Thursday, January 28, 2010

Honoring Your Inner Newbie

Last Saturday I started taking an eight-week watercolor class. After the first few minutes I knew I was out of my depth, but I also promised to not beat myself up just because I can’t paint like John Singer Sargent or even like anyone else in the class. I’m a watercolor newbie, and I’m going to make lots of mistakes along the way. And that’s okay, because I’m also going to have the time of my life making them.

Being a newbie at anything is an opportunity to experience a wide-angled sense of freedom and to know first-hand what it's like to live with absolute faith. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love teaching writing classes to beginning writers. Anything goes, as long as we’re having fun and believe in ourselves. Yes, there are a few rules I set, like: write every day, use specific detail, seize the first and least censored thought blasting through your mind. But basically I do my best to encourage dreams because that’s what I believe all art is: a dream made manifest. To me one of the ugliest things a practicing writer or artist can do is be a nay-sayer, the one quick to laugh at a first-time writer’s innocent grammar flub, or eager to point out how difficult, impossible, slim the chances are of ever finding an agent, getting published, making money. Not only is this “advice” mean, it’s also totally fraudulent. Every--every, every, every--single published author started out unpublished. To believe otherwise is just plain, well, dumb!

After many years of writing with the conviction that the opposite of beginner’s mind is to be “mindless” and who wants that, there are only two things I am certain of: The first is that I can only write if I actually, you know, do some writing, i.e., there is no magic wand that will write for me while I watch TV or hang around on Twitter. Being a newbie doesn’t mean being a fantasist; you have to put in the hours.

The second thing I know for sure is that each new piece of writing does carry the warning label “here be dragons.” But what those dragons are, how to tame them, and what they want from me is never, and will never, be the same. There is no single, universal way to defeat dragons so you might as well learn to be friends with them. The best way to do that is to simply say, “Hello, I’m a new writer (or artist or quilter or pole vaulter). You must be the new dragon. Want a sandwich?”

I think the day that I “know what I am doing” will be the day I will want to stop writing. I don’t write to fulfill some cosmic contract that demands X number of pieces be written before I leave the planet. I write because I can’t stop myself from being fascinated by words, characters, strange happenings, and evocative phrases. I write because I love reading and storytelling and I keep getting these stories in my head that want to be put down on paper.

It’s the same reason I want to take a watercolor class. I have this dream of me painting when I travel, rather than taking photographs. To accomplish that dream I have to start with my Simply Simmons No. 10 round brush and a little tray of Prang watercolors. That and a whole lot of sandwiches for those dragons. I hear they like cream cheese and cucumber. Very cooling.

Tip of the Day: Approach each manuscript or any creative pursuit as a newbie with a beginner’s mind: fresh, hope-filled, and excited about the learning process. The word "mistake" also holds the words: "I make." Make something new today.

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