A couple of weeks ago I asked readers of The Habit Weekly to tell how they maintained a childlike commitment to delight, generosity, beauty, and relationship in their creative work while at the same time maintaining a grown-up commitment to excellence and continuous improvement. I got a lot of great responses to that question—more than I can share here. But I would like to highlight a few of the responses.
A lot of you wrote not so much about integrating childlike delight with continuous improvement as keeping them separate so that the inner critic doesn’t squelch the inner child. There’s a lot of wisdom in that approach. Joan Sherman wrote,
The creative writing I do is often sparked by an outpouring of thoughts, feelings, emotions. That release is as much a need as a delight. It’s generous and free because, like a child, I don’t hold back. Is it beautiful? Not always, but it’s captured in a document and that’s a good place for a writer to begin.
As Joan says, that initial outpouring onto the paper may not be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be. One of the great gifts you can give yourself is the permission to write bad first drafts. But the bad first draft not just a gift to yourself. It’s a gift to anyone who might (eventually) read your work. The only way to the best work is through the less-than-best work. As Joan says, once that first draft is down, you’ve got something to work with, a place to begin.
Over time, I refine the work, keeping it on my desktop, looking at it periodically. The honing and massaging are part of the process, part of my commitment to “do better work.” To create beauty. The life and audience of the piece are often yet to come, over time. But it starts with [God] and me.
Am I a better writer today than I was five years ago? I think so. But it’s a combination of freedom and joy, combined with diligence to the craft, that makes it so.
Over time, the freedom and joy deepens and expand the discipline and diligence. And the discipline and diligence increase the freedom and joy.
For Jennifer Degani, writing for her own children has reconnected her with a childlike zeal and productivity that are often drowned out by adult self-consciousness.
As you mentioned in your email, children do not work for themselves so much as for the recipients of their work. Young children also do not equate the quality of their work with their worth. They make because they are drawn to make without a need to receive money or prizes. When I started down the path to writing again, I picked up the pen for my children. I had a story in mind and decided that writing for them was worth the task, even if no one else ever read the story. I desired to make it the best version of itself, but I have tried to make a gift to them first. In that way, I was less hampered by publishing trends and marketability. The goal was for a story I wanted to write and they would enjoy hearing and in that light my story has been a success, just as my three year old’s smiling oval face with stick arms and legs has been a success by hanging on the refrigerator. The artistic bravery of my children has inspired me in turn.
I especially love that insight that young children don’t equate the quality of their work with their own self-worth. For children, the stakes in art-making are low enough to be not daunting. So they produce. Boy, do they produce. Until it occurs to them that art can be a source of shame and not just joy.
Mark Geil can point to the moment when that switch flipped for him:
I think our problem as adults might have a lot to do with the critics we imagine in our heads when we’re creating.
One time, when I was a little boy, I drew a picture of a robot. It was huge, and had cool robot gadgets, and I was proud of it. Later, we had extended family over—aunts, uncles, cousins. One of them found my robot picture (they didn’t know it was mine) and, as a joke, they signed my uncle’s name to it. I was within earshot when I heard them pass it around, teasing him. They pointed out obvious flaws and had a good laugh. Of course, they never meant to hurt my feelings, and they would have made a big fuss over the picture had I presented it as my creation. But they didn’t know, and I didn’t draw another robot for a long time.
No one wants to see their work treated like that, and that fear can be paralyzing.
So often what we think of as the “inner critic” isn’t so much our own inner voice as voices of others that we have internalized. And so often, as Mark points out, we internalize criticism that people don’t really mean or haven’t thought through or have no authority to offer in the first place.
It’s that roomful of critics, real or imagined, that shuts down the childlike joy of creativity. I love Mark Geil’s suggestion of how to keep the joy alive in a way that still keeps us committed to excellence:
Maybe you can maintain a child-like commitment to delight and generosity and still try to improve by imagining the opposite: a room full of people who love you and want to make a fuss over your work. You are eager to present it as your creation, and you try extra hard to get the robot claw arm just right.
Isn’t that a great way to think about it?
And, finally, I was very gratified to get this note from Cosette from the Student Edition of The Habit Membership:
I think The Habit has been what has truly helped me to keep the delight in writing. I’ve learned that there’s an audience who wants to read my stories and who gets almost as excited about them as me. I’ve begun to write because I know they want more. But they also help me to make my work as good as it can be through constructive criticism and honest feedback. I’ve learned that if I want a work to be as good as possible but still a delight to write, the Habit is the perfect setting for that.
Friends and allies are so important, both in fostering joy and fostering excellence.