I spent about a decade so obsessed with writing the next Great American Novel that I didn’t finish anything. I wrote and re-wrote the same first chapter of the same failed book. I must have done it 50 times. I did it so often, I got sick of it. I eventually gave up fiction writing altogether and spent most of my free time overdrinking at $1 PBR nights, cigarette in hand while I had rambling, late-night, angst-ridden psuedo-philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and art with whoever (whomever?) was nearby.
My come-to-Jesus moment happened a decade (and many crow’s feet) later. I walked into our garage after work, and my wife stopped me by the door. Her eyes looked feverish. She handed me a gift bag. Inside was a tiny white onesie. She’d scrawled “I love daddy” on it in that nearly-illegible writing of hers.
We were having a baby.
After the shock of it wore off, I started thinking about my goals as a dad. I only have a few:
1) Raise kids who contribute something positive to the world and can take care of themselves at 18.
2) Raise kids who, to paraphrase Wayne Dyer, have an inner flame that doesn’t flicker no matter what comes before it — kids who don’t feel inferior to people with more money, intelligence, power or authority.
3) Raise kids who know in their bones that if they have a dream and they work at it a little bit each day, they just might achieve it.
No. 3 nagged at me, though. How was I going to teach my kids to go after their dreams when I’d buried mine? I wanted to publish a book, but I was so scared of failing, I never truly started.
Baby on the way, I decided I was going to write a book even if it was the worst book in the history of humankind. I gave up any and all pretense that it would be the next Great American Novel. Instead, I decided to write a book that I alone enjoyed.
At once, everything about the writing process was different. The pressure evaporated. That cowardly little voice in the back of my head telling me my writing was terrible was gone. I set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. Sometimes, I wrote 4,000. Once, I wrote 8,000. It was as if everything I’d bottled up for 32 years was suddenly set free. Words poured out of me.
It was one of the greatest sensations of my life. And I nearly forgot about it.
Then, the other night, I came across a passage in Evelyn Virshup’s haunting book Right Brain People in a Left Brain World. Virshup used art therapy to help recovering addicts express their emotions.
“Classically, art has been taught with a strong emphasis on form, perspective, color theory, design and other technical skills,” she wrote. “Students who didn’t absorb this technical information or who didn’t ‘draw well’ were labelled ‘untalented’ or ‘uncreative’ and were encouraged to develop other resources and pursue other interests.
“I have been meeting many of these ‘untalented’ students in their later years; they tremble with fear at the sight of a blank piece of paper and crayons, and they have an acute sense of inadequacy. Many of these people did indeed successfully pursue other interests and develop other resources and are leading ‘normal’ lives, but to me they talk of feeling incomplete, unfinished, of missing something important in their lives. Others were not even this fortunate; they were unable to develop resources, and became failures in our society.
“… When there were no goals or product orientation from the artistic point of view, merely a place where whatever marks they made on the paper were O.K.; when the only demand made of them was that they write something about what they had drawn; when there was no expectation of realism, rationality or neatness; then they expressed themselves, possibly for the first time in their lives; and they did so with imagination, openness, and effectiveness; and also possibly for the first time in their lives, self-respect.”
That limiting voice in our heads is the hurdle, the bar we must get over. If you find yourself bottled up, let go of your expectations. Say, “I’m going to write a real piece of dog shit here. If it’s terrible, who the hell cares? I’ll print it, take it out back, soak it in gas and burn it.”
Make it an offering to the muse. One completed story. One poem. One novel rising to the sky in smoke.
We bury the lives we want long before we’re dead. But there’s time yet to exhume our bodies, to dig ourselves from the shallow graves we’ve made.
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