I’m teaching at a conference and I want to try an experiment. The premise is simple: “Tell me something you believe to be unique to you in all of human experience.”
People look around awkwardly. I’m concerned that Ryan Gosling has just appeared in leprechaun form to do a tap dance on the shoes of each student, their boots are suddenly so interesting. The room is absolutely silent in the way only a classroom about to mutiny against a teacher can be. Yeeeeeeears pass.
Finally, a raised hand! “Ok, great! What’s unique to you in all of human experience?”
“Sometimes I want to die.”
Way to start off with a bang. Wow.
“Who else has had that feeling,” I ask. Hands shoot up around the room. The secrets these peeps have tucked into the hollow place inside themselves have been seen, and suddenly they’re not so scary. Suddenly, they’re not alone. Volunteers for sharing are now plentiful.
The list of unique-to-me universals goes on and on: people who hate their clients, people who can’t stand some aspect of their bodies, people who feel the unbearable heaviness of being alive. For each careful revelation, there’s a corresponding uprising of hands.
Every single I’m-sure-this-only-applies-to-me statement is met with nothing but understanding by the hundreds of people in the room.
It’s working, I think. We’re all united by the human condition! We all get to say “Me, too!” to these statements!
And then. A tall, blond gentleman stands. He’s clearly scared shitless and has the skittish look of someone who’s got a massive secret on his shoulders. I ask him to tell me what’s unique about him in all of humanity, and he says, “I talk to my wife in meows. You know, like a secret language.”
Nope, I don’t know. OH GOD MAYDAY MAYDAY. How did I ever think this was a good idea!? What will I do when no one raises their hand for this guy???????? Stupid Kristen, you didn’t even CONSIDER that someone would say something that isn’t universal aggggghhhhhhhhhh…
I have no poker face, so I’m sure the group sees my dismay. There’s no way we have two meow-talkers in the same room, right!? I throw his statement to the group anyway.
“Anyone else talk to their partner in meows?”
A single hand shoots up in the front of the room.
YES! YEEEEEEESSSSSS, WE HAVE TWO MEOW TALKERS IN THE ROOM TODAY!!!
The first meow talker goes to sit by the second, and they launch into what I can only imagine is the best and most intimate conversation of their entire lives.
What does this story have to do with you, fair reader? If that guy can be brave enough to out his meow talk to a group of complete strangers, you can be brave enough to share your whole self with clients. (Related: come to the Brave workshop.)
When you’re afraid that you can’t take the shot (or you can take the shot but are scared to show it to clients).
When you’re obsessed with perfection and are bound up in how weird or wrong you’ll get it if you even try.
When you see other people’s work in your head and try to recreate them.
When you can’t find a way to express your voice and when you dread picking up your tools.
When all originality seems to have fled your work.
When you’re scrolling through social media and despair at your utter and complete lack of talent.
Let out your meows.
Get weird. Get weird in your posts, in your updates, and in your images. Admit to your likes, your dislikes, and your quirks. Tell people what you care about, and yes that includes politics, movements, resistance, and organizing for a cause.
Get weird in your work, too. If there are children present, they’ll be weird with you. Start dancing or meowing or jumping on the couch with genuine joy, and not a child in the room will be able to resist. If there aren’t children present, don’t be afraid to make an ass of yourself, or at least to poke fun at yourself.
Vulnerability begets vulnerability.
There’s no other way.
Back to your work: you can preface your ideas with nuggets like, “This might be weird, but…” or “I have this crazy idea, want to hear it?” if you’re feeling too vulnerable to announce the next step in your plan outright. More often than not, at least the kids in the group will say “YES.” Mothers who are dying to have a moment of happy family zen on camera will go along with you just to save themselves from the despair of a family photo ‘failure.’ Fathers who hate everyone in the tri-state area will be distracted by their kids using them as a jungle gym or their partner making out with ’em as the kids run in circles and will give in to your plan despite themselves.
Let out your meows.
Throw leaves and jump in the pile instead of taking the posing-in-front-of-foliage shots. Risk making mothers-in-law and grandmothers unhappy with the final shots. (No stiff upper lips? No perfectly posed staring at the camera? How COULD you, the angry grandmothers rage.) Delete the photos you’re not 300% proud of, even if it means you’re only showing a family 18 images. Include the quirky images you love but that you’re sure your clients will reject.
Do you like it?
Is it interesting?
Does it contain any meows?
These questions will take your work to far more interesting places than:
Is it perfect?
Will it get the most likes on Instagram?
Is it sharp as a tack and perfectly exposed?
The quirky, the weird, and the vulnerable bits that come out in your work are vital to your growth as an artist. When you stuff them, suppress them, or shut them down, your work loses its living elements.
The work of every artist you admire is deeply and completely ALIVE. I guarantee it.
Alive is vulnerable. Alive is honest, alive takes chances, and alive is growing.
If you find that your work has stagnated, ask yourself when you last listened to that weird-ass, completely vulnerable meowing impulse. How have you incorporated your vision and your joy into your work? How have you consciously shaped a story that your client will-probably-but-might-not approve? How have you taken risks in your work, and how can you continue to do so? How have you taken steps to stop hiding?
In other words: how are you growing?
Not learning from others growing, but experimenting with ideas growing. Not joining a Facebook group and copying techniques growing, but playing in your down time growing. Not following a 7-step formula growing, but finding your voice growing. Not taking no chances and keeping a lid on your life growing, but making mistakes and tossing the majority of your work growing. Not seeking the next level growing, but steady exploration growing.
That point when meow guy stood up and shared his secret? It was vulnerable, it was scary, and it was deeply alive. Your work can’t be any of those things if YOU are not any of those things. Again…
Your work cannot be vulnerable, risk-taking, and deeply alive if YOU are not being vulnerable, risk-taking, and deeply alive.
So. Let out your meows.
Let your heart be seen, even when you can’t guarantee that a corresponding heart will meet it in the front row. Risk being the one to go first, to be weird and alive, and please promise to enjoy the ways your work shape shifts and surprises you when you do.
P.S. This is big, vulnerable work, and if you want to dive into it further, let me send you the first chapter of Calling to the Deep!
Photo by Love Knot Photo // that time I met a porcupine named Cuddles during Steer Your Ship (my peeps love animals, it’s one of my meows!) and cried at how soft his ears were.