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Courage & Creativity: be a clown, not a martyr

Friday, October 11, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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A couple of weeks ago I began a series of posts on courage. I claimed that courage is an essential quality for a good life AND a doorway to all the other qualities you need to live the life you hunger for:  a life filled with love, meaning, purpose and joy.

I also argued that while courage is essential to pretty much everything that will ever matter in your life (including parenting, creativity, friendship, love, finding and doing meaningful work and dealing with illness and death), courage alone is not enough.

So I’ve created a map of courage – and the other qualities we need to cultivate in order to live the life we all hunger for: a life of connection, purpose and joy. Here they are:

1. Curiosity – the antidote to dogma

2. Clarity – the antidote to confusion

3. Connection/Compassion – the antidote to overwhelm and burnout

4. Creativity – the antidote to martydom

5. Courage – the antidote to fear and apathy

I’ve written more about curiosity – why it’s essential for a courageous life, and how we can cultivate it. Today I want to explore creativity, and why we need it to ensure that our courage doesn’t become martyrdom.

The Essence of Clown

When I think about creative courage, two of the people who come to mind are Jo and Jeremy Randerson. In a recent interview, Jo talked about the “essence of clown”, which she says is useful everywhere from the nursery to the corporate boardroom.

The nose is optional. Instead, it’s all about being the dumbest person in the room which sets everyone else free to be as dumb as they are as well.”

The essence of clown is the opposite of acting cool. It demands vulnerability.

As Randerson explained, ‘if you’re prepared to be vulnerable, everybody else relaxes, because they’re no longer worried about being judged as unimpressive.’

In Native American culture, according to Randerson clowns are valued for being unafraid to say what needs to be said. Clowning takes courage. A clown has to be brave enough to risk looking stupid and saying things people might not want to hear.

If something is robust enough to withstand clowning, then it is a strong thing.” – Jo Randerson

Gemma Gracewood of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra sees another side of the power of clowning – it’s capacity to invite the audience in to the performance. The vulnerability and courage of the clown has the power not only to disrupt cultural assumptions, but also to make art accessible.

We could walk on stage and be an impressive looking group of people who play impressively,’ says Gracewood, ‘We could impress the crowd and leave them with the idea that they couldn’t do it themselves.’

To avoid that, there always has to be a moment when one person – or all of us – steps out of the ‘professionalism’ and effectively says ‘It’s really only this, and you can do it too. There is nothing to be scared of.”

There may be nothing to be scared of for the audience, but for the artist stepping into clown energy, there is inevitably a moment of fear – a moment of not-knowing how this is going to turn out. Gracewood tells a story from the WIUO’s recent performance at the Edinburgh Festival:

One night we were beginning ‘Man Eater’ and I was playing around, doing a one-note solo in my corner. Age started gesturing that I should go out into the centre of the stage. Yes, I was scared, I only had one note! But that was the point. So I stepped into the centre of the stage and I played the hell out of that one note. And the audience went wild.”

The point, as Gracewood recognised, is that we all know what it feels like to take a risk. So it’s easier for us to indentify with the artist who takes a risk, and in the case of of Alice Fredenham, whose ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ audition is compelling not only for the beauty of her voice, but also for the honesty of her answers. ‘

‘I’m scared’, she tells the judges, ‘Whenever someone says no, it feels like a rejection.’ Know that feeling? Yeah, me too.

Vulnerability means you don’t know if you are going to be able to pull it off. Which is why we all find it so easy to relate to. But it also means you don’t know what you are going to come up with. As Gracewood says;

You have no idea what you have inside you to bring to that show except readiness.”

Readiness is the core practice of creative courage. It takes courage to show up creatively – whether on stage or at the page. According to Anton Oliver, former All Black, creative readiness takes even more courage than facing down half a tonne of South African rugby players.

Talking about his choice to perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Oliver said:

[O]ne of the reasons I did say ‘yes’ was because this is completely out of my comfort zone. I’d rather run into the South African forward-pack to be honest! I don’t want my choices in life dictated to me by fear – there are any number of valid reasons not to do something but I try not to let fear be one of them. I suggest people come along and have a good old laugh, I’m going to try to have fun and enjoy myself and I hope others can do too.”

Every artist I know has learned to show up despite the ever present fear: “What if I fuck up?” Courage is a given, in all forms of creativity. But what happens when we cultivate courage, without creativity?

Clown vs Martyr

In my life it’s never really been a question of clown vs cool. I gave up on cool when I realised I was the sci-fi reading, Youth-For-Christ attending, Shakespeare loving geek in a school ruled by hip hop and rugby players. Since then the question hasn’t been whether I would be cool or brave, but whether I would be a courageous clown, or a brave martyr.

For too many years, I chose martyr.

I know all about martyrdom. I learned young how to abandon my desires when they didn’t fit my narrow understanding of God’s will, how to sublimate my heart’s longing when it seemed to be in conflict with the greater good of the community, the family, the group.

I learned that what I wanted, or needed, didn’t matter as much as what everyone else wanted and needed.

I didn’t trust people who said things like ‘follow your heart’ or ‘if you desire it, you deserve it’. And, to be honest, much of the time I still don’t, because much of the time people are saying those things without understanding what they themselves truly desire – beneath the layers of ‘wanting’ created by our crazed consumer culture. But I paid a price for not trusting my own desires, for ignoring my longing for creative practice.

By cultivating courage without creativity, I found myself taking risks in my life in service of others, but not taking the risk to trust myself, my instinct and my own desires. I lost my connection to the essence of clown – despite my natural gift for asking the questions no-one really wants to answer – and took myself and my work VERY seriously.

As a result, I found myself getting burned out, tired, resentful and depleted.

Choose the clown

I know, clowns can be scary.

But trust me on this one – chose the expansiveness of the clown over the draining demands of the martyr. Trust that even when you don’t know if you can pull it off – especially when you don’t know if you can pull it off – the flip side of that coin is that you don’t know yet what you have up your sleeve.

Step into the centre of the stage, even if you only know one note.

Perform with the Symphony Orchestra, even if you are more comfortable in a rugby scrum.

Accept the invitation to speak, to sing, to play, to dance.

Be the first person willing to make a fool of yourself – to ask the question that makes you sound foolish.

Be a clown.

It’s way more fun (and much more powerful) than being a martyr.


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