It was the first day of writing class.
We were going around the table to introduce ourselves.
“I want to give you two of my stories,” she said. “I want you to tell me if they’re any good or not. If I’ve got no shot at getting published, I don’t want to waste my time with the class.”
She didn’t like my answer.
She didn’t like it when I told her, it didn’t matter if she was good. The point of our class wasn’t to groom ourselves for publication.
I would read her stories when I read everyone else’s stories, and we would talk about them, we would offer one another feedback, but I wouldn’t pass judgment. I wouldn’t say, these stories deserve life and these don’t.
Taking a writing class, writing a story or poem – anything - making a painting. These things are never a waste of time. If you have within you the desire to create, if your impulse is to make, or tell, or craft, then making and telling and crafting is not a waste of time. It is the best use of time.
When I started making art again after a long absence, it was like taking a deep breath after decades of blocked airways.
Why had I kept myself held away from painting when the act of painting was so much a part of me? So necessary?
Because having the impulse to paint and not painting? That’s a waste of time.
Twenty-two years ago, I sat in a dark bar in New York City and someone who believed himself to be an authority on such matters told me I would never be a painter. Not really.
“Don’t get carried away,” he said.
It was fine as a hobby, but no one else was ever going to want to look at these paintings of mine.
This comment was designed to stop me. To shut me up.
The easy thing would be to blame someone else, to say that this late night drunken comment was the reason I stopped painting. It would be the easy thing, but not the true thing.
The truth is, I stopped painting because of my own fear.
I have always been the one who decides whether or not to allow my creative voice space in this world.
The person who gets to decide if my work has worth is me.
I looked across my studio at my most recent painting leaning against the wall. It took me twenty-six years to paint that, I thought.
Of course, it didn’t. I’d made that particular painting over the course of a few hours.
It was twenty-six years earlier, however, that I first walked into a painting classroom. Twenty-four years earlier that I received my undergraduate degree. Twenty-two years earlier that I stopped painting.
It took me twenty-two years to come back, to honor the call within me that said, paint.
Twenty-two years of blocked airways.
There are times to share creative work with an audience.
There are times to work with a guide or teacher, to offer work for critique, to submit.
There are also times to keep work private and protected, to shield it from outside influence.
I do not mean that you should make your work precious.
I do not mean that you should coddle it or put it on a pedestal or cling to it.
I mean that it belongs to you. It is yours.
I can look back across my life and pick out the moments when someone else attempted to take ownership of my creative expression.
I could list them here – the comments from teachers, parents, on-lookers. Some were well-intentioned. Some were not.
I could tell you about each moment when another person attempted to break me down or alter my voice, to get me to stop doing what I was doing or do it in another way.
Each time another person in one way or another said to me, This is who you are, but this is who I need you to be.
Each of those moments was a thread that I wove together, a soft little prison in which I kept myself.
It took me approximately twenty years to unravel that tomb.
I would like for it to not take you so long.
It’s all right if it does.
We all work at our own rhythm.
But maybe you are waiting. Maybe you are feeling bound up by someone else’s opinion or the fear of what that opinion may be.
What I know for sure is this:
You must be the shepherd of your work.
Find the teachers who feed you. Look to the people who inspire and challenge you and learn from them, but at the end of the day, when you go back into your studio, when you sit at your writing desk, when you open your throat to speak, stay true to the light in you. Nurture and steer and feed and love your creative impulse. Honor your creations for what they are.
All creation involves risk.
You will experience failures and successes.
Your job is to listen and create, not to be well-received or to court love and admiration.
No matter what you say or do or make in this world, there will be someone who does not like it.
You must keep speaking and doing and making anyway. Yes, for the people who need the work you’re making, but mostly for yourself.
Your creative work is a dialogue between yourself and God.
Your creative work is how you know your own soul.
Your creative work has worth by virtue of the fact that you are alive.
As the shepherd of your work, you give it space to be – to evolve, to speak, to breathe.
I trust my life.
Maybe I needed twenty years of dormancy.
But maybe, I didn’t.
Sometimes when I look at my paintings leaned up against the wall, all of their faces looking back at me, I wonder where we would be together if I hadn’t stopped. If I had, instead, left that bar and that person, if I had never held criticism in my cells. What if I had stood up, walked home, gone to my canvas?
What if, instead of letting myself feel diminished, I’d gone back to my process like a shepherd, unwilling to let anything harm my creative voice?
There’s no way to know, and it doesn’t really matter.
My life is my life.
My path is my path.
The moment that matters is this one, right now.
And this is the moment that matters for you.
Your community is important. Allow feedback to enrich you.
But know that ultimately, when you work, you work alone.
Your work is between you and God.
Your creativity is a God-given gift.
Be its shepherd.
Let it breathe.