Yesterday, after all the requirements of the day were checked off my mental list, I was able to spend some time reading a book recommended from another writer’s site. The book is ‘Bird by Bird: Instructions for Writing and Life’ by Anne Lamott. I’ve been reading this book slower than most because it is content-rich. There is so much to absorb and sadly, a few chapters are all my brain can manage at any one time. I want to keep reading, to spend the entire night in mystical revelation, but I can’t because there is just too much to wrap my head around. That’s when you know you’ve stumbled upon something great. It demands that you take it slow.
I’m a little more than halfway through and I’ve found that it has challenged me in some unique ways. In some ways it is good, in some ways, well, it is just challenging. I’ve been sighing through a few too many chapters.
Without knowing much of where to begin, I’ll begin with this. I love writing. It’s an extension of my creative self I never expected to discover. It was also something I worked on for fun, amusement and, primarily, for myself. But as I moved through college and into my adult life, writing started to take more hold of me. It shifted from being a hobby to wanting to be more. That was around the time I started my novel, which was over five years ago. I didn’t, at the time, believe I wanted to publish the novel. I know my thoughts did not include being published because, much like an artist who must debut their work, there are nerves that interrupt raw creativity. I had no nerves when I approached my Microsoft Word file. When my first plot was not resonating, I scraped it and started on something different. It was easy to discard my work because there was no judgement or shame, it was just me focusing on the enjoyment of the art.
Let’s fast forward through some years and halt where we are today. I’m tinkering with some finishing details of my novel, but otherwise, it’s complete. I’ve had some innocent victims begin reading the first chapters. They are demanding more, but I’m still tinkering so they must wait. My confidence is full because the people are demanding more. Then I, also an innocent victim, being reading this book about writing, specifically about writing a novel, and realize that my process has been genuine and solid. What great news! I have followed a writing pattern that is deemed correct in the writing world. This is affirming to hear! But then I read further and there are the other parts that have split me in two. There are words and stories that have made me feel as though everything I have worked on with my novel has been a waste. What I am experiencing while reading my way through this book are the two sides to learning: the affirming side and the challenging side because both are needed if we are ever going to grow.
Sigh, again. “But I thought I was done with my novel!”
It feels as though I’m back in art school, back learning the basics and trying out what these so called professionals are trying to teach. They are claiming there is a system, there is a good approach and a bad approach, there is a preferred method to success. It strikes me as funny that self-expression has rules. The professional would say, “Well, they aren’t rules,” she adjusts her glasses further up her nose, “they are guidelines that pave the way to your success. They are tips that will help you develop your art.”
I think for a minute and scrunch my forehead. “I’m learning all of this to ensure the critics will like my work?”
Her mouth pauses in mid-stride before the answer appears. “They will appreciate what you’ve incorporated.”
“But won’t it look like everyone else’s work?”
Her back is turned towards me. She is impatient. “You have your own style, your own patterns. It will be yours, but you’re building on what others before you have learned.”
I’m left scratching my head.
Because I have my educator background, I understand the importance of foundations. We’d all still be painting in caves if discovery and respecting advancements wasn’t of any importance. You should learn what came before your breath was present on this earth. You should be educated about what has worked for other people. You should understand how your predecessors took concepts and turned them on their heels. But those predecessors also knew when to apply the rules and when to scrap them. When to listen, when to ignore. As I think about this concept, this is the very place where art exists. The freedom and boldness of asserting your own opinion; stating that your new way of viewing the world is the right way, at least for you, is the true art.
Monet, an artist we all know and most of us love, was cast out of the art world because his paintings were merely the impression, the rough pre-workings, of the final painting. It was not accepted as true art until later in his life.
There is also Van Gogh, though that story doesn’t have a positive ending so I don’t relish focusing on it. In the science world, there are Albert Einstein and Louis Pasteur. Technology has Steve Jobs. Entertainment has Walt Disney. I’m sure music has plenty, though I’m an enjoyer of music not so much an expert, or even amateur, on anything musical. Math, well, the same there too, I’m sure it has it’s innovators. These people had to look at what existed in their past and choose what to ignore and what to keep. It’s risky, it’s terrifying, but when you’re successful, you’re suddenly a genius. All of those critical voices turn into fans. Or at least the grumbling of the critics doesn’t matter quite so much when you’re sipping champagne while holding your Nobel Peace Prize.
