Learning to wander off the path

In addition to the usual sidewalks along the street, the community that I live in also has a trail system that runs along the adjoining back property lines of house down to the creek that meanders through the neighborhood, along both sides of the creek, and leads from any point in the neighborhood to the community pool, clubhouse, playground, fishing ponds, and elementary school. These trails are concrete sidewalks, but they offer a more natural, and safer, alternative to the sidewalks that adjoin the streets.

One of these trails runs along the back of my property, and I headed out for a walk earlier today as a way to get my creative juices flowing. As I walked, I found myself thinking about how I approach trail walking in general, particularly the trail that makes up my journey through life.

As I walk through the neighborhood, I stay on the concrete pathway unless there is some obstacle in my path. Even then, I normally step off the path only long enough to around the blockage, and then I’m right back on the pathway. I don’t want to offend anyone by walking through their yard or appearing rude enough to trample the grass or other vegetation on my wanderings.

The only exception is the one place where the trail crosses the creek by leading up to the street on one side and back down to the creek on the other side of the bridge, requiring a walk directly on the roadway. When no one is looking, I veer off the trail to a place under the bridge where the stones form an easy crossing, hop across to the other side, and make my way back to the trail … but only if no one is looking!

I think of other places where I love to hike and notice a similar behavior. When no one is around, I’m much more likely to veer off the trail to see a different view, climb on rocks, make my way down to a creek, or otherwise find my own way. If there are other people who might see me, I tend to stay on the well-marked pathway out of fear that I’ll be seen as unacceptable for heading off the path.

I do this in life too—from career choices to places to live to relationship choices to how I dress. I tend to follow the rules and do what is expected of me in most outward ways. I’m very careful to make sure I am proper and acceptable and coloring within the lines of expectations. The fear of being seen as unacceptable or unwise (by the world’s standards) runs very strong. I have my places where I’ve made very counter-cultural choices, but for the most part I blend in well. I save my wildness for my imagination.

But this need to be seen as acceptable gets in the way when it comes to my creative life. Creativity by its very nature involves coloring outside the lines, whether that’s in artwork, composing music, inventing, or writing. The act of creating something new means doing something that hasn’t been done before. It means exposing what’s in my imagination for the outside world to see. It means risking that some people might find my creations to be unacceptable, and that means risking that some people might find my imagination—and, by extension, me—to be unacceptable, uncouth, improper, unwise, or in some other way unfitting.

I notice it happening sometimes in my word choices when I’m writing. I find myself automatically toning down the intensity of my opinions as I write. I often choose the safer option to share, if there’s more than one on my mind. I’ll choose the more neutral word or example or expression. I pick standard, safe story lines to explore.

When I do other creative work, I hem myself in as well, choosing safer colors or patterns or materials. I am learning to create without always needing a pattern, but I still hew closely to examples of what I’ve seen before in some other guise. I don’t let anything get too wild.

This tells me that in addition to my fear of the messiness of creativity, I also have this fear of showing myself to be unacceptable in some way to deal with. I need to learn to let go of how my process, my imagination, my execution, and my final product might look to other people. It might be messy. It might be wild. It might be daring. It might be different. It might even be ugly.

I’ll never know, though, until I’m willing to let myself wander off the path, get dirty, and follow my imagination wherever it leads. Choosing to worry about the audience before I’ve started is the wrong way to go about the process. I can decide once the creation is finished whether it’s something I am comfortable sharing. Until then, I need to recapture the joy of creating just to create.

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