Permission to Explore

There are many sketchbooks in my house that are filled with doodles, quick sketches, kernels of ideas, and occasional notes in the margins. Some pages are littered with drawings of ladybugs, and I recall one page with a giant praying mantis, complete with cartoon speech-bubble saying, “Hello” (I was up too late on a Summer night). When I draw, I let myself do whatever I want on the blank page.

When I write, I put myself under way too much pressure. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Somehow, I expect the words to spring forth from my fingertips fully formed and ready for the world. This is so rarely the case. Writing is called a craft for a reason. It takes time, practice, and effort to improve yourself, your skills. And each piece created requires an investment of energy, of passion.

They also require imagination.

Without that spark, the writing will be flat. Without the joy of exploring possibilities, discoveries can’t be made. And the discoveries are a huge part of what drives me to write. Those moments when my writing careens off the outline and I suddenly realize something about the character that I never would have figured out otherwise. Even the slow, plodding scenes, where I learn what type of toothpaste they use, or their favorite type of tea. Maybe those bits will never make it into a finished story, but they teach me something about the character, and that feeds the parts that do make the cut.

Without giving myself permission to explore, to make those “weird little doodles” in my writing, I’ll miss out on really understanding the story. And so will my readers. So, the next time I tell myself to stop dabbling with a scene that I know won’t survive the first round of edits, I’m going to remember that the words might not make it, but what I learn about the characters, the setting, the world, that will. And the story will be that much richer for it.

The Critic

I’m going to give my inner critic a name. It will be a ridiculous name, because my inner critic is ridiculous. At the moment, I’m leaning toward Wafflenose. Or perhaps, Lady Wafflenose (my critic does deserve some respect – especially during editing time – but should never be taken too seriously).

Yesterday, I wrote drafts for several blog posts. I was convinced while writing them that they were complete and utter crap. When I re-read them today, I was shocked at how well they’d turned out. They captured my thoughts clearly and in my voice, and I even laughed a time or two.

Writing them was painful. I restarted one piece no less than seven times before I figured out that my critic was loose and running around in my psyche turning over chairs and ripping up paper. Oh, critic. I keep trying to tell you, “I can fix it later.” Apparently, that statement is not currently working.

And so, I say to her:

My Dear Lady Wafflenose, I truly value your feedback – at appropriate times. When I am writing a first draft, that is not an appropriate time. When I am editing a piece, you are very welcome to point out areas that can be improved upon. But if you want stories and thoughts to play with, you need to stop scaring them off when they’re first approaching us. I would take it as a kindness if you could do so.

And to you out there, great big world of writers, artists, creators, I say this: Consider giving yourselves a break. Literally. Take a few moments, a few hours, a few days away from a piece when you find you’re ready to throw it out the window. When you return, who knows; you might see it in a different light and fall in love with it again.

Any ideas for ridiculous names for your own inner critic? Leave a comment if you’d like to share them with others.

Stories

Recently, I noticed that most of my friends are radically different people. They have different hobbies, different beliefs, different backgrounds, different values, even. But when they get together in a room, everyone is kind to each other beyond simple manners. I’ve often wondered what it is that makes them gel, and finally think I’ve found the answer. They’re all avid readers.

Stories, especially written stories, show us what is happening in another person’s heart and mind. We can share the characters’ life experiences, their thoughts and emotions, in a singularly intimate way. Whether we like the character or not, we learn by watching them, and we take that knowledge with us when we meet others in the real world. I think readers might be more empathetic because they have “walked 300 pages in another person’s shoes” over and over again.

But what brings us to the page in the first place?

Books and stories delight people in various ways. Some people like to be frightened, others like to be inspired. For me, it’s about connection. That’s why I tend to read romance novels. I want to know that, by the end, the characters I’ve spent so much time with and learned to know and care about will be all right and living a better life than at the start of the story. Life has enough uncertainty. At least with this, with the books I choose to read and experience, I know I’m heading toward a “Happily Ever After.”

Why Write

When I’m looking at a blank page, my inner critic likes to remind me that I haven’t published yet, and there’s every chance no one will ever see the words I’m about to put on the page. Writing is hard work, especially when I’m going through the entire process of finishing a novel, editing it, polishing it, and getting it ready for the world. And then begins the process of researching publishers to find a match for the piece, and there’s the daily work of always always always learning, reading, studying, practicing, all to improve my craft.

Why not just daydream and enjoy the stories myself?

And then I think about those moments when I’ve shared my work with someone who really got it. Someone who said, “Yes! This.” And that singular feeling of connecting with another human being drives me to keep going, to keep putting word after word on the page. It’s all the more terrifying for all the people out there who will say, “No. Not this.” But without trying, without sending out these flares of self-expression, I’ll miss those connections that make life so worthwhile.

whitman