Knowing that innovation is not something mystical, but rather a determination to believe in yourself, I had to rethink this book I was reading. She is speaking, well, writing truth and giving excellent guidance about writing a novel. When I started out writing my novels, it was fun and about me. I didn’t think about critics, I didn’t ponder publication. It wasn’t about any of that. It was just me. Now, I want to share it. I want to have it published because I want to share this world that I’ve lovingly created. But alongside that possibility comes critics and self-doubt. Both of these voices came through while I was immersed in her book. I suddenly have negative whispers that haven’t existed before. I suddenly wonder if this work is worth anything though I had such confidence in it before. I had to ask myself why I suddenly felt fear and self-consciousness where it didn’t exist before?
I had an expert who was telling me the way things are properly done. She was saying it sweetly, she meant absolutely no harm and meant only to help yet I felt the disparaging whispers anyway. Though I’m a person who typically says, “No thanks, I’ll do it my own way”, I was becoming a victim.
Here’s my takeaway from the situation, though I’m not sure I’m any expert. Actually, I’m quite sure I’m not an expert. I’m going to keep reading the book because it is a volume packed full of wondrous advice. Wow, some of her points make my head spin with anticipation for planning my next novels. But I will be putting it through a filter, my personally designed Cortney filter to ensure that what is applicable for me will stay. Anything that could possibly restrict my creative output needs to be left in the book. I am so grateful I stumbled upon the book because it is providing an education on writing that will only elevate my skills. Who couldn’t use advice like that?
I believe we are in a society full of critics. I know I’m not alone in thinking that. It is too easy to comment and disregard without having much background in the subject. I think we often forget that people are putting themselves out there and they have a soul that can be greatly hurt. When I see how critical people can be towards a person with excellent gifts and talents, it makes me stop and wonder, “What will they say about me if I try? I don’t have that person’s level of gift or talent, how much more harsh will the critics be to me?” Those questions will lead to me not trying at all and I will always wonder if I could have done that thing I always wanted to do.
Is it worth being scared and being fearful of the critics? What would have happened if Monet would have told the art academy that they were correct, his impressions were not really that great? What if Einstein wouldn’t have returned to college to repeat his final year after failing the one prior? What if Walt Disney would have accepted that his initial movies weren’t that great and that living in a garage wasn’t the best deal on the planet? They all had other options. They all could have listened to the critics and we would have missed out on their greatness. They persevered and though they won, we won too. They cried their tears of pain and forged on, believing that what they had to offer was good and right and worthy to be out there in the world.
We all this same option. We all could give into the fear and say it’s not worth it. But what if what you’re hiding could be a motivator for people in future generations? What if you’re covering up your legacy because someone else doing your love of ___ intimidates you from trying?
I encourage you to educate yourself about your area of talent. There is a wealth of knowledge available to us with only a few keystrokes. But use a filter, dear reader. Don’t let the knowledge intimidate you, but rather bolster you to greatness. I’m using this book about writing to strengthen my skills and it is doing just that. But I don’t want to believe that I’m a complete nincompoop when it comes to writing. I find myself asking,
“Oh, most people sit down a write at the same time every day to force their creative subconscious to work?”
“Oh, most people work out elaborate characters before they ever put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard?”
Maybe they do, but I don’t and so far, I haven’t needed to do either. My writing time is spontaneous, but that’s more due to not have time each day to block off. My husband and I are a little busy, man! And as for that character development, my characters often come to my imagination in neat little packages. They arrive with their opinions, looks, words and personality and I just transcribe. I’ve also been discovering the way in which I write (how the plots, characters, words come to me) can make other writers jealous with rage. Look at that, I have a whole bunch of critics without even trying! That one notion sent my head for a loop. I felt all manner of red-faced shame. But then I let it all go and thanked God that he’s given me the gift I have. He’s also teaching me to enjoy this gift instead of being embarrassed, self-conscious or the like.
We all have gifts and talents, multiples of each hidden inside us. Chances are of the 7 billion people in the world, someone is bound to like what you have to give. Even if it is only one person who likes it, isn’t that worth it? To put a wide smile on their face and fill them with joy? Yes, yes it is, so please, go out and do that which you love, want, or are anxious to do. The world would love for you to be brave.