Loving thyself and why this matters to your work

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I read an interesting blog post that argued that in order to be an artist- whether it be through visual arts, or writing, or music, etc- you need a healthy dose of narcissism.

This concept struck as curious because we often associate narcissism with ugliness: quite the opposite from the more socially acceptable character of self-doubt (which many confuse for humility). But as I thought deeper about this, the more I realized that we all have the ability to create, but we don’t, because we are often the victims of our own ideals of perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I have shamed myself into not writing because I think that I am not good enough, or that the sentences that I write are pathetic compared to others. I create excuses of not having enough time, or not being inspired, or being too tired to think when in reality, it’s nothing but my self doubt taking over the show.

When I first started living with my husband, Anwar, I was taken aback by how self-assured he was. A keen hobbyist in taarab music, he loves nothing better than to sing for an online audience through Facebook live and Youtube and then to re-watch his videos and smile with himself.  I often joke that he is his biggest fan-boy.   Anwar’s father-Juma Bhalo- a well known musician in Kenya,  was the epitome of musical excellence in the taarab genre. My husband was profoundly influenced by his father and although he emulates his music, he will be the first one to tell you that he will never be as good as his father.

Anwar makes beautiful music but sometimes he sings off key and sometimes he doesn’t get the notes right on the keyboard. Sometimes people tell him that “your father, Juma Bhalo is better”. And rarely does his daily work schedule allow for enough time to practice and perfect his technique.  Does this realization temper his enthusiasm for singing? No. If anything, it releases him from the angst of perfection that afflicts so many artists, thus allowing him to express himself with the joyful authenticity often associated with children at play.

There is a particular video on his Youtube channel that I used to find highly amusing in the beginning of our relationship. In it, he is smartly suited up, fingers resting lightly on the keyboard, hair gelled up, and his mega-watt smile ready to dazzle his audience. Before he starts singing, he says (in Kiswahili), with an cheeky expression on his face:

“Asalaam Aleikum. My name is Anwar Bhalo. I know that I am not really a singer but I sing to make myself happy. As long as singing makes me happy, why shouldn’t I sing? Maybe someone out there will feel as happy as I do listening to my singing. For me, this is enough.”

We will never be smart enough, skinny enough, good enough, …etc as long as we compare ourselves with others. In the race to out-do each other, especially in this Instagram world of perfection, we have lost our authentic voices.

In a frank article about originality vs. authenticity, Elizabeth Gilbert asserts that “whatever it is that you dream of doing (creating, traveling, loving, inventing, transforming) just do it. Don’t worry if you’re the 100th person to do it. Just do it, anyhow, and be sure that you bring the highest purity of intention to your pursuit. Act from a place of your deepest authenticity, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”

What are your fears when it comes to creating art? What’s holding you back back from authentic self-expression? What would you do if you believed that you are enough as you are?

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Is It Stress or Is It Passion?

Sometimes writing can feel a little like building a house specifically for the purpose of air to pass through its windows and doors. No human lives there and day and night, the sound that you put out echoes right back. You pour so much heart and soul into each and every single word  and send your writing out into the world, only for it to go unacknowledged or worse, unnoticed. It’s lonely sometimes and to the immature mind, this- the act of writing and releasing-can seem like such a foolish waste of time. Who in their right mind would spend hours  creating something only for it to wash down the internet drain like a pot of discarded pasta water?

Stress and passion. 

Anything you do out of passion will not feel discouraging. In fact, you will often take failures as directional signs that will helpfully point you on the right way. You may get lost once in a while, but you will always have a resolute determination to find your way home. Writing is my thing; the process of writing is my real reward and the recognition I get from others is just an extra bonus point to the intrinsic joy I get out of expressing myself through words. For others, it may be painting or making music or cooking.  The point is, whatever makes you come alive is never a form of punishment. It is will always feel like an interesting curiosity to be pursued.

This reminds me of the time we had just moved into our new home and I had to paint a sunshine yellow coat over my kids’ deep auburgine colored room. I painted and painted, one coat, then two, then three, and by the end of the day, I was fuming. I never wanted to see purple again. I never wanted to see paint again. I never wanted to touch a paint brush in my whole life ever again. I called up my artsy sister that night, hands and hair covered in specks of yellow, and told her of my frustration and exhaustion. “I wish I was there to paint that room!” she said excitedly. In her mind, a day painting was a day well spent.  To each their own, I guess.

Writing, like any other creative pursuit, is not about receiving. It’s about giving. When I put myself out there-when I write with honesty and authenticity-I am, in fact, offering to the world the best of myself. I often write with an annoying voice in my head screaming ‘failure! failure!failure!, but I write anyway because I know that not writing for fear of failing is actually the biggest failure of all. So fingers to keyboard, I tap away as lovingly as my fluttering heart can guide me.

“As a soul, you have the freedom – and earned responsibility – to transpose your personal process of evolution, to manifest your greatest talents and vision, into the work that matters to you most as a means to personal redemption.”
― Darrell Calkins