Hannah du Plessis

The creative journey

As I kid, I was a creative well. Leave me alone and I’d knock out a drawing, a few dance steps, a song or a poem. But then, alas, I grew up. I found myself inside a culture that required a very specific brand of human expression and I censored myself to fit it. I traded fantastical drawings for the mechanical arm of a drawing board. I put away the hand-painted t-shirt as my partner’s eyes met it with disapproval. I turned away from whimsy and toward methods, tools, and frameworks for innovation. After a decade and a half of the formal design world, I felt creatively empty. Dried up. And lost. I had lost the carefree kid inside. I no longer played pranks, broke out in song or drew shongololos on my legs.

For the last six years I have been in the process of restoring myself, reestablishing a trusting relationship with my soul, and discovering what a true expression of my life might look like. Here are a few things I have been learning:

  • It is hard to make when you are exhausted
  • It’s hard to make when you are too busy
  • It’s hard to make when nothing feels alive inside you
  • It is nearly impossible to make when you are afraid
  • It’s beautiful when you can be creative!

This site is about creativity and fear, so I’ll dwell on point four for a moment. Oy. I struggle with the fear of failure (I am not enough, I won’t make it) and the fear of being judged (I am not worthy, I don’t belong). When you and your work have been publically criticized, repeatedly, it can be terrifically difficult to learn to be vulnerable again and to trust that you will be respected for who you are.

I believe that creativity is an act of responding authentically to the world: using your own expression to make your inner experience visible. And that takes courage. It is an act of courage to bring your tender self into conversation with the world. I know that I am being courageous when I am doing what I love despite the pounding fear inside my chest. As I continue, fear doesn’t go away, but my relationship to fear changes as I become more accepting of it.

A key thing I’ve learned is that my fear does not stand outside me like an enemy that I need to overcome. It is me. And my path is not to get rid of it, but to love it. To help it feel safe enough to relax so I can also be creative.

Here are a few things I’ve found helpful:

Engage in making work and making it visible.

To help me learn that I am not going to die or disappear behind boos and tomatoes when I bring my authentic self to the world, I have been working to get myself out there.

I take classes. It is such a safe and lovely way to learn with others!

I say yes to engagements. Even when I do not feel qualified or ready, I say yes to things that excite me.

I share fledgling thoughts with other artists. Our first ideas are tender little shoots that easily wither under winds of judgment. I found people with whom I can share my ideas: when I doubt myself, I look to others to help me see the value in my work. I especially reach out when I am about to trash something possibly wonderful.

Equip yourself with understanding and inner-life tools.

To help me gain both an intellectual and tactical understanding of my inner struggles and the difficulty of the process, I’ve become a gluttonous learner.

Read what other artists are saying. Seeing other people’s process helps me embrace my own creative process, and stay patient with its quirks. Lynda Berry, Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Gilbert, David Whyte, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and many others have helped me develop this patient acceptance.

Adopt some kind of practice. I use tools from mindfulness and psychology to help me stay present to the direct and uncomfortable feeling of fear and the acid drip of doubt and criticism. Being present and becoming curious about this moment and this felt experience is helping me be less reactive and more caring towards my sometimes tumultuous inner experience.

Create a way of life that supports you

Don’t underestimate the power of a rested body and a simple schedule. If you are too pooped to make, rest for a while. Simplify your life. Don’t push yourself beyond your limits. Nourish yourself so that there are things inside you that are alive and want to come out. Not long ago I purged my life of eight committees and endeavors I was part of. It was difficult for me to do because I gain satisfaction and worth from doing things. Yet, a great chunk of anxiety walked out of my life as I took those steps of simplification. Being still creates a place where I can hear and respond to my creative impulses. And how will my work come to life if there is no space for it to do so?

Perhaps you feel afraid to even begin. Perhaps, as soon as your creative spouts appear, you walk over them with boots of judgment (before anyone else can). If you experience this, then congratulations. You have begun! It means you are listening to your creativity, which is great.

I want to encourage you by saying: the difficulty is also the path. Yup. What is in the way is the way. If you feel afraid, then learning to love your fear is part of your work. I believe that the more we can accept and work with the perils of the creative journey, the more we can be open to its gifts. And goodness knows, if there is anything our tired world needs at this moment, it is people who are willing to give it their creative selves.

A little bit about Hannah: 
I am a glutton for creative expression. In the last four years I have performed as a storyteller, improviser, and dancer. I also love drawing. My latest curiosity is sewing. But the question I care most about is this: “How might we together create a world where all beings thrive equally?” I teach in Design for Social Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University and at the School of Visual Art, consult with Fit Associates and live on a hill in Pittsburgh.

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