It doesn’t take much to shut someone’s creative impulses down.
In first grade Mrs. Lohr
said my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough,
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing wasn’t
to hang with the others.
I walked back to my seat
counting the swish swish swishes
of my baggy corduroy trousers.
With a black crayon
to my purple tent
in the middle
of an afternoon…
(“Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, from Step Lightly: Poems for the Journey. Nancy Willard, Ed. (Harcourt Brace, 1998)
I re-read Rotella’s poem again yesterday, shortly after I received an email from one of the students in my creative nonfiction class. As part of the course requirements, I assign the students to weekly critique groups for the purpose of offering feedback to each other. I have chosen not to critique _____’s submission,” the student wrote. “he writes at a ninth grade level… the first sentence is very poor.” I did a double take and read the email again. While I’ve read critiques from one student to another that needs the occasional toning down, no one has ever refused to offer feedback to a peer in the class. On the whole, my students work work to be thoughtful and balanced in the feedback they give each other, knowing their submissions represent work-in-progress. Besides, most are new to the genre and creative writing in general. “Respect the stage of the work and the work itself,” I tell the class. “Don’t,” I caution, “play expert.” Yet here was a student refusing to engage in the feedback process on the basis of a classmate’s English composition skills, ignoring content or his colleague’s obvious effort expressed in his first submission (…said/that my drawing wasn’t/good enough/to hang with the others).
The process of giving feedback to an aspiring writer is not one I take lightly. It’s an emotional experience to have others comment on your work. Good critique is a delicate balance between affirming the writer’s gifts and supporting his or her growth. All my creative nonfiction students aspire to write and publish in the genre. In the first week of the course, I remind them our class is a community of peers, of developing writers. Criticism or harsh judgment that doesn’t respect the writer or the work does nothing more than shut someone down. (I walked back to my seat/counting the swish swish swishes/of my baggy corduroy trousers./With a black crayon/nightfall came…)
I replied to my student a short time later, reminding him of the task inherent in learning to give constructive, yet supportive, feedback. I hope that he will revisit his first reaction and offer the feedback as assigned, realizing that giving feedback is part of his learning process, but I began thinking how, at one time or another, we’ve all been silenced.
Weren’t we all a little like that child who took a black crayon to her picture after she was told it was “not good enough to hang with the others?” I was. I remember how, after laboring on an essay in fourth grade, my paper was returned, not wearing the gold star I worked so diligently to earn, but with more than a little red ink splashed across the page. Grammatical errors and misspellings were corrected, but nothing said about what I’d written vs. how I’d written it. I was embarrassed (counting the swish swish swishes). Many years later, I dared to share a few poems with a friend, ones I’d written at a particularly vulnerable time. I believe she meant well, but an hour later, I left feeling I’d been damned by faint praise. I put the poems on the top shelf of my office closet and didn’t read them again or write another poem for years.
I have to laugh at myself sometimes–and those many crossed out lines in my notebook. I have a kind of “doctor, heal thyself” moment, because I am in the practice, on a weekly basis, of helping to nudge my students’ muses into the open as well as those of the people who come for the first time to my writing groups for cancer survivors. “I was intrigued by the workshop description,” more than one participants has said at the first session, “but I’m not a writer,” or, after hearing what someone else has written and read aloud, they offer the excuse, “but I’m not as good as…”
“A writer,” I say, offering them William Stafford’s definition, “is someone who writes.” That usually gets a smile. A writer is someone who may not necessarily have something to say but “has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them” (p. 17, Writing the Australian Crawl, U. of Michigan Press, 1978). ”The important thing to do,” I say, “is write, whatever happens on the page.” That’s when the seasoned group members smile and say, “And don’t apologize for your writing. We want to hear what you’ve written.”
Writing is a courageous act; it demands we have the willingness to go deep into our inner lives, to “go naked,” as May Sarton said. But it also requires support and the freedom to risk. When one of my cancer writers apologizes for their efforts, the group quickly encourages them to jump in, read aloud. ”No apologies allowed,” they laugh. ”We all felt the same way.” It doesn’t take long for the new members to discover their words can touch the hearts of the glisteners just as readily as anyone else’s. Their reticent muses stick one toe into the open, then another and another–all because we make it safe for anyone who wants to write, even if the writing is messy and fraught with grammatical errors in those first tentative attempts.
We also make it safe to write any way we want, about anything that demands to be written. We learn, as Kaylin Haught describes in “God Says Yes to Me,” to give ourselves permission to free ourselves and honor our uniqueness.
I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is…
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
(from The Palm of your Hand, 1995, Tilbury House Publishers)
How do you reclaim your wounded artist or writer? Start with the random thoughts,” the words and pictures that wander about in [your] heads.” Don’t push them aside or tell yourself you have nothing of import to write. “…You will not dismiss your own ideas, your own pictures, your own puzzlement,” Stafford advised. “You will engage willingly with the events that occupy your mind,” (p. 5). Even if the words that at first appear on the page seem trivial or odd.
If we give ourselves permission, we can rediscover our creativity and banish that bothersome internal critic to the far corner (and while we’re at it, putting a nice, wide piece of duct tape over her mouth). As for me, I’m finally venturing into poem-making again all these years later, because I love poetry, and it’s time I unchained that poetic muse I’ve locked away for so long. I feel strangely timid, yet I’m excited to begin anew.
What about you? This week, write about a time when you felt silenced or your creative impulses were shut down. How did you reclaim the artist or writer within you?