I thought I’d write a blog post about the power of words, but it is really about the power of rejection. It seems to me that there are too many people out there who discourage and reject us as creatives, and we are then so easily discouraged and rejected.
A couple of things have happened in the last week that made me think about this quite deeply, one being the result of me jumping in on an art challenge and innocently posting on facebook about how I was getting back into art after abandoning it as even a pastime, let alone a possible creative career, after my art teacher kicked me out of the art class back in Year 7, with a ‘not good enough’ comment (landing me in the dreariest commerce class where I was forced to spend three years either copying boards and boards of writing at such high speed that nothing had the chance to sink in, or filling out paper after paper of [now utterly defunct] tax return forms – I sometimes think that my total lack of financial literacy is a direct result of PTS from these classes).
In truth, the poor woman had a class of forty would-be artists that she somehow had to cut down to a max of thirty two (or so) and I was one of the unlucky ones. I see now, too, that my urge was to create things that looked vaguely realistic whereas her bent was towards the more abstract and cubism. We were not a good fit.
But the sketching and drawing and painting which had always been a joy to me was suddenly a ‘waste of time’. I gave it up.
Oddly, however, I helped a friend from the year below me get through Y11/12 art by working with her to write her essays because writing was very much not her strength and there did seem to be a rather disproportionate amount of writing for something that I had always thought of as being a lot more visual and a lot less wordy.
I also did a couple of (accidental) fine art units at uni as part of my quest for ever more information on the medieval world – I didn’t get on with either of the teachers who just wanted me to regurgitate their wisdom, and I was never very good at that.
But back to my facebook post.
At the time of writing this I have had more responses to a casual post than in any other forum, many, or, in fact, most of which are people reporting that the same thing happened to them – a teacher or a significant adult told them that they were not good enough when they were young, and it has taken them until what I like to term our third age to rediscover the confidence to try again. Decades of denying our creativity because of what was often one thoughtless (or, in some cases, perhaps, very carefully thought out) remark.
The up side is that there have also been so many messages of support and validation for all of us, but why did we each respond to the judgement of others by giving up?
All I can think is that as young people we are so impressionable, and as creatives we are so vulnerable - each piece we create is putting a piece of our inner heart and soul out on display for others. It's a double hit to our fragile selves.
But, so what if I’m not ‘good enough’? Who was I supposed to be 'good enough' for? I wish I'd had the intestinal fortitude to fight the teacher and fight the school. Or at least just hold on to the joy of making art for myself.
No-one that I know of from my year group went on to be a working artist. Were they ‘good enough’? Does it matter? (I didn't go on to do anything with commerce or maths or science, either, in which I had no choice in my school subjects, or music, in which I did - does that matter?)
And does copying the style or the art of a teacher make you ‘good’, anyway? Perhaps it is something unique about your style that makes you ‘good’.
Alas, my thoughts at this stage go out to Vincent Van Gogh – today his art is celebrated and is deemed as priceless. We can all recognise his style and know his famous paintings, but, in his own lifetime, he was rejected and scorned and never sold a single work. We can thank his own determination – often mired in depression – that he kept on painting, so that today we can and do enjoy his creativity.
I learned, too, that Matisse and Picasso were both told they would never make good artists. And Turner was laughed out of the Royal Academy at one stage.
Perhaps we are in good company.
And, in my third age, I DO have a creative friend to thank - one who kept niggling at me to get back into making art. I may never be 'good enough' but I take great joy from learning and trying and making...
... kinda like this.
That has just been the start of it, however.
I also had not one, not even two, but three people in the last week tell me in one way or another that at some stage someone has been disparaging about their writing and they have ‘given up’.
Two of these referred to manuscript assessments and one to competition feedback. All had been in early stages of their writing journey, a time when we are vulnerable and still don’t know what we don’t know.
I know I stopped writing for a while after my first rejection, which suggested that I needed to get some life experience before I submitted any further works.
Today I cringe, because I know now that - while the the work was enthusiastic - it was indeed naive. The fact that the publisher wrote back to me was actually something to be prized. If only I had known.
Luckily (for me), I dug my toes in and decided to learn about writing – and enrolled in a correspondence course (this was in the dinosaur days before the internet – you young things don’t know how lucky you are) from which I learned many skills and much greater understanding (although I stalled at the final assignment because I HATED the book I was supposed to read and couldn’t bring myself to read it – and I also moved from Melbourne back to Canberra and lost a lot of my work along the way, but that is a whole other story which resulted in living in a tent in my brothers’ back garden for a couple of weeks after the house we were moving to became unavailable as we were in transit).
I’m good at that.
For some years now I have offered manuscript assessments, having been asked first of all if I would do one for the ACT Writers Centre and finding great satisfaction in being able to offer support in this way. I did several with them in the end, before branching out on my own – often being engaged through word of mouth. I have a link on my website, too, which has picked up a couple of enquiries here and there.
I bring years of learning about writing for children to my assessments, and even more years as a primary school teacher and an avid reader, and possibly even one or two things I learned about literature from my uni years (although it ended up that I was reading mostly writers pre-Shakespeare, which might not be totally in keeping with modern thoughts on style).
And I see it as my duty and responsibility to nurture and support writers who choose me.
That isn’t to say that I will simply tell them how great their work is – that isn’t what people want once they’ve screwed up the courage to request a manuscript assessment (most people have a mum or a good friend for that) – what they want is honest feedback.
But honest feedback isn’t crushing and soul destroying.
Honest feedback is not rude or unpleasant.
Honest feedback seeks out the strengths and highlights them, and offers suggestions or questions about other aspects of the work – giving the writer a way forward.
The first time I sent my work out for an assessment (via the same Writers Centre but some time earlier), I was lucky to get a report back from a local fantasy writer whom I admired and who had taken the time to do just this.
Shortly after that I received some incredibly detailed feedback on a short story from a CSFG competition which I used over and again like a sort of check-list to go through my writing.
I learnt more about writing from those two experiences than I did from the course I had not-quite-completed.
Shortly after that I was short-listed in an international competition, and had the opportunity to talk face to face with my writing hero, Terry Pratchett, about my book and what he liked about it. I was completely in awe of Sir Terry and thrilled that he spoke so specifically about parts of my story. I didn’t win. He could have told me what he didn’t like, or even chosen not to speak with me at all. Instead he built me up. His encouragement has resounded through my writing career ever since.
If you are spending the money to get that first level of editing* support, a manuscript assessment, you have the right to expect that in return. Encouragement. Support. Learning.
*see this post I wrote for Thoughts Become Words about levels of editing
Not everyone will seek a manuscript assessment. They are an option that you can take advantage of if you are new and inexperienced or are challenging yourself with a new genre or style of writing. A lot of people also enjoy good critical feedback from their writing groups (although a manuscript assessment should be a bit more in depth). But if and when you do, you deserve to have your work – your book baby – treated with respect.
You deserve to be treated with respect.
Of course, there are times when someone may well decide that writing – or making art – is not for them. But it should be a choice that is made not because of some remark made by some other person, but because they decide it does not give them joy and they choose to find some other way to fill their soul.
I am considering whether to continue with offering manuscript assessments at the moment, and will either be raising my fees or removing the service in the new financial year. I still have a few I’m working through at the moment as part of my 61 Years Since 1961 special offer, but they may well be my last.
I only hope that everyone comes away feeling validated and encouraged to continue to develop their work.
It would break my heart to think that I had broken someone else’s spirit.