Last week, a student relatively new to my writing class, sent me an email before class asking for advice about how to create more vivid characters and voices.
This woman, a former TV executive, is bright, articulate, and talented; and she’s been writing for twenty years. There was no lack of “vivid” in her characters or voice. But, like many writers, she couldn’t see her own gifts. She saw only flaws, most of which no one else detected.
I told her to resist the temptation to judge her work and reminded her that when class started three weeks earlier, she’d promised to show up for this session and engage in the writing process without thinking about product. “When you’re working your process from a place of authenticity and trust,” I told her, “product takes care of itself.” I suggested she take a break from needing to be good. “Your job is just to show up and write badly,” I told her. “I can do that,” she said, smiling.
That night in class she asked me: “Does anyone ever write anything bad in your classes?”
“There’s no such thing as “bad,’” I responded. “Everyone is where they are. My job is to meet you wherever you are and help you grow to the next level.”
Writers, do yourself a favor, and stop wondering if what you’re writing is “good” or “bad.” These terms are subjective and they mess with your process. Assume you have something to offer. You wouldn’t want to write if it wasn’t something you needed to do. Think of it as your soul’s calling. Are you going to ignore your soul? If you think you’re not good enough, smart enough, or talented enough, think again! These thoughts are unconscious stories people tell themselves, which prevent them from moving forward with writing projects and other dreams. Don’t believe these stories. You’re a writer; write new ones for yourself! Our thoughts create our emotions and thoughts that make you feel crappy are mental junk food. Replace them with thoughts that inspire you and make you want to write.
You can do this. It may be hard at first, but like with most things, you’ll improve with practice. The main thing is to be aware that you have a choice. Consider this story, which I first heard as a spiritual psychology student at The University of Santa Monica:
A chief is talking to his tribe about two dogs inside his mind: one is courageous and good, the other is vengeful and angry. Both dogs are fighting to the death. A young brave, unable to wait for the end of the story, interrupts the chief, and asks, “Which one will win?” The chief responds, “The one I feed.”
Ask yourself which stories you feed. Cultivate awareness. Rewrite your own life stories. Put your creative imagination into service to set yourself free so you can have, be, and do what you want. Release whatever stories, thoughts, or ideas hold you back. Make a conscious choice to create stories that empower you. If you don’t believe this will work, try it anyway. Think of it as an experiment. You have nothing to lose except your doubt and angst. You do not have to suffer. Never before have there been so many opportunities available to writers.
You don’t have to publish with a particular press or appear on the New York Times bestseller list to enjoy success as a writer. The trick is to acknowledge, appreciate, and celebrate all successes, large and small. Success for a writer includes simply showing up at your desk and writing. Success is sending your work out. Success is building your platform, one fan or follower at a time. Success is maintaining faith and believing in yourself, and in your work.
Outcomes, which are not within your control, are not your job. Why fret over them or twist yourself into knots worrying who “out there” will validate your work. Validate yourself. Again, this is a choice. You can choose to think you’re not good enough or you can choose to accept yourself where you are, resolve to show up and do your work, and know your writing will improve. Doubt saps precious energy and time. Nike got it right: just do it! Allowing yourself to be where you are and who you are, accepting yourself completely, is a powerful declaration to the universe. You will be heard. Speak!
Last Saturday my husband and I dropped our 16-year-old daughter off at CalArtsfor a month-long program run by California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). We helped her settle into her dorm room, toured the campus, and attended a barbeque and outdoor concert. But the most memorable part of the day was a brief, inspiring talk given by CSSSA’s director, Michael Fields. If his words resonated as deeply with the young thespians, dancers, musicians, visual artists, film and television students, animators, and writers as they did with me, those kids are going to have a great month! I’d like to share a few highlights I found relevant and inspiring.
“We provide skills in service to dreams.” I could see the creative hopes and dreams on the faces of teens enrolled in the program, but their parents’ faces were harder to read. How many of them were living their creative dreams? Which ones had set aspirations aside and why? Had new ones taken root? Or were the parents of these young artists living their dreams vicariously through their children? I hoped these parents owned and nourished their dreams, honed skills, and believed in themselves, no matter their ages or area(s) of interest. The word “discipline” shares its root with “disciple”—one who learns. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great if each parent explored the edges of his or her creative life with as much enthusiasm as their kids were about to be encouraged to do in their month at CSSSA?This would require a learning orientation to life, which fosters creativity, not just for artists, but for anyone open to growth. Perhaps one of the greatest skills I know in service to dreams is the understanding that growth takes place at the edges of one’s comfort zone. B.J. Dodge, theater department chair, told students later that day to “train in the place of terror.” The Chinese character for “crisis” is the same as the one for “opportunity.” When we view challenges as opportunities, when we reframe obstacles as blessings, and ask, “What can I learn from this experience?” life becomes one big school. Developing skills in service to one’s dreams is a life-long task—and for an artist, a labor of love.
“Don’t waste time trying to prove you belong here. You do.” Imagine the beauty, power, and magic in just showing up for the purposes of learning. Imagine the freedom of having nothing to prove. In this context there’s no such thing as a mistake because everything one does is grist for the creative mill. Failure does not exist, only opportunities for growth. The mother of a toddler wouldn’t scold her child for stumbling while learning to walk. Falling down is part of the process. And this is true as we attempt to master more difficult tasks in life. Blessed are the students whose teachers understand this—teachers who celebrate effort, initiative, and courage; teachers who know that process rules, and product is excrement of process. From this vantage point, there is never anything to prove. The only failure is not trying, not granting our souls complete and total expression, not letting ourselves do what we have come here to do.
“Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” This is a quote from Rumi, and I loved that Fields incorporated it into his talk. I wondered how many of the incoming CSSSA students had heard of the great Persian poet. What might it mean to “be the soul” of a place? Fields used this quote as an invitation for students to dig into the curriculum and take advantage of the opportunity before them. To be the soul of a place would require one to stand in the middle of one’s “Soulness.” To be one’s soul—a tall order for adults, as well as kids, but one worth contemplating and practicing.
“Show up; pay attention; tell the truth; feed the children; and don’t get too attached to the outcome.” These were Fields’s closing tips for success in the program, which he’d gleaned from Native American wisdom. I wondered how many of the teens understood the truth and depth of those words. It took me decades to learn that showing up is the hardest part as a writer; that telling the truth is an act of liberation which frees the soul; that feeding the children means taking care of your young, but also nourishing yourself, because every adult is “innocent” in the eyes of “God,” or Universal Intelligence. But the best advice was: “don’t get too attached to the outcome.” It’s taken me fifty years to learn that outcomes are not within my control. My job is to show up. God’s job is outcomes. I first learned this lesson years ago as a dance student at Juilliard, and again years later, when I hit an all-time low as a result of getting too attached to writing career outcomes, which didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I almost gave up, almost surrendered my soul. Attaching to outcomes decimates hope and destroys dreams. Did any of those kids know that yet? The room was filled with possibility, creative energy, and hope—not only for the teenagers, faculty, and staff about to embark on a month-long creative journey, but for all travelers everywhere—exploring this vast and sacred school we call life!