the bank teller & the pen

or how i learned to unlock my creative potential

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For nearly my entire life I believed that I was not a creative person. I believed that creativity was something that you were born with. Something that was a part of your DNA like eye color or whether or not you had freckles. I believed this because that is what I was told by the adults in my life. Never maliciously. Sometimes implicitly, with the condescending and patronizing tone adults take with children. Other times explicitly with humor “Well I don’t think you should major in art HA HA HA HA.” My teachers and parents believed that I was not an artistic person because I was terrible at drawing. That I was bad at drawing was absolutely true. My entire childhood, every time I drew something and looked around at what my peers had drawn it was very obvious that my work just wasn’t very good. However I took my lack of drawing ability in stride, deciding pretty early on that “well gee I just guess this isn’t for me” and simply keep on living life. It wasn’t until I was 21 years old, cashing my paycheck, that a bank teller changed everything.

Growing up in the nineties, genetics was everywhere you looked. It seemed like all the 20/20s and Time Magazines were always breathlessly asking if this gene made you an alcoholic or did this person's genetic makeup make him a killer? The idea that who we are to become is sealed at conception and that this was the reason for my lack of artistic ability was a narrative that really clicked in my young mind. This was further reinforced by my dad, who in fact claimed to be bad at art as well. He would often joke that he could only draw dogs and pigs. He would draw the most basic, kindergarten style stick figure dog, then with a smirk he’d tell you he was about to show you the pig, and he’d draw a little curly tail on the back of the dog. And so I went through life, generally ignoring art, believing that it just wasn’t for me.


One afternoon in the early aughts, I was cashing a paycheck at my local bank branch. As I was signing a deposit slip, the bank teller casually noted that my signature was very strange. She explained that it was extraordinarily rare for someone to slant their letters to the left. I was a little confused as I had never really considered how I hold a pen before. Later that day, I signed my name, slanting the letters to the right this time. I was completely surprised at what appeared on the paper. Until that moment I had awful handwriting. My penmanship was so bad that I often could not read my own writing. My writing looked like a cross between hieroglyphics and graffiti. But now, all of sudden, my signature was beautiful. I even thought it looked a bit like Walt Disney’s. I signed my name a few more times, amazed at how it looked. It was a very bizarre experience, to all of a sudden find myself with handwriting that I did not recognize. I began writing words and then sentences. Every piece of gibberish I could think of. I wrote on every scrap of paper I could find. I wanted to see what every word in the dictionary looked like in my new script. Writing felt different as well. I was able to loosen my grip on the instrument considerably and relax most of my hand. I even wrote much faster.

A decade of better handwriting passed, and I still considered myself creatively challenged. I even missed a brief encounter with photography in my mid twenties. I had friends who were taking photography in college, and despite my piqued interest, I brushed the notion of photography away, reminding myself that I could never be a creative person. At the same time, I landed a job as a welder, despite not even being clear as to what welding was. I had taken a series of handwriting tests designed to identify the potential to excel at welding. I was one of 10 people chosen from hundreds to train as a welder. All based on my ability to write very quickly and accurately in a very straight line. I went to welding school and learned fast. Within a month I was passing tests it took others a year to master.


It was only when I was 30, drawing with my own kids, repeating my dads dog / pig joke, that I realized the connection between how I held a pen, my ability to draw and how I saw myself artistically. As it turns out, it’s difficult to draw while slanting you pencil to the left. In fact, it feels kind of impossible. Like trying to draw with holding the pencil in your toes. Somehow, for 17 years of my life, nobody noticed I was holding the pencil the wrong way. Teachers, parents, friends… they all missed it. Even I didn’t realize it. As I looked back on my childhood, I began to wonder if a falling behind in drawing skills early in life had sabotaged me. Once a few adults had decided I sucked, I believed it myself. And believing it myself, I never put much, if any, effort into creative endeavours. I’ve seen firsthand that children will believe anything you tell them. If they can believe in Santa Claus, they can certainly believe they aren’t talented.

I eventually found my creative voice in photography. And it has been immensely satisfying to finally express myself through creation after so many decades of believing that it was impossible. But I often think about all the years I never created anything and can’t help but feel a profound sense of loss. I hear a lot of people complain that kids are too spoiled. That schools and parents spend too much time telling kids their special & unique snowflakes capable of amazing things. It’s fun to laugh along with the cynics, but I wonder how many of those people have some unlocked talent within them? Some amazing thing they have no idea exists because someone once told them they weren’t good at something that. And not even just art. How many brilliant engineers & lawyers & athletes & historians has this world lost to kids, for whatever reason, not believing in themselves? I’ve learned the long and hard way that before you even make an attempt at something you need to first believe that you can do it. And sometimes you need someone else to before you believe in yourself… even if you're holding your pencil the wrong way.

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