By Michaela O’Donnell Long

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series by Michaela about working with one’s spouse.)

I’ve never been good with foreign languages. Throughout my questionably lengthy career in academics, I’ve spent a combined eleven years studying Latin, Koine Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish. Never mind that over half my years were spent on dead languages, the most disturbing part is that I have little to no reading or conversational skills in any of these languages.  However, despite my bad track record, I married a man who speaks a language other than my own. He speaks artist.

While artist isn’t formally defined as a language, I can assure you I don’t speak it naturally. My husband Dan is an artist, a storyteller to the core. His primary impulse is to think and speak in symbolism and characters. He seamlessly dances between realms of the imagination, both in thought and expression. And while Dan’s helped me to understand myself as a creative, my creativity doesn’t natively play out in the realm of art. My primary categories for making sense of the world are leadership, people, and organizations. I think and speak in strategy, concepts, and actions.

Together, we own a boutique storytelling agency. Through creative content, we help organizations tell their story.  In other words, we make art in response to the needs of a company. But like I said, I don’t naturally speak and think in artistic paradigms, and I’m bad at learning languages. So, when we first started our company I found it safest to bifurcate our roles, spotlighting Dan as the artist, and labeling myself as the strategist. If I had to pinpoint why I held back so much of my creative side in the early months of our business, I’d point to the place in my gut where the sick and overwhelming feelings of vulnerability live. At the prospect of being exposed in my unknowing, sirens would go off in my belly, threatening to grow in volume and overtake my body.

Color palette for this article

Color palette for this article

About six months into our work partnership Dan and I realized that the bifurcation wasn’t helpful to either of us. It limited our shared space not only with each other, but also with collaborators and clients. Because my fear and inexperience gave power to the gap we had created, I decided to formally embark on learning the language of the artist, so that we could try and close that gap. Both with and apart from Dan I forced myself into a variety of exercises that led me to what I call the before and after of artistic spaces. The before and after was my attempt to stay at the edges of art, places where very little was expected of me. To experience the before of art, I engaged in simple practices, as tools for my already existing work. For example, I started to attach a color palette to every academic paper I wrote, or create a playlist for each new work project (an idea I got from a friend). To experience the after of art, I started giving attention to already created artistic artifacts. I visited museums and watched certain kinds of films. I drank wine from obscure places and scrolled through portfolios on Behance.

Visiting museums

Visiting museums

Once the edges of art felt safe, I started to test out my own artistic conversational and making skills.  At work or even socially, I practiced speaking the language of the artist. When someone around a table would talk in symbolism or meaning, I would let myself jump in. At first, my face would turn hot and I’d stumble a bit trying to get what was stirring inside me out. It was almost too painful for me to bear. But, slowly, and largely because of the graciousness of my community of friends and colleagues, I started to feel more comfortable in those unsure moments, more comfortable speaking the language of the artist.

Currently, I speak conversational artist. I am able to participate in artistic processes and creative conversations in ways that were previously unavailable to me. With new clients and collaborators, Dan and I no longer rush to bifurcate our roles. Although this choice continues to be just a bit unsafe, it has given us a more full way to do business together. Time and time again our vulnerability is rewarded with unique experiences and interesting new friends.  It is these moments, and these people, that fuel my journey toward fluency in artist.

Michaela O’Donnell Long is the co-owner of Long Winter Media, which specializes in crafting story through film, image, and word. She is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and is a doctoral fellow of Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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