“That’s not what they really look like.”Those seven words were all it took to stop her.Linda was seven-years-old and was spending the weekend at her grandmother’s house. She and Nana had been out behind the house intending to pick raspberries, but were not having much luck, when Linda had an idea. Instead of picking raspberries, she could paint a picture of the raspberry bushes. Linda and Nana went to the craft store, bought paint and a small easel, and they set it up in the yard.They painted for a while, joyfully, and when they finished they both beamed with pride at what she had created. On the drive back home, Linda was ready to burst. She delivered the painting to her father, then waited expectantly for his reception.Then came the words.”That’s not what they really look like.”Heat rose immediately from the bottom of Linda’s neck, to her cheeks and up to her eyelids. She felt the redness and went blank.
It was too late. That night, Linda snuck out of bed and threw her painting in the basement garbage, where no one would notice it among the other debris. The painting was never spoken of again, and Linda didn’t pick up a paintbrush for another 36 years.
At age 43, Linda came into therapy nine months after her father’s death. Words did not come so easily and the process was full of fits and starts, but the therapeutic relationship was strong. Through opening up and playing with ideas she tried a few different ways of expressing herself. A few times I had encouraged her to write down her thoughts and feelings, but Linda was not a writer, she was a painter, which I didn’t know and she’d forgotten. It wasn’t until she told that story that she began to consider painting again. It was not immediate or without conflict, but over time Linda ended up rediscovering a long dormant channel of self-expression. Linda recently called me to tell me that she is using her natural creative language to give form to, express, and make sense of her life.
I relate this story for two reasons:
First, it is a reminder that for all of us, especially children, self-expression is both precious and delicate. I want to be clear that I am not blaming Linda’s father for what he said. I am certain that he did not mean to hurt his daughter. He just said the first, unfortunate, thing that came to mind.
If you are a parent, or plan to be one, it is important to be thoughtful about your words. Parents, all of us really, have a responsibility to foster our children’s (and our own) natural need for self-expression. We should take extra care when we encounter our children’s creative expressions. Parents can’t be “perfect,” if there even is such as thing, but we can be thoughtful when our children come to us bearing gifts, such as paintings, photographs, or stories. A tiny clay figure or a Play-doh forest may mean more than you, or your child, may realize.
Second, I tell this story as a reminder that creative expression is resilient. We are all born to create. Even though Linda hadn’t painted in more than three decades, her impulse to create was still alive and breathing beneath the layers. In our work together, we exhumed her creative imperative. Now, Linda is using her natural creative language to give form to, express, and make sense of her life. She is now sharing these expressions with others, who have been touched, enriched, and comforted by her struggles.
That is the creative imperative in action, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
*The names and exact details in this story have been altered in order to protect the innocent. No animals were knowingly harmed during the writing of this blogpost.