Ah, the best laid plans, even if written with care and a calligraphy pen in a leather-bound journal, are sometimes no match for distractions no bigger than a bug. Sunday afternoon blog posts every single week? Good idea, great intentions, but hey, I’m still a beginner! And warning: this essay meanders a bit. Hang in there.
‘Showing up’ is what matters most of course, and today’s post is all about being a beginner, and the best ways to be with a beginner. Where to start, so many ideas in my head.
Recently I was honored to be given the chance to read a friend’s final draft of his first short novel. He is a bright, articulate man and I have never even attempted writing a novel so I was curious, then excited, and yet I paused before beginning.
Suddenly I was recalling a time when the roles were reversed and a close relative of mine was reading an essay draft I had worked on for a very long time. (Note this situation happened in the late 1980s before the use of word document software.)
Sadly, her response was like using today’s grammar and spell-check features, nothing more. No feedback on the content, the flow, the cohesiveness; I had been looking for heart feedback, and I hadn’t known enough to specify ahead of time.
Of course there is a place for every level of feedback, from spelling to grammar to flow. But I now have a strict rule: the very first feedback must be enthusiasm. Typos, run-on sentences, a smudge, slightly wonky perspective in a drawing, all those get addressed later. My first response, from my gut, has to be, “Wow, you did it!” That in itself is amazing.
I was blessed with a wonderful watercolor teacher, Giffin Russell, back in 1986 who, by example, taught us that whatever you focus on first will stick the deepest. Going around her classroom of adult students (everything from rank beginners to experienced artists) she would always find the one thing you were doing right and then tell you all about it. When I was a beginning watercolorist I asked one of the skilled painters why she continued to come to the class. Her response was, “That’s simple: I come because it’s Giffin. I love the way she teaches. I love how she points out what works and why, and we are so busy thinking about that, we forget the notion that ‘watercolor is really difficult’. She makes it fun, and we get better at it faster because she secretly guides everyone’s thinking.”
Anytime someone asks your opinion on a matter close to their heart, you are being invited into a space where not everyone is allowed to visit. A pause to take a breath helps me to remember that fact. I can see things in my students sketchbooks that they cannot see yet. I often see hesitancy, but I also see that it is temporary, and perfectly normal.
I am inspired that they are allowing themselves to be beginners, how amazing! When was the last time you tried something that you were simply terrible at, and just kept going? We had no choice when we were little kids, ‘failing’ was a way of life, nothing worth noticing. I highly recommend failing, and going where you have never been before.
I started working on a memoir a little while ago and found my paper archives so cumbersome that I needed to upgrade to more appropriate software for both scanning and organizing the materials. I needed to slog through the wretched learning curve of some wonderful software, I kicked and screamed a bit, but it was worth every curse word to get to where I am now.
Are you wondering about my friend’s novel? I am pleased to report that for me it was an absolute page-turner, I just finished reading it, and I miss the characters already. The few mechanical typos and misspellings were left in the dust of my eagerness to discover what happened next. It was a ‘full-body read’, complete with cringes and smiles and a few gasps of “don’t go in there!” If my poor friend thought he was almost done writing, I have bad news. There will be demands for a sequel, I predict.
What an honor to read his book. Do yourself and your best friend a favor and do something this week where the results may not be guaranteed. Paint one wall an accent color. Write a corny joke that would make an 8-year-old laugh and then dare to post it on Facebook. Get outside with a sketchbook and a pencil and just draw. Grab a CVS receipt and a pen and on the back draw the entire skyline of your town, knowing you will never run out of space. Be a beginner! Do that, and then share it with someone.
You may give them permission to do the same.