“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander.... This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won’t wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.” — Anne Lamott
Last week, I was honored to serve as the master of ceremonies for the Cabrini Literary Guild’s creative writing awards luncheon. With a mission to stimulate interest in Catholic literature, thought and action through its philanthropic endeavors, the guild holds an annual writing competition open to Catholic high schools in the L.A. archdiocese.
In today’s climate of diminishing support for the arts, not enough can be said about benevolent groups that foster the dreams and aspirations of those who have stories to tell and are compelled to present them as a humbling, enlightening mirror to the world. Here, briefly, are a few of the rhinestones of wisdom I gave to the gathered young writers.
Writing is a solitary art, birthed in the frightening space between one’s own ears before exposing it for all to see. So it is imperative that writers, like all artists, seek each other out. Few others will understand what demons and angels compel you to take raw substance and alchemize it into coherent expressions of fear, love, anger, jealousy and humanity. You need to know you’re not crazy for finding joy sitting at a computer for hours on end mashing and remashing words together.
Like all craftsmen, you’ll need adequate tools in your tool chest. I’m not talking about a laptop with Wi-Fi so you can join the other squatters at Starbucks all day. The real tools are more elusive than that.
The first is courage. You must be willing to say things that you are afraid to say; to expose parts of yourself you find so embarrassing, hideous and repulsive that you’d sooner watch a Pauly Shore movie marathon than have anyone find out.
But, your feelings, emotions and thoughts are real. And universal. So you must be willing to be honest, vulnerable and even disliked in order to express the truth as you understand it. Because when you do that, you speak for countless suffering strangers who can’t.
And once you find that courage, you’ll need the next tool: thick skin. Preferably, this comes as a kryptonite coat repelling every demoralizing thing you hear about the quality of your work and the hideous, repulsive and embarrassing things you’ve made known about yourself. When people post snide comments or de-friend you on Facebook because of something you’ve written, you’ll need to be able to take that and move on, scarred but undaunted.
And last is humility. Though thick skin is crucial, you must avoid the pitfall of thinking you are right just because you believe you are, and have broadcast it to the world. You must be able to filter what people say, keeping what works and respectfully tossing what doesn’t.
You must be willing to look at your own work critically, through someone else’s eyes, and see that sometimes, perhaps more often than you’d like to admit, they may be right in their criticism.
You need to have others read your perfectly composed prose and provide gut-wrenching, honest feedback. And I’m not talking about your mom, sister or best friend. You need people to read your work who won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings.
Unfortunately, courage, thick skin and humility are not tools anyone can give to you. You earn them by sitting at your favorite spot and letting the things in your head slowly, painfully, dribble onto the page, day in and day out, whether you feel like it or not, and letting others beat you up for it.
Writing should be as painful as it is enriching.
Truth has many voices: science, facts and statistics, to name a few. But when cold data is not enough to express the intangibles of this world — and it never is — we must rely on art, literature and poetry in all its forms.
Everyone builds sand castles. Whether you are an athlete or scholar, businesswoman or repairman, wood carver or jewelry maker, everyone has memories and emotions they use to build some structure of sanity around themselves.
It’s been this way since the beginning, and perhaps now more than ever, we need the next generation of artists to courageously and humbly claim their voice in our time.