Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Being thankful for the bad things

When I was thirteen, I underwent major surgery for acute scoliosis (curvature of the spine). The doctors and nurses spent hours prepping me for the pain, discomfort, expected recovery time... One nurse mentioned, “When you get out of surgery, you're gonna feel like you just got run over by a Mack truck.”


So I was ready for the pain.

But when I woke up after surgery, I didn't feel anything. I couldn't move and for a while I couldn't even open my mouth to speak. I lay there, silently crying, completely sure that the one-in-a-thousand chance tragedy had happened; that the doctor's knife had slipped and I was going to be paralyzed for the rest of my life.

Of course a few minutes later the anesthesia wore off and the Mack truck hit. I had expected to endure and "deal with" the pain; I had never expected to be glad about it.

Sometimes it takes an experience like this to realize the little things we should be thankful for. It's easy to spout gratitude for successes and joys...but often it is the failures, the annoyances, the pains that are the signs of our greatest blessings.

This Thanksgiving, I'm trying to be thankful for...

...the mess my toddlers make every day, because it means they have toys and books to play with and food to eat (and, uh, smear on the highchair).

...the rejections that are forcing me to better my writing.

...every bit of pain, because it means I'm growing and feeling and alive.

...difficulties, for reminding me I can't survive on my own...

And mostly I am thankful for the assurance that I am not alone.

I'll close with one of my favorite poems, by Joyce Kilmer, because he could say things much more eloquently than I am able:

Thanksgiving
(For John Bumker)

The roar of the world is in my ears.
Thank God for the roar of the world!
Thank God for the mighty tide of fears
Against me always hurled!
Thank God for the bitter and ceaseless strife,
And the sting of His chastening rod!
Thank God for the stress and the pain of life,
And Oh, thank God for God!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Asking the right questions

You know you've done it. You're signed up for a conference, just managed to get the last slot of critique sessions with your dream editor. You're trying to keep a few sips of coffee down before you go in, and you squeeze your eyes shut and whisper, “Please please please let her love it. Please let her want to acquire it! Please please please!”

Or you've entered a contest and begged, “Please let me win!”

Or you've read your first chapter at a critique group and prayed, “Please don't let them find anything wrong with it!”

I think for anyone with an optimistic personality, these vainglorious prayers are going to be a constant temptation. Of course, if you're among the millions who've had these thoughts, then chances are you've realized what dangerous thoughts they are. Ultimately, they are fruitless. Heaven forbid (and it does, of course) that such prayers be answered just as we asked. Think of that first manuscript you finished; how you thought it was perfect and wonderful and everyone would love it. Think then of all the flaws you've fixed since then, all the finesse you've added, all the details and subtlety and metaphor that could only make its way into the manuscript after you'd spent weeks and months in thoughtful critique mode. Would you really have preferred to see that original manuscript in the hands of heartless reviewers and readers?

That doesn't mean, however, that we should shut down our optimism and hope for the worst. Instead, we need to learn to ask the right questions. Instead of, “Please let me sign with the editor of my dreams at this conference,” we should pray, “Please let me form good connections and friends today who will help me continue in my work.” Replace “Let me win,” with “Let me receive affirmation.” Don't think, “Let them think it's perfect,” but “Let them point out my flaws so that I will understand and be able to improve as a writer.”

It's so easy to see publication as the ultimate goal that it's easy to overlook the best goal: to grow as an artist and allow your work to grow as a work of art.

With that in mind, please enjoy the post; I hope it inspires you to leave a gazillion comments. :) Seriously, the best to you all in your writing and all your pursuits. Happy Tuesday.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Why in the world would you want to write for children?"

"The Children of Martial Caillebotte" by Renoir
It's one of those questions people will never stop asking—the mean-hearted version of “Where do you get your ideas?”

I know you all have your own answers, from intellectual justifications to blowing raspberries in the faces of the lunatics who would dare to ask such a thing. Generally I smile and give a vague answer, realizing that someone ignorant enough to ask that probably won't understand my reasons. But I have them, of course.

