My college-era friend George Clark, not only has a blog, a fulltime job as a reference librarian, two kids, and a long commute, but a creative heart and soul. He has a respectable and, imo, charming collection of song lyrics. He even bought Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist after I shared its effectiveness for me. Although, he said, he wants to rip the cover off it so others – security guards, colleagues – won’t know the full extent of his creative heart and soul. Nonetheless, he concluded in one of his emails, “Guess I should just let my freak flag fly.”
This line sparked all sorts of thoughts for me, but first and foremost: do we need to let our freak flags fly? YES, part of me roars. Or yells. Or says sort of loudly. Or whispers to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Surely it is less “freakish” to create than to go through society’s routines without reflection, thought, reaction. But. Society with a capital-S dominates more often than not through its power to squish and homogenize our individual freakiness.
Four years ago, fresh from my first month-away-from-family retreat at Vermont Studio Center, I was working, hard, on my novel. Inspired, passionate, outline in hand, I labored on it at every available moment. In this particular instance, I was in Gillie’s (fabulous vegetarian cuisine, one place my now-husband took me when he wanted to convince me Blacksburg could be home. His clever, ultimately successful strategy included Gillie’s egg-n-cheese biscuits.)
I’d enjoyed my two eggs, home fries and toast, and I was nursing a cup of tea. My fingers were fairly flying across the keys due to the residual butter from said toast. “X” had also eaten there, with colleagues, and we’d exchanged a brief, friendly hello. But.
As X’s colleagues left and they rose to pay the check X stopped at my table. “Working on the great American novel? Delete, delete, delete!” These last words accompanied by gestures meant to indicate hitting the delete button repeatedly.
Did I engage in witty repartee, tease that X’s work (bureaucratic paper-pushing for a large commercial institution) was perhaps more worthy of deletion than my own efforts, did I look affronted or offended or reveal any sort of hurt? Nope. I laughed as unpublished authors, un-galleried artists, un-sung lyricists are wont to do, and X moved on, quickly, thank gawd, and my screen blurred with my brimming tears and I went to the restroom right quick and choked on a huge throat-full of sorrow and shame, and flushed the commode.
And became very, very angry.
No one would ever say: “working on a business plan? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “designing on the curriculum for your freshman English class? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “campaigning for [insert political candidate of your choice]? Deletedeletedelete.” (Ok, Gingrich’s staff did say that, but that was a rare event.)
While George hasn’t said his colleagues are insulting his copy of Rey’s book and the subsequent implication that he’s exploring the foothills of novel-writing’s mountain, I think it behooves us to be careful about how and with whom we share our tender shoots of creativity. Julia Cameron covered this territory brilliantly in The Artist’s Way, and I encourage folks to use that resource to systematically work through their decisions about how and with whom to share their efforts.
But bottom line for me, at this point, is: if it feels tender, it is tender. You are not obligated to share with anyone what you undertake in your private time or what you’re typing on your laptop or dreaming up in your head during those incredibly boring Powerpoint presentations. This includes spouses.
X isn’t someone I socialize with save once or twice a year, and the only way they knew about my novel was through a mutual friend, who supports my writing unequivocally. I’ve hardly sworn anyone to secrecy about my efforts; after all, it’s often the friend-of-a-friend who has productive connections or insights. Ultimately, my friend’s support outweighs the ickiness of X’s poor word choice (and X isn’t a bad person; they’d be sorry to know how their casual words affected me. I certainly have long since forgiven them; we all say things intending to be funny that fall flat. My reaction is mine.)
Nonetheless, I’m more cautious since the deletedeletedelete comment. We need to protect our creative babies. Shelter them until we’re clear that our art is not us. For me, that process looks like this: first the words are all about me, my response to a real or imagined situation. Then something about the story flat-out doesn’t work, and I have to change the structure/theme/rhyme scheme/perspective. That change demands others and this iterative practice, for me, at least, results in a piece that is about my craft, but not about me. Ideally the story will connect with others – in their own way. I’ve been surprised by what others see in my stories, often pleasantly so, sometimes less-pleasantly so – but once the story is done, readers’ reactions are their own, and have nothing to do with me, personally. If someone wants to deletedeletedelete my story, that’s fine.
And if I want the opportunity to practice the iterative tweaking and playing my writing requires, then I have to guard my space – literally and figuratively. Novelist and short story writer Margot Livesey’s strategy to sustain the “energy” of her stories has, upon occasion, involved making up another story to tell her friends and colleagues – a fiction to cover her fiction. Eventually, she notes, you have to tell folks that the fictional fiction didn’t work out but in the meantime it provides great cover! Here’s an excellent interview with Livesey by Valerie Compton.
Let your creative self roll around in the warm summer grass, wiggly and grinning like a dog. No one can stop you from frolicking and basking in your mind when you need it. Especially if they have no idea you’re having that much fun.
A grab-bag of ideas for “cover stories” to guard the spaces you need: taxes, filing, de-cluttering, sorting family photos, working on your will. Others? Tell us in the comments section.