I like things lined up on imaginary grid lines, aesthetically angled, organized. Not just the stuff in my house, but my thoughts and my emotions, which I tend to compartmentalize—often to the consternation of people with whom I’m close. It’s a coping mechanism, really; it’s how I pretend to have control over the chaos of life.
I’d like my writing to be like that, too—orderly and efficient and controlled—right from the first draft. But it doesn’t always work out that way, and really, it shouldn’t.
When she first learned to draw, my daughter used to delight in scribbles. She didn’t care what the picture was about; she just loved the way the colors appeared on the page when she moved her hand. She loved to follow a scented marker around in swirls and circles, dashes and lines. She could do this for long uninterrupted stretches of time, her face set with pleased concentration. These scribbling sessions were a necessary step on her journey to learn how to draw more purposefully: doodles then stick figures then faces then whole scenes.
She draws infrequently now. I’ve asked her about it and she says things like, “I don’t know what to draw” or “I’m not very good anymore.” She’s forgotten the way she used to let herself get lost on the page (or on the sidewalk or on her brother), the way she used to color and doodle just for the pleasure of doing it. In the short span of time between princess-hood and pre-adolescence, her desire to create art has been shot through with self-doubt. Now if I unfurl a roll of butcher paper in front of her, she draws a blank.
I remember the exact moment I stopped drawing, too. It was in second grade, and on a hot afternoon, we were given manila paper and crayons and time to draw. I scribbled a blue sky across the top of the page, and a swath of green across the bottom. In between, a sun, a few clouds, a house surrounded by flowers, smiling stick people. It was a happy drawing. I was happy drawing it. Then Ms. Edmonds, my teacher, came up behind me and pointed at the thin and waxy sky.
“What kind of sky is that,” she said, and not kindly. “Stand up and come here.” She took me to the window. “Does the sky end? Does it just stop in the middle of the air? No, it does not. It meets the ground at the horizon. Can you not see that?”
“Yes,” I said quietly, and felt the heat of twenty-six pairs of eyes on me, sneering, judging. I’d never thought before about if or where the sky stopped.
In that unforgettable moment, I attached a sense of wrongness to my happy little drawing, and I’ve never really been able to let it go. I have a burdensome awareness of all the potential expectation, criticism, and judgment that goes along with creating art. So I became my own harshest critic, lest I find myself unprepared to handle criticism from others.
And you can believe that the next time I drew a sky, it met the ground at the horizon.
Sometimes wanting everything to be organized and logical and neatly lined up makes writing a book feel like a miserable, impossible endeavor.
I’ve been struggling with my new novel. I can’t quite hear my protagonist’s voice. I can’t quite picture her face. I don’t yet know what she really wants. And after weeks of pre-writing and thinking about the story, an unexpected character showed up right on the very first page and insisted upon staying, and I’m not sure what his plans are, either.
I could stop. I could scrap the whole thing and start over with something else. I could take a few weeks off and try to plot it all out more clearly.
Or, I could make a mess.
I could write a bunch of crap, write dialogue that will never get spoken, write scenes that will eventually get thrown out. Just write until I see their faces and hear their voices and know what they desperately want. I could try to remember what it was like to create art before second grade. Forget about the judgment and the criticism. The shoulds and the should-nots. Because there’s really no rightness when it comes to writing books or composing music or coloring pictures. It should still be fun, even when it’s work, because otherwise, what’s the point? Who says it has to be done a certain way or be polished from the start? And if they say it—like that horrible teacher—who says we have to agree?
I’ve asked my daughter to meet me at the kitchen table. It’s not too late for either of us to un-control the chaos. We’ve got crayons and paper and pens and scissors and glue, and we’re going to create all over the place without any expectations and see what falls out of that little blue scribble of sky.
“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” ~Napoleon Hill