Friday, September 14, 2012

Why I'm Not the Next Neil Gaiman

My parents had a bad habit when I was growing up. Any new thing I took lessons for became an instantly-impossible hurdle. Here’s how it went:

Young Me: “I want to take ballet!”
Parents: “Wonderful! We’ll enroll you!”
Young Me: “Yay! This is going to be fun!”
Parents: “Make sure you work hard, or you’ll never become the principal dancer for Ballantine!”
Young Me (with considerably less enthusiasm): “Um… yay?”

So I took ballet until the class got onto pointe, when I realized that shit hurt no matter how much lamb’s wool you shoved into the toes of those torture devices they call shoes, and I dropped out. And then a year later…

Young Me: “I want to take violin!”
Parents: “Wonderful! We’ll enroll you!”
Young Me: “Yay! This is going to be fun!”
Parents: “Make sure you practice hard, or you’ll never become the next Itzak Perlman!”
Young Me (with considerably less enthusiasm): “Um… yay?”

So I took violin until I realized that I didn’t like being choked by a large piece of wood and had discovered that whipping the bow at the piano bench made outstanding dents in its surface, and I dropped out. Then a bit later…

Young Me: “I want to take piano!”
Parents: “Wonderful! We’ll enroll you!”
Young Me: “Yay! This is going to be fun!”
Parents: “Make sure you practice hard, or you’ll never get to Carnegie Hall!”
Young Me (with considerably less enthusiasm): “Um… yay?”

I should mention here that I am double-jointed. This means that if I apply pressure to my fingers, the knuckles bend in the wrong direction quite often. Did you know this makes playing piano difficult? I do… now. ANYWAY, some time later…

Young Me: “I want to take voice lessons!”
Parents: “Wonderful! We’ll enroll you!”
Young Me: “Yay! This is going to be fun!”
Parents: “Make sure you work hard, or you’ll never be the next Beverly Sills!”
Young Me (with considerably less enthusiasm): “Um… yay?”

I’m an alto. Like “hello-I’m-going-to-the-basement” alto. My voice teacher thought I was a mezzo-soprano. Also, I then entered the high school years, and my social calendar became much more important. I did join the college choir and women’s ensemble, both of which I enjoyed, but the one-on-one lessons were not a particular success.

I should say here and now that I know how very lucky I was to have parents who had the means and willingness to give me access to all these lessons over the course of my childhood. I suppose that it is especially telling that as a child I knew who all the people were that my parents held up as role models to motivate me. I’d seen Madame Butterfly performed live four times before I’d hit puberty. I actually saw Yule Brenner onstage in The King and I. I’ve seen Dame Judy Dench and Kenneth Branaugh perform Coriolanus in England. I got to hear Beverly Sills sing before her retirement. These are all wonderful, enriching experiences that I feel privileged to have had.

So, what’s my point? 

What the patterns above will show you is that before I’d even begun to try, I was being held up to an impossible standard, and this stripped all the fun out it. It wasn’t enough to say, “Yes, we believe in you. Go out there, do your best, and have fun!” Instead, the message was, “In order for this to be worth anything, you must go out there, be better than anyone else, and become famous!” I was told to be the best of the best before I’d even really started, and it was off-putting.

I love writing. I mean I really, really, really love it. When I told my parents that I was going to be a professional novelist, here was the reaction: “We always believed that you could write the Great American Novel!”


I write romance. It’s sometimes funny, sarcastic, strange, or serious, but it’s still romance at the end of the day. I’m not looking to write the Great American Novel. I don’t really want to. But as soon as that thought gets in your head, it’s poison. How many writers out there have been literally crippled by the belief that everything you write is inadequate? How many of you despair because your books aren’t immediately popular and Hollywood isn’t knocking at your door? How many of you wind up softening your true writing voice to make it sound like the style of one of your writing heroes?

I know people who love you really believe you’re brilliant and are happy to tell you so. But if you’re anything like me, that expectation of brilliance is a heavy burden. How am I supposed to release a mushy, sentimental love story when my nearest and dearest are expecting the next War and Peace?

For myself, I had to flush out that thinking entirely. Comparing yourself to someone at the top of their game is unrealistic and unfair. You didn’t know Stephen King when he was struggling with rejection letters and feelings of inadequacy. Of course it looks effortless from your perspective – you’re not in his head (thank God). I have had to force myself to stop comparing myself to my idols. 

Give yourself permission to try. It’s okay that you’re not successful right off the bat. You don’t need a film deal to be a novelist; you just need to love writing. As long as you are fulfilling that essential drive within yourself to create, nothing else matters. Honing your craft, improving your weaknesses, and learning to tell the best story you can will only happen if you continue to love what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re going to be a little kid sighing over piano lessons and dreaming of doing something fun instead.


Christine said...

Nice post Mav. I keep hearing my mom's voice in my head, "If you think of it, do it!" I hated hearing that as a child but it is a momma-mantra that is least offensive.

To have identified your passion is a blessing. You must write because you cannot imagine the alternative.
I make art and expect nothing except peace of mind.

Great post!

Elizabeth Lawrence said...

Exactly, Christine! For writers, artists, musicians, and actors more than anyone else, the work is about creative expression, not financial success. We share what's inside us with the world, and sharing doesn't come with a price tag. We create because we must. If we've touched just one person, we are successful.

Laura Braley said...

Oh Mav! I love this - I love this in ways I can not even begin t express without sounding trite.

Writing is an extension of my soul. Some days its bright, and open and everything flows easily. Other days I struggle to find two words that can repose next to each other in harmonious co-existence. Its why I have so many on-going projects and struggle with pigeon-holing it into deadlines. I can only write what is talking to me at the time. The minute I have to force a story or scene, I might as well give up, because it will never work.

Would I like to make money writing? Absolutely! Even more than that, though, I want someone to review something I've written and tell me what my words said to them.

I think you've given me the idea for my next blog post.