The Indispensable Creative Importance of Being Witnessed

Jun 1, 2016

I’m creating a self-guided writing retreat for you about Finding your Voice by Writing your Story. (Audio, e-book, and special extras: fingers crossed we release it on June 15th.)

A suggestion I make in the retreat is to read an exercise aloud to another person. When one of my team members heard that, she said:

“My body literally convulsed at the thought.”

I nodded. I get it. This was not the first time I’ve heard that sharing your creative work can be terror inducing.

Every time I ask writers to read out loud, I’m greeted with, “That makes me want to puke.” “Can someone else read my work for me?” and “I think I’ll be going home now.”

Heck, every time I read aloud I break out in a flop sweat, talk too fast, and practically hyperventilate.

Still every time a writer reads aloud to another? She is transformed.

Why? Because she is witnessed. Acknowledged. Seen.

As the psychotherapist Virginia Satir said,

“I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them. The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and to touch another person.”

We need to be seen and heard to flourish as humans and as creatives. But because sharing our work is so scary for most of us, we too often hide our creations.

You might quip:

“But I create just for myself.”

Super! I do hope process and curiosity is where you ground yourself day after day – that’s where the juice to keep learning and creating comes from. And yet, with all the “love the process” talk that circulates in the creative community, it can be easy to believe offering your work to others isn’t important. I vehemently disagree. I believe if you never share what you make, you stunt your creative growth.

I do not mean you need to commercially publish your work. Make a best-seller list. Secure a movie deal.

I do not mean you must have thousands read your blog or watch your videos or attend your stand up comedy act.

Nor do you need to stand naked on stage or otherwise “be authentic” (aka expose yourself). Thank god.

Outcome, impact, financial success, all those may be very important to you. Me, too.

But that is not what witnessing is. Or why it matters so much.

Allowing your art to be witnessed means letting yourself and what you care about be seen and allowing your stories, your images, your heart, to affect another.

It is about being seen at perhaps your most vulnerable.

And when this seeing happens, you gain more room to care about your art even more. You value your work in a different way. You stretch more to connect more. You leave the isolation of the self. Your work ripens in ways you could not imagine.

But how to be witnessed safely?

Find a person who can listen with an open and receptive heart, without saying a word.

Be sure to make this clear to her/him and yourself: you will share your work and there will be,

No praise. No criticism. No comment.

Praise can be as damaging as indifference or misguided “If I were you, I would…” or even, sometimes, as harsh criticism. I had a student once who was told by a professor she was the best student writer he ever had in his classes. She didn’t write again for 20 years.

Criticism has no place either. Tearing your work down never makes it stronger – never believe anyone who says it does. Rather, “feed forward” lovingly offered thoughts on what might make a particular poem more insightful, a series of photos more jarring, or a character more hateful – that is super useful. But even “feed forward” must be precluded by witnessing so we can first stand strong in our birthright as a creative.

Being heard and seen as a creative develops your creative courage. Or as Annie said after a recent writing retreat: “Reading out loud with no judgement gave me so much confidence. Because it made me realize I was a writer no matter what.”

Witnessed = I create no matter what.

Isabel added::

“I needed a safe place for it to be heard first. Before that, it felt like my ‘I’m a writer’ thoughts were just ego, something to make me special, which was SO crazy-making, because it was my heart’s desire.”

Witnessed = I value my heart’s desire.

Sonya pointed out::

“I’m organizing my annual artist swap because the process of owning, printing and sharing the art totally changes the way people work creatively. Ownership of a craft, any craft, creates a vulnerability that enhances skill because you think about it much more deeply. Risk and fear have a way of filtering out the crap and allowing us to hone in on the seriously important aspects of what we love to do.”

Witnessed = honing my craft to connect with my audience more fully.

Finally, Marilyn added::

“I was, for no reason I could articulate, terrified, as though I might be punished simply for having a voice. Working through that felt amazing. And I have been speaking — out loud and on paper — a bit differently since then. It’s as if I learned to separate the speaking from how it is received. I can say something just to say it, not in hope or fear of a good or negative response. It’s slow and organic, but it’s busting out in my life all over the place.”

So please: let your creative truth be witnessed.

I’ll share ideas on how you can do this safely in the self-guided Find Your Voice by Sharing Your Story writing retreat (release date June 15th). For starters, look for a couple of people you trust. Get them on your radar. Because as Sarah said, “It is a fantastic experience to read to be heard without judgment… and equally helpful to learn to listen, to witness, and not to judge!”

Here’s to being seen and to seeing each other.



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