what defines us?

Yesterday I read an article about fiction writing on a writing blog I recently discovered. As someone who has written fiction in spurts for years, I could identify with the author’s sentiments – to some extent. I’ve never made writing the focus of my career, but there is a possibility that it will become more prominent in the future. This article exposed some insights about the writing life, and as I thought about one point in particular, I realized it could be applied to other types of creativity as well (music, art) – and even to one’s vocation.

First, she talks about what happens when a writer makes writing into her full-time job. Often, the writer clams up and is unable to produce anything because she feels the pressure: I have to write something, and it has to be good. There is nothing more paralyzing to art than perfectionism during the drafting stages. As a result of the creative “brain freeze,” the author says:

Then we berate ourselves for our lack of willpower, we call ourselves idiots; we feel like total failures, we regret the lost time, the lost chances to produce good work. But that part of our brain is older than we are, and it operates in a dark instinctive space that is beyond language or reason. If we back it into a corner, and make it think it’s fighting for its very survival, can we be surprised at how fiercely it drives us away? And that, once again, no writing gets done?

The point of the article is that writers seem to accomplish more and do better work when they can manage to put writing on the “sidelines” of their lives.

Having it on the sidelines, releasing ourselves from the pressure and burden of expectations, might be, ironically enough, one way of keeping our writing center stage. We do our work in the corner, nourish it and let it grow like a plant that only blooms in the dark. So much of writing seems to happen underground anyway, in the rich mysterious spaces of that parallel life where other lives get lived and life-or-death drama plays out while we run errands, make lunch for the kids, put in the time at the day job.

This relates to an earlier point she made: writers draw from their experiences. If we are to write well, we must experience life and continue to collect those experiences, whether it be through travel, other jobs, or friendships with a wide variety of people. My writing style today is drastically different from what it was before I lived overseas. It’s different from what it was before I went to college. Every experience has changed and shaped me as a person – and as a writer.

Writing fiction is serious business. It demands nothing less than everything you’ve got to give: your blood, sweat, heart and soul; your time; your ego. You expose yourself in your work and again when you show your work. It deserves to be taken seriously, and yet somehow we have to find a way to treat it lightly, hold it lightly, so it doesn’t slip away from us.

This is beautiful, mysterious, and true. And, I thought, isn’t it also true of other vocations? I know that, as a teacher, if I live my life as though teaching defines me as a person, then if I have a bad day, or realize I am not good at some aspect of teaching, it is horribly depressing. If I believe that being a teacher is my only reason for living, then being a bad teacher means I am failing at life. As a Christian, I recognize that as a lie. God loves me and defines me as His child apart from anything I do; realizing this frees me to do the best job I can without being so uptight about the results. My identity is not dependent on what I do, but on who I am.

Think of the creative freedom made possible by this realization. No more “stage fright,” whether on an actual stage, in the office, at the front of the classroom, or crafting sentences in Microsoft Word. We can be free to do great work if we abandon our egos, our individual reputations, and work because we are; because we can. Because God defines us as human beings, created by Him to create beautiful things.

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4 Responses

  1. This was helpful to me; thank you SO much!

  2. Shelley, I’m glad! You’re welcome! 🙂

  3. This is a great post. It is interesting as you mentioned that these same challenge overlap into other art forms as well.

    “Sure, I was young. But writing was not the center of my existence; school and family occupied most of my time and mental energy.

    Writing was the shadow life, running through the real one.
    Writing took place at the edges of things.”

    This point (from the original article) really engages me. It seems as you move forward toward adulthood through slow subtle changes, we tend to let go of the things that helped to nurture that quality of life that enhanced creativity as a child (i.e. finding your identity in many things). All of a sudden as an adult, any time spent away from the art that you are pursuing can seem like wasted time.

    How interesting to think the opposite…That time spent away pursuing other interests and relationships could actually be extremely important to the creative process. This idea is definitely worth considering and testing for myself.

  4. Pamela, yes! I love the idea that our art is enriched by our experiences. Like, in the example she used, the guy who decided to go off exploring the world; he has lots of experiences to draw from now when he writes. It makes me want to travel more and more. 🙂

    Can’t wait to see you tomorrow!

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