***All rights reserved
I came to writing late in life after more than a decade as a professional fundraiser. I thought my dream of becoming a writer had been buried, but the older I got the more it screamed for air—it was like a scene from a zombie movie.
In the spring of 2012 I read a powerful book about the search for vocation called Following the Path. Author Joan Chittister writes, "Our unfinished selves never stop calling to us. The feeling of being in the wrong place gets so strong it can be painful." Without knowing me at all, she described exactly where I was at. There was no denying it any longer. At the age of 41, I upgraded writing from hobby to vocation, and entered into this hard calling.
Each week I start from scratch. Monday and Tuesday are spent in a stew of utter hopelessness, replaying a highlight reel of all the negative feedback I’ve ever received. It’s also when I write, and then delete, several times over the “I can’t do it this week” email to my Editor.
By Wednesday, though, I’ve convinced myself to focus on one idea and one encouraging word or email from a reader. And with this, the well of hope fills up again and a first draft is born. On Friday morning I click ‘send’ and another column-sized hole in this newspaper gets filled.
In her book, If You Want to Write, author Brenda Ueland talks about the death of creativity and names the culprits, “The English teacher who wrote fiercely on the margin of your theme in blue pencil: ‘Trite, rewrite,’ helped to kill it. Critics kill it, your family. Families are great murderers of the creative impulse.” The result, she says is that people—not just writers but all creative people—become “perfectionists... confined to straight-jackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness.”
The antidote Ueland prescribes is friends—“friends who love you, who think you are interesting, who say ‘Tell me more. Tell me all you can.’ If you have no such friend—and you want to write—well then you must imagine one.”
Between the creativity killers we need to avoid and the friends—real or imagined—that we ought to cling to, Ueland strikes at the paradox of feedback: In the wrong hands it can be fatal but in the right hands it is essential fuel. The challenge for creative people is to train the inner ear to listen to the right voices.
Writers today travel on a superhighway of feedback: anonymous comments online, tweets and re-tweets, likes and shares on Facebook. Social Media is a whole new world—if your writing hasn’t gone viral it’s worthless.
I hit a bad patch of feedback this year when one of my columns was picked up nationally. Reading the online comments was a bit like rubber-necking my own car crash. I shouldn’t have looked, but I couldn’t help it.
The following Saturday, as I lay bedridden, recovering from my feedback apocalypse, I feared my well of hope had run dry, indefinitely. I needed a little inspiration. My eye was drawn to a cream and gold hardcover in the stack of books on my bedside table and I pulled it into my quilt womb. It was “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”, written by none other than Pope John Paul the II.
“No offense, your Holiness” I said, “but right now I just want to cross the threshold of my room.” I started chapter surfing, reading random passages. All of a sudden the unexpected meditation on hope began to turn the tide in my favour: The inner critics were loosening their grip.
My husband and I had a dinner party to go to that night. I couldn’t bear the thought of him telling people, “My wife’s in bed and she can’t get up.” Eventually, I got dressed, fixed my hair, and ran out to grab a bottle of wine. Rounding the corner of one of the aisles at the LCBO I saw a bottle I’d never seen before called, wouldn’t ya know it, Buried Hope.
The label read: “Rooted in contradiction: Stressed vines deliver rich wines. Buried Hope tells the story of promise. Purposely choosing vines from stressful environments that will bear rich and luscious fruit to deliver a full-bodied wine with notes of spicy oak, sweet plum and cassis.”
When I tell people I’m a writer they ask me how I make a living, where I get my ideas and how I handle all the rejection. I tell them: I’ll likely never make a lot of money, but I probably won’t starve. Ideas, like hope, spring eternal—they’ll even find you under the covers. Rejection is a walk in the park but feedback’s a bitch, especially the mean stuff. But even that is survivable if you have a few good friends, and some loyal readers.
And then there’s the bonus of all the good fruit that will be borne from the struggle: Stressed vines deliver rich wines.