What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability
Even at a young age, you’d often find me hunched over a notebook writing short stories. So when our grade 3 teacher told us we had to submit a bit of fiction for the local fall fair, I was more than a little excited.
Because it was time to introduce the world to one of my favourite creations: Super Something. Resembling E.T. with a beak and cape, Super Something — who began as a paper monster tragically destined for the burn barrel — became the titular character in my award-winning submission that year. That’s right, award-winning.
This impressive piece of literature brought home a first-place finish in the children’s category, alongside prized pigs and blue-ribbon jams. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a tale of epic proportions, where Super Something and his teammates Super Monster and Super Noodle square off against alligators, giants and a castle armed with a million guns.
The gang even ends up in outer space for some reason …. I dunno, the third act is a bit of a mess.
Super Something was an early indicator that I was a fan of the creative arts. While other kids my age were getting into hockey and dirt bikes, I was writing stories in my bed. Over time, my interests morphed into inventing board games, which became my obsession.
It was a great creative outlet for me. And I’m sure all the glue I inhaled while constructing the elaborate games only served to heighten the experience.
But then puberty happened, bringing with it a whack of insecurities. I convinced myself that making board games was a weird hobby best kept to myself. More and more, my creative pursuits took place behind closed doors (which, in hindsight, probably made the glue fumes even more noxious).
In grade 8, at the peak of pubescent awkwardness, Ms. Van Aiken informed me an evaluator from the school board was visiting to conduct an assessment on me. Mom told me it was for the “gifted program.” I had no idea why. My stirring performance as a cardboard tree at the recent Christmas concert certainly hadn’t impressed anyone. Meanwhile, my track record of peeing my pants and making crayon candles was hardly praiseworthy.
Either way, during the interview, I let it slip that I liked to make board games in my spare time. Intrigued, the evaluator pressed me for more information. What kind of games did I make? What did I like about the hobby? Could I show him one of my games?
I felt exposed, embarrassed, vulnerable.
I started fidgeting, picking at a hangnail as he peppered me with questions. My heart raced as I mumbled sheepish answers. Before long, I ripped the dangling nail off completely and blood started pouring out of my finger.
Best. Interview. Ever.
“Looks like you’ve got a bit of blood there,” the interviewer said, probably wondering if my file had been mixed up with another student’s.
“Ha, ha,” I stammered, blood running down my hand. “… Yeah.” At least we had changed the subject.
Looking back, I’m sure the man was genuinely interested in my hobbies and wanted to see how the school could support my extracurricular passions. At the time though, sharing my creative work was terrifying, the very prospect of which caused me to bleed all over my Giant Tiger blue jeans.
Despite my insecurities, I kept making board games. Usually my creations didn’t go further than playing them with Nicholas. But every now and then I’d swallow my fear and force myself to share my work more broadly.
The biggest and scariest milestone happened in 1996. I was sixteen years old and had mailed a letter to a board game company, telling them about my passion for making games.
A few weeks later, I returned home from school to find an envelope waiting for me on my dinner plate. It was a letter from the board game company, inviting me to come to Toronto to pitch one of my ideas. I didn’t eat much that night due to equal parts excitement and diarrhea-inducing terror.
Mom drove me to the big city for the meeting, and I kicked myself for not bringing spare underwear. I was terrified. Sharing my inventions with Nicholas was one thing. This was quite another.
In the waiting room, I did my best to look calm, cool and professional. Mom didn’t make that easy. “Do you have to go pee?” She asked. Two minutes passed. “Are you sure you don’t want to go pee before your meeting?” Another two, tense minutes. “I really think you’d feel better if you went pee.”
“I’m fine,” I hissed between clenched teeth as the receptionist snickered behind her desk.
A lifetime later, they called me in. This was it. My big moment.
I walked into the VP’s office, pulled out the prototype of my board game and proceeded to bomb spectacularly. I hadn’t prepared anything by way of a sales pitch. Heck, I didn’t even know what a sales pitch was.
But it didn’t matter. I faced my fear and put myself out there. And for the moment, that was enough. I rode cloud nine the entire way home to Port Albert.
Move over, glue fumes, there’s a new high in town.
My experience with making board games taught me a lot about vulnerability. Putting myself out there made me feel exposed, leaving me vulnerable to criticism, judgement and ridicule. But letting my guard down also helped me grow as a creator, build my confidence and learn the importance of going pee before a big meeting.
That same willingness to be vulnerable also proved crucial during my cancer treatment — whether it was telling my doctor I was struggling with anxiety or letting him know about worsening nausea so he could adjust my meds accordingly.
Another good example was when my doctors inserted a semi-permanent IV line into my chest so they could draw blood and deliver chemo without constantly jabbing me with needles. It was a quick procedure, but that night it felt someone had taken a sledgehammer to my chest.
Rather than appear weak and admit I needed the pain meds available to me, I opted to tough it out. As a result, I got no sleep that night at a time when I needed as much rest as possible.
A helpful scolding from the nurses the next morning helped me realize that sometimes it was okay to not be okay.
Sharing your creative work
I’ve been blogging for years now, but I still get butterflies whenever I click that big, blue Publish button. Same goes for whenever I step on stage to give a talk. Whether you’re a writer, artist, musician, photographer, actor or any other type of creative, sharing your work is poop-in-your-pants scary. Period.
But coming out of the creative closet offers a slew of benefits as well. For starters, it’s the only way you get better. I know I have more growing to do as a writer, and I cringe when I look back at my earlier writing. (Except for Super Something, of course. That masterpiece includes an army of warriors made of popsicle sticks who can assemble into a friggin’ buzzsaw! And that’s just literary gold.)
The old adage “practice makes perfect” is true, and sharing your work is an opportunity to hone your craft, gather valuable feedback and learn from your mistakes.
Secondly, it gives others permission to embrace their creative side. How many kids my age were secretly sketching or hiding short stories under their beds? Sharing your work inspires others to do the same. And now thanks to the Internet, no matter what you’re into, you’ll find a community of like-minded folks out there who are into it as well.
Finally, creative expression is an awesome outlet. Research shows that art therapy can be an incredibly effective stress reliever, while crocheting a scarf or snapping some photos can get you out of your head and into the moment.
Yes, putting yourself out there is nerve-wracking. But in my experience, the pros outweigh the cons by far. So sign up for those guitar lessons. Join that creative writing group. Audition for that play.
Air out those glue fumes — and let your creative side shine.