more so. The hilarity had been spearheaded by Eve, a woman who'd survived a deprived childhood, an attack by a would-be rapist, marriage, motherhood, divorce, grandmotherhood, and a case of cancer that by all odds should have killed her. She had become an infectious powerhouse of creative energy. As we reached the parking lot, Eve stopped, threw back her dignified silver head, and began to bay happily at the moon. The rest of us joined in immediately, like any good wolf pack, unperturbed by the fact that we looked and sounded like literal lunatics.
I'm sure we horrified anyone in the vicinity who defined "feminine nature" as quiet, submissive, and demure. Perhaps the word bitch is used so viciously in our language because the female role in the creation of our culture—of our very species—is unsettlingly powerful. After all, what will society become if its daughters, wives, mothers, and, heaven help us, grandmothers refuse to be shamed away from the total range of our creativity? All authentic creativity is ultimately truth-telling, and as the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open."
One thing's for sure: If any woman unleashes her creativity, her world will split open. She'll find unprecedented ways of solving problems, bridging gaps, and expressing her soul, and her corner of the world will be irrevocably changed. I'm not sure what the changes will be, but I know the words I'd use to describe them: Bitchin', baby. Bitchin'.
Get a piece of paper and write down the words "I'm so ashamed that _______________." Finish the sentence with whatever pops into your mind. Feel the shame. Observe it. Notice that it does not motivate any positive action, only paralysis, fear, and self-hatred.
Now get bitchy with your shame and the people who have shamed you. Attack them (on paper, not in person). Start by writing phrases like "How dare you shame me for making mistakes? How dare you try to stop me from moving forward, learning, and growing? How dare you suggest that I should be ashamed of the person I was created to be and the things I am meant to create?" If you want to snarl or bark, go right ahead.
Find a private spot, close the door, and lie down. Spend a few minutes scratching yourself—it feels good even if you aren't terribly itchy. Now take your notepad and write: "If I didn't give a damn what anyone thought, I would _______________." Finish the sentence any way you want, as long as it's true.
If the action you've listed is ethical, legal, and wise, promise yourself to do it when you're ready. If not, pat yourself on the back and promise yourself a treat (a mocha Frappuccino instead of ordinary coffee, half an hour alone in the park) for being honest. Keep your promises.
Martha Beck is the author of Finding Your Own North Star (Crown).