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Coming out of the shadows

Monday, May 4, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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I always thought that writing fiction and poetry was something that
other, not necessarily better but certainly different, people did, and
that I would make a fool of myself if I tried to join that secret club.
Now I’m totally convinced that everybody can be creative. Actually more
than can, we NEED to be creative! And we need to make fools of
ourselves more often too. I wish I hadn’t been so scared about it all
for so long.

                                        Sarah Salway

Thanks to this wonderful interview by Susannah, I've just spent a little time finding out about Sarah Salway. She is the author of Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything, and is a creative writing teacher and poet. The quote above comes from her interview with Susannah and it leapt out at me as I read.

This week I've been working my way through the first chapter of Julia Cameron's famous course for "recovering artists", The Artist's Way. The key theme of this week is recovering a sense of safety and the course requires participants to spend some time looking at why they have held back from their creative aspirations in the past. The following passage spoke strongly to me:

Artists themselves but ignorant of their true identity, shadow artists are to be found shadowing declared artists. … Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright. Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist. Shadow artists must learn to take themselves seriously.

                    Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

When I read that shadow artists need to learn to take themselves seriously I was immediately reminded of something I said to a friend last week. She had asked whether I had shared any of my writing with a mutual friend, a critically acclaimed novelist. I told her that I had shared a little, but that I wasn't sure whether our writer friend took me seriously as a writer.

As I said it, my inner censor was doing her best to shout me down, "You audacious little madam.", she screeched, "What makes you think you can write? How can you call yourself a writer? You can't even write! Pay attention to people who know better, they are trying to help you. They are trying to tell you to give up this foolish idea before you embarrass yourself."

Nice, huh?. But she means well and she's really more afraid than she is mean. In any case, after 37 years of listening to her I'm finally learning how to deal with her. I can say to her, to myself and to the world that I am writing, and that every day I write my writing gets better. I can say with confidence that am committed to keep on writing until I find the expression that this story needs to make me love it enough to want to read it. I can tell my censor to leave me alone while I learn to write. I've even learned not to ask for critical feedback while I'm still in this process of playing with words and voices and while I am learning to enjoy that process.

I'm also learning that when I find myself looking to others to confirm that I'm okay, when I'm hoping that the best writers that I know will take me seriously, what I really need to be doing is taking myself seriously.

As Susan said, so wisely, I've learned that making a fool of myself might not be the worst thing in the world. Never trying to do something that I have always dreamed of doing would be much worse.

Important disclaimer: I've realised that this post could be read to mean that my talented novelist friend actually was unsupportive. Which is/was not the case. The problem was in my head, and responsibility should be understand to lie there and nowhere else. She is, on the contrary, known to be very supportive of new writers. Namaste.


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7 Responses to "Coming out of the shadows"

  1. so beautifully said.
    i look forward to going back through your archives for more. from out here, it is clear that you most certainly don’t belong in the shadows. the censors and fools have nothing on you.
    thanks for sharing your stories. you make me want to be better.
    very best, lisa

  2. Sarah Salway says:

    Wow, I’m thrilled I helped in your thinking, and thank you for sharing. I’m doing the Artists Way too at the moment – isn’t it brilliant! And now I’m going to find out a little bit more about you. So happy to have found this site.

  3. Rachael King says:

    I’m afraid that voice never goes away, no matter how many words you write and how many things you have published! Part of it is a bi-product of spending so much time in your own head, which is the writer’s lot. But you do develop ways to ignore that voice, or drown it out, or pretend to listen but not really. The voice can be paralysing at times. Which is probably why I have written so little in the last three years. You are absolutely doing the right thing to just switch it off and write – it is the only way to get the story down and to learn the craft.
    I was thinking about this in relation to something else the other day – dancing. A friend of mine has taken up swing dancing and she was moaning to be about how bad she is at it compared to everyone else and how frustrated she is. She has had three lessons. I told her that I still feel useless after learning for a year. It is not the dance for you if you are someone who wants to be brilliant first off. You have to work at it. You have to watch really good dancers and dream of being that good one day. That way, you are studying their technique so you can emulate them, but you are also visualising yourself being that good, and THAT is what gets you through that niggly voice telling you you’re an imposter. I am a huge fan of positive visualisation.
    Same with writing. And probably all sorts of things.
    The other thing is that the people who don’t have that voice never have any reason to try and improve. If they are supremely confident about their abilities first off, chances are, they are probably fooling themselves.

  4. Now read the novel Rules for Old Men Waiting, lovely fiction by itself, made lovelier because it took 23 years to write and was finished only when “it becomes borne in on you that this may be the last chance to complete what you always wanted to do.”

  5. Susannah says:

    i know this censoring voice so well, geez. it takes a lot of energy to get her to shut the hell up, doesn’t it. energy we could use on , ya know, writing 🙂
    ‘Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist.’- this just smacked me between the eyes. it’s so true! If we take the word artist literally, someone like Damien Hirst can’t really draw but he offers us a chopped up cow and calls it art and we believe him, because he has the audacity to call himself an artist. Really, it’s all about self-belief…. having faith and confidence in ourselves. And trusting that every voice needs to be expressed and heard; every voice has a story to share.
    keep sharing, my love, the world needs your stories! xo

  6. Tara Bradford says:

    Funny, but the Artist’s Way has been on my bookshelf for years, occasionally opened and glanced at, but mostly ignored. I think you have a very compelling way of story-telling and you must, you MUST keep writing! You have much to say and the world needs to hear it. xoxox

  7. sassy says:

    Well said. (BTW, I love The Artist’s Way!) I’ve been learning this year not to hide, I guess taking myself seriously would be the next step, but blogdom has been essential to ‘coming out’ in a safe way.
    As for your writing, I definitely think that it has the merits to be taken seriously, and can’t wait to see what it unfolds.

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