This is what I'm saying in my head:

1. There is, or should be, a natural reverence for the child. Just as we naturally step back in awe at great things and people, it is human nature to feel awe at the very sight of a child. There is something hugely mysterious about this primal reaction, and I won't even try to come up with a definitive explanation. Is it a child's natural innocence or purity? Is it their need for help and their complete trust that it will be given? I don't know the answer...but I do know that it is only adults of a twisted nature who don't feel this reverence.

2. This reverence leads to a responsibility to protect and help and love children. They deserve it intrinsically, as young human beings. We also owe it to them from a completely worldly standpoint: children quite literally are our future. If we don't give them joy and hope and wisdom and understanding now, we're damaging not only their futures but our own.

3. Less philosophically, children have an understanding of fun that the majority of adults have lost. Some strange gene seems to appear somewhere around age 22 which suddenly makes adults lose their ability or inclination or freedom to play. Not playing means missing out on an entire way of experiencing and appreciating the world. As Peter Pan sang in the old, musical version: “If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I won't grow up, never grow up, not me!” How can you see the beauty in a tree if you won't even climb it? And if you've closed your mind to simple beauty, I feel sorry for you, but I'm not interested in writing for you.

4. Children think for themselves and never let critics decide for them what is good or not. Thinking outside the box is not important to them because they don't even know there is a box.

5. At the same time, children are the harshest critics. They will never like something just because they're “supposed to.” When they admire, they do so in complete honesty.

6. Your childhood defines your life. Don't even try to argue otherwise, because every philosopher, psychologist and scientific study will prove you wrong. I would like to be part of that definition. I don't think I could ask for a greater role than that.

7. Writing for children is more challenging. I think I'm smart enough.

8. As Theodor (Seuss) Geisel said, “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.” (That's usually the one I'm thinking as I smile and give the vague answer.) If I ever write books for adults, it's going to be the one with some good, solid childlike qualities who are going to read them.

9. So, my last answer, “Why in the world wouldn't I?”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dear Artist

Be not afraid.
I've come to believe that there is no greater danger to artists than fear. Living takes courage. Doing what you love takes courage. And if what you love is art, then you need a special type of courage.

Detail from Michelangelo's "Pieta"
“The world” is against you. The bowler-hat-bankers hate you for doing something truly meaningful with your time while they pretend their stock trading and contact building is the important work. They sneer at you through the windshields of their luxury sedans, because you invested your week's pay in new art tools while they purchased something really meaningful like another gray suit.

Even some who claim to be art's children are against you. False artists, who would have you believe—who have convinced much of the world—that art is not about revealing beauty but about mere self-expression. They belittle you for paying attention to such low matters as form and truth while they proclaim themselves to be the real thinkers, the great creators. They have given in to the evil that wishes to steal beauty from the world, and they would be oh, so satisfied to drag you along with them.

Your own temperament can be your enemy. Because you have learned how to feel deeply, because you have caught a glimpse of beauty greater than you can ever capture, your shortcomings will stand out to your own eyes as they will to no others. You will feel discouraged when your work doesn't meet your vision, when your goals get trampled in the daily grind of living.
Norman Rockwell's "The Golden Rule"

It's easy to see how artists can become blinded by fear.

But though much is working against you, there is so much more for you. The world needs artists. The world needs beauty and it needs truth, and artists can create that as no other humans have been privileged to do. A teacher can show you the logic of a rainbow; a poem can show you the wonder. A preacher can discourse on the need for social justice; a painting can make you feel that need until your heart could break. Though they may never admit it, may never know how to express it, the world will always need and support art.

Other artists are working beside you, with you, for you. We all know what it is like to experience discouragement, lack of enthusiasm, depression. We want to help bolster you up so you can succeed, because the beauty you create is what the rest of us need to keep plowing ahead. Be careful not to isolate yourself, because there will always be someone reaching out to help if you open the door.

God is for you. He called you to be an artist, to participate in his creation of beauty, and he will support you in that vocation in a million hidden ways and a thousand tangible ones; look for them.

Never let fear get in the way of your mission. Remember that being an artist is indeed a mission, a calling, and expect the stumbling-blocks that get in the way of any worthwhile mission. Fight them. Overcome them, fearlessly.

I am so proud of you for living your vocation. I admire you and respect you for your bravery and determination. Thank you for the inspiration and encouragement you give me every day, in so many ways.