How to Channel Emotion for True Creative Expression
Today’s topic is a fun one — less of an article, more of a digital workshop.
I’ve shared this will small groups of people in creative workshops IRL, and in direct messages, and have gotten the coolest photos returned to me of those that have implemented the following strategy.
Now, it’s a little bizarre, too, but it’s real, and that’s what I’m here for anyway. Aside from creativity, one of my favorite things to talk about is feelings. (I know. Stick with me.) As an artist, or a creator in any capacity (and as a human, thriving only in authentic relationship with others), expressing our emotions is key. It helps us tell stories of truth and authenticity, of persuading others to see — and agree — with our points of view, and to capture attention of those we’re called to impact.
Talking about our “feelings” sounds like a corny, uncomfortable game that you might play in therapy. Feelings have kind of gotten a bad rap — expressing our feelings can seem weak, vulnerable, and pitiful. (I haven’t always been expressive; as a little girl — and you can ask my mom about this! — I refused to laugh or smile. She’d crack jokes to see how I’d respond, and I would stifle laughter. Even in my young age, I didn’t want others to know what I was feeling, even if it was joy. It was too, I don’t know…exposing.)
Whether or not we’re expressive as children, the social acceptance of emotional expression diminishes rapidly as we age. And adults are usually no better; we’re expected to put on the facade of being “great!” at best, and being “okay” at worst. To respond to a stranger’s inquiry as to how you’re doing, like in line at the grocery store, with anything other than “great” or “okay” is bizarre…almost to the point of offense.
Emotions are scary, for a lot of reasons. To express our feelings is disarming, and it allows others to come in and see pieces of our hearts that aren’t stone-cold cool. And for a lot of us, this feels vulnerable — like we’re able to be manipulated the moment we let someone in.
This is why learning how to engage with our emotions in a healthy way — to really, truly, experience them for what they are — is healthy. Because if we understand our emotional state, and vulnerability, we can discern who to let in, who to keep at a distance, and even how to channel those emotions toward something for the better.
In this case, I’m talking creativity. Our very favorite subject.
Creativity Comes from Humans
I could talk for an entire blog (not a single article, but a whole blog, creating new content every. single. week), about the benefit of emotional expression and release for our health overall. For example, the act of crying is cathartic — “providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis.” Another definition likens it to: “a purgative drug.”
Powerful, to say the least. Sheesh.
And further, “Catharsis refers to the purification and purgation of emotions — particularly pity and fear — through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.”
By definition, catharsis, or emotional release by way of crying or art, especially when that emotion is pity or fear, is renewing and restorative.
I talk to one of my girlfriends a lot about crying, mostly because we work together. And we’ve seen each other cry a lot. She says that expressing emotion has always been challenging because it feels like a waste of time.
“What does crying do for us?” she’s asked me. Especially as a self-identified “planner,” and someone who is exceptionally organized and operational, spending time doing something as seemingly foolish as crying doesn’t move the ball forward. It means stagnancy — and that means frustration.
She’s not the only one who feels this way. How many of us are not only afraid to cry because it makes us look weak, but we just don’t care to do it because we have better things to do?
Herein lies the problem: Yes, if we suppress our emotions (like the need to cry), we save time. In the short term. But what about the long term?
Without the capability and the freedom to express emotions fully and without fear of rejection, we learn how to operate robotically. We teach ourselves how to avoid feeling, so that we keep moving forward. We teach ourselves how to get the job done.
The problem is, creativity isn’t a job. And creativity doesn’t come out of robots.
(Further, on this note: I saw a Tweet the other day, I wish I remembered the originator, that read, “If you don’t enjoy your process of creating, you’re probably making a product as opposed to making art.”)
It’s a gift, an expression, a means of making the earth look more like heaven. And it comes out of living, breathing, crying, screaming, laughing, dancing, all-of-the-above-at-once humans.
Emotional Evocation, According to Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko, one of my favorite painters of all time, said this: “I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else [although he was brilliant with color]. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.”
In my life, I have cried in front of 2 paintings: The first was an Andrew Wyeth, whose use of monotonous tones to portray a small barn in the middle of a yellow, grassy field made me feel so terrifying small (in a good way) that all I knew to do was cry.
And the second was a Rothko. I don’t know why — it was a painting of 2 colors stacked one on top of another, like he’s famous for. I don’t know why I cried, but his motive worked. Through his use of color and form, I felt something that I didn’t know how to describe.
