Being curious about our talents can help us express our creativity and sustained practice can move us in unexpected new directions.
When was the last time you tried something for the first time?
A friend occasionally shares posts on social media with this caption. The accompanying pictures cover a wide spectrum of interests – from attempting a complicated recipe to completing a grueling hike. The point of the endeavor is to simply be open to previously unexplored activities with a spirit of adventure.
Trying new things is what children do. So do young people who move out of their homes into college campuses and brand-new jobs as they explore their expanding world of ‘adulting’. Yet, as we get older, we avoid venturing out of our comfort zones. We claim we are not creative, or capable. We confuse curiosity with competence, refusing to engage in activities that we have concluded we won’t excel at.
From learning to teaching
Last month I taught a memoir writing workshop in Singapore. It was my first time. The two-hour in-person session was held at the local library on a Saturday afternoon. Registrations had poured in soon after the announcement and the room was filled with almost twenty aspiring (or experienced) writers.
At various points in my life, I had attended similar writing workshops at venues in the US and in Singapore, hoping to pick up crumbs of knowledge from published authors. And now I was facing a group that was watching me with the same expectation. When had the equation changed?
Armed with a Ph.D. I moved to California from Washington DC to begin my career as a scientist twenty-five years ago. I could come up with a hypothesis, design an experiment and interpret data. Having spent all of my life pursuing an education in science, I didn’t think I had any other talents besides what I had enthusiastically trained for.
Yet, to my surprise, I began writing a journal during and after my pregnancy; a simple solitary act that was a private conversation with myself. After a few years of spilling my thoughts in a Word file on my computer, I began writing standalone essays to make sense of my life as a young working mother. Even then, I had no intention of sharing it with others. Until I saw similar articles in a local publication.
During my first week in the Bay Area, I came across India Currents magazine at a desi grocery store. I soon became a subscriber. The magazine offered a closeup view of news and views of the desi community. From the editorial on the first page to the final word by Sarita Sarvate, I read through the articles with great interest.
One day I tentatively sent my first personal essay to the editor at India Currents. I was expressing my views about an oft-discussed topic – the dilemma of choosing to stay in the US or returning to India. When that essay was accepted, I was thrilled. It became a stimulus for several interesting conversations and most importantly, it helped me gather the nerve to send the next one to the San Jose Mercury News.
Developing creative self-efficacy
The appearance of my first essay in a print publication helped me make a huge leap from scientific pursuits to creative writing. By articulating my ideas clearly, developing the confidence to approach editors and preparing for rejections as well as responses from readers, I found myself growing in ways I had not imagined.
There is a particular joy when we discover new aspects of ourselves that we had unknowingly (or sometimes willfully) suppressed. Unlike a child who laughs loudly after mastering a skill, as adults we hesitate to express our thrill outwardly. But if you look closely at someone who has found satisfaction after treading into brand new creative territory, you can often find a slight smile lurking around their lips, as if they are holding a secret.
Self-efficacy is the belief in oneself that allows us to set goals, focus on required tasks and persist when the going gets tough. Applying self-efficacy to creative projects means believing that we have the ability to achieve creative outcomes. Even after my writing efforts found moderate success, I continued to believe I was not a ‘creative’ person.
Crafting a life
At a critical juncture in my life, I chose to give up my full-time job to become an independent consultant in order to adjust to the demands of my changing personal life. With a nebulous goal but deep thought and planning, I managed to create a work-life balance that met my needs. One day when I lamented that I was not a creative person, a friend pointed out that I had managed to craft a way of life that worked for me.
“If this is not creative, I don’t know what is,” he said, in an incredulous but kind way.
Creativity is an innate calling, more than a talent or gift.
The way we choose to express it may vary but we all have a creative spark. Sometimes we discover it during a particularly trying time. At other times we ignore it when faced with the ups and downs of life.
Although I continued writing in private, I didn’t publish anything for over a decade. Over time I began to feel the pull once again to publicly express myself through words. After a long gap, as new ideas for essays started flowing, I felt a release as if a flood stored inside me had finally found a way out.
Whether or not we believe in our creative powers has a great bearing on how empowered we feel about our ability to shape our life. By acknowledging writing as my preferred creative outlet and consistently devoting time to it despite difficulties and detours, I had made the move from the back bench to the front of the class.
As I took a deep breath before addressing the eager writers, I understood that creative self-efficacy can help us nurture our talent, but sustained practice will allow us to build a body of work. It is this purposeful action that can lead us from one side of the room to the other.
Ranjani Rao is the author of Rewriting My Happily Ever After – A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, now available worldwide. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram.