“You used to write? I didn’t know that.” That’s what my close friend said to me last week. And it got me thinking…
The truth is, I did used to write. I used to write for fun. I used to write as a way to connect with people. Teachers and professors used to tell me I was good at it. An English professor took me aside once after reading a story I had written for an assignment and told me, “You are a writer. You will always be a writer. Even if you never put another word down on paper, you will still be a writer inside.”
I used to write stories for friends. I loved making them laugh. When friends were away on church missions or at school, I would send them stories with characters based on people we knew as a way to keep them posted on the happenings at home. I wrote a long story for my Singles-Family-Home-Evening group, which I would share with them as a serial, one chapter at a time.
I decided to take all of those chapters and put them together to make a book. It wasn’t something publishers were interested in because it was really only meant for my friends. However, with modern publishing technology, books can now be printed one at a time, as they are needed. I discovered there was a division of Random House that offered this service and it wouldn’t cost me a dime. People could buy the book if they wanted to, and the publisher would just take a large cut. Did someone say free? Perfect!
So I put together two books this way. Now friends could buy nice copies of my stories. The problem was that other people bought the books, too. And the books weren’t ready for that. They were little more than rough drafts. No editor had ever worked on them, and all writers know that a good editor is just as important as a good writer, maybe even more so, if you want a book to be good.
My books weren’t ready for strangers to read them, and neither was I.
At first I was amazed that people who weren’t my friends would actually take the time to read a story I wrote. I got a fan letter from a man in Costa Rica, for heaven’s sake! But then the criticism started. At first, I could explain away the negative comments. “There are so many spelling errors.” (Of course there are. It’s just a rough story.) “How dare you portray a Bishop of our church in such a negative way.” (If you don’t think Church leaders have faults, you haven’t been around many of them, and you will someday have a harsh awakening.) As the criticisms piled on, I couldn’t explain them away fast enough.
I suppose there are some people who would have developed a thick skin from this, but I didn’t. The callouses never formed. I was left with tender open wounds.
Those books became an embarrassing symbol of my lack of talent. I stored away the outline of the novel I’d been working on and I stopped writing completely. Most of the times I would try to write anything, the words simply wouldn’t come. On the rare occasions when the words came, I would rewrite and erase the same sentences over and over again, each time declaring them to be terrible. My life as a writer was over.
I took up painting. I loved painting! It was fun! I’d paint pictures for friends and family. I was told I was pretty good. Then I entered some paintings in contests and they were rejected and criticized. I didn’t paint again for weeks. I probably never would have painted again if I didn’t have to teach students. Even now, I don’t paint for fun anymore. I paint to earn money, but the fun is gone.
Do you see a pattern here? I do.
Whenever I find something I am good at and enjoy doing, I let the trolls of the world criticize me until I can’t find the joy in it anymore.
A couple of months ago, I was cleaning my parents house and I ran across a copy of my book. I tossed it in the trash without even cracking the cover. I couldn’t look at it without feeling sick to my stomach.
However, finding that book sparked enough curiosity to make me look online to see if my books were still for sale. Sure enough, The Junction and A Shadow From the Past were not only selling, but available for Kindle as well. With a few clicks, I found myself at another site looking at reviews of my books. And I was stunned by what I read:
A Shadow From the Past is a fun story. Classic tale of boy who comes home and battles his past. The LDS background is just that… background. It doesn’t play a big part in the story, but it would be enjoyable for Mormon readers. Nothing really objectionable for younger readers. Overall, it reaches the level of a good book, but there are parts of this book that are truly magical and unforgettable. It’s a heartfelt book. For those parts alone, this book is worth reading.
The Junction is a very interesting story. It’s unlike any other LDS novel I have read. The author isn’t afraid to show the realities of mission life. This isn’t your typical rose-colored view of mormon missionaries. Yet it isn’t critical of the church or negative — just realistic. It’s an easy, fun read. It’s good to see something like this come out of the LDS community. I would compare it to Brigham City in style and feeling.
Okay, when I say I was stunned, that is not an exaggeration. I had convinced myself that there wasn’t anything good that could be said about anything I’d ever written. But here were a couple of people who actually enjoyed reading those books!
Look, I know there are always going to be people who find fault in what I do. I also know that constructive criticism can help a person grow as an artist.
In his book, “Look at the Sky”, George D. Durrant tells the following story:
I recall the first art class I took, way back in my early college days. It took all the confidence I could muster just to enroll. I knew that everyone else in the call would be Leonardo da Vincis and I’d suffer much self-inflicted humiliation as I compared my meager abilities with theirs.
I did my first painting for the class in watercolors. It turned out a little better than I thought it might when I first put the paint on the paper. Even so, I was shocked and filled with fear when the teacher announced, “I see that most of you have completed your first painting. So let’s all put them up here along the wall. When they are all in place we will criticize one another’s work.”
I thought to myself, I didn’t know I’d have to put my picture up to be criticized. If I had known that, I would have never taken this class.
But having no choice, I reluctantly put my picture on the far right of the display. I hoped that the criticism would begin with the pictures on the left side and maybe the class time would end before it was my turn. Or I hoped at least they’d use up all their criticisms on the other paintings before they got to mine.
As the discussions of the first few paintings were taking place, I didn’t say anything about anybody else’s efforts. I hoped my silence would indicate that I had no desire to criticize their work, and then, if they were Christians, they wouldn’t say anything about mine.
But the clock moved so slowly and the discussion so rapidly that with five minutes remaining, all eyes except mine focused on my work. My insecurities made it so that I could not muster the courage to look up. As everyone looked at my painting there were several seconds of silence.
Then I heard a girl’s voice. In a quiet, kindly tone she said, “I like the sky.” Those four words gave me a small feeling of confidence. I lifted my eyes and looked up at the painting. To myself, I said, By George, that is a nice sky.
From the other side of the room, a fellow spoke up. “but he has go the foreground all fouled up.”
In my mind I responded, Why don’t you look at the sky?
And then I thought, Next time he won’t be able to say such a thing, because next time my foreground will be as good as my sky.
Why can’t I be more like George D. Durrant? Why can’t criticism give me the determination to be better and prove them wrong, instead of just giving up and losing all confidence?
What if I had continued writing? What would I be like now, having an additional 15 years of writing experience under my belt? I can tell you one thing, if I had kept writing, my close friends wouldn’t be saying, “You used to write? I didn’t know that.”
I looked for that old outline of a novel that I stored away all those years ago. I found it and skimmed through it. Guess what, it was pretty good. But I don’t know how to write it anymore. I self-edit to the point that nothing comes out.
So here is my question to you, dear readers: How do you do what you do? How do you writers get the negative voices out of your head? How do you artists ignore everyone who says you are no good? How do you creative people go on creating when people tell you your creations are worthless? How do you not give up? How do you continue enjoying what you do?
I really want to know.