Now, these artists knew what they were doing. Rothko knew how to express tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, because he knew what each of those were like to experience. He knew what color tragedy looked like, and in comparison to the color of ecstasy.
The way that artists know how to evoke emotion from their viewers is to firstly, understand that emotion more deeply and intimately than the viewer himself.
Why do you think so many artists are mad — troubled, even? And often, completely inconsolable?
An artist has to feel the depth and breadth emotion before she able to express it in color, shape, form, texture, sound, etc…
And they don’t want to be consoled. Because they know their responsibility to their craft.
Here’s What This Means for You
I sincerely hope with all my heart that you are not reading this and thinking, “Oh great. I have to be driven completely insane before I can ever begin to create.”
Not at all. Joyful is a feeling, too…as well as gratefulness, and nostalgia, and melancholy. To start.
The emotions you can portray through your work are limitless — but these examples are my favorite, only because they’re extreme and I like to be dramatic.
For you, this means letting yourself feel emotion, no matter what’s coming up. Right now, I think that a lot of us are sad. A lot of us might be concerned, fearful, and hesitant about the future. That’s okay — and that’s good. Let what’s coming up actually come up. Rather than feeling that pit of fear forming in your stomach and shoving it deeper, let it rise to the surface. Meet it face to face.
Because if you want to evoke an emotion in a viewer, you need to know what that emotion feels like, first, at its depth.
This means that, to get wildly expressive and creative, let yourself feel something. Put down the phone, turn off the TV. Silence (literally) the distractions vying for your attention, constantly. The ones that we don’t realize are numbing us.
Now Grab a Pen
I mean it. Go get a pen. It matters. We miss so much of what’s actually happening in us when we talk it out to ourselves…because we get distracted. We forget. Our minds begin to wander, remembering that thing we didn’t do, the appointment we need to make tomorrow, whether we’‘ll have time to make it to the grocery store tonight…
- Grab your pen (and a notepad). I know, it seems trivial. It’s not, I promise.
- Sit with yourself, in silence, for 10 minutes. Put on a timer (if you’re using your phone, turn it to airplane mode).
- Let what’s coming up come up. (Do you feel like crying? Are you sorrowful? Are you frustrated? Do you feel exasperated? Exhausted? Tired? Bored? Do you feel excited? Are you getting butterflies?
- Don’t accuse yourself of anything, of talking yourself into feeling something. Just let it be, for 10 minutes.
- At the timer’s beep, write it down. Whatever emotions came to the surface, get ’em out onto your paper.
- Take some time to organize and categorize. If some emotions can be grouped together, combine them (like, if you have “angry” and “mad,” partner them).
- With the emotions listed, assign them an identifying color. For example, maybe today you feel irritated. And “irritating” to you, today, is the color orange. There’s no right or wrong (on another day, “excited” might be the color orange).
- When all your emotions have been assigned a color, pick two that you’d like to express to someone else. Maybe today, you want to express to someone that you’re afraid, but hopeful. These emotions can be similar (like “overwhelmed” and “frustrated” or they can be complete opposites. There’s no right or wrong here.)
- Don’t worry about choosing any two that should or shouldn’t go together. Only pick which emotions you want to evoke, to draw out of another, or to express yourself for emotional relief (catharsis!).
- Get a new piece of paper and some colored pencils, or crayons, or chalk. If you have them (or you’d like to get fancy), buy a small canvas and some acrylic paint colors from the store. Or oil. Or watercolor. Go where you feel led; I’m just the pretend guide.
- Scribble, collage, paint — or however you choose — express those two colors, one on top of the other. Don’t worry about making them perfect, or “acceptable.” Again, like your emotional self-reflection, just get them down on paper.
- Once you feel like it’s finished, ponder it. Does it express what you’d like it to express? What more would you say? GO ahead and add in another layer of color, if that’s what you feel would make this complete.
- Keep layering until you’re finished. Remember, there’s no right or wrong. Only expression.
- Share with the world. Because congratulations! You’ve just made a Rothko. And therefore, probably a lot of money. (Send some my way if you remember me.)
On a serious note, emotional expression by way of art, and use of color and form (per Rothko) is healthy. It’s beautiful. It’s part of living a life of passion. And if you happen to make money because you’ve evoked an emotion by understanding your own, way to go.
That’s the dream, right?
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