I was watching my four-year-old draw on a chalkboard recently. He would pick up a color and draw a box and then fill it in with another color. He would then try to draw things around it to make the box look attractive in some way. Once the masterpiece was done, he would stand back and examine it. If he liked it, he would turn to me and say, “Mama, look what I did!” But if he did not, he would pick up the eraser and erase the box and start again.
Such a simple gesture—but it made me think how children are not critical of their art. In fact, they are proud of birthing it in different ways, without wondering if it will be good enough or not. The pride and the pleasure seem to lie in the trying, in the process.
As a child, I used to love to play with Lego sets. My father would get me boxes of Legos with beautiful pictures of beautiful things I could make. When I was very young, I would make the different structures, then destroy them and make them again. But what I remember more clearly is that as I got older, I stopped taking the finished pieces apart. I remember building a huge black tower that was, to my young eyes, simply stunning. It had all these small blocks that had to be aligned just right. But once it was done, I put it up on the bookshelf, never to have anything to do with it again. A few years later, my mother gave it away to some charity. Or maybe she threw it away. The point is that the masterpiece was . . . pointless.
As I looked at my young son drawing his boxes, it dawned on me that I still do that. I write stories and then think they are lousy, stick them in an electronic drawer and never visit them again. They seem like a lost cause. Essays languish in the “What on earth was I thinking?” folder in Word, never to be seen by an editor’s eye.
Later that day, after watching my son play with chalk, I was reading Grant Achatz’s interview on NPR and wondering what he would do next. He is a fantastic chef who lost his sense of taste to cancer of the tongue. A bit of Googling and I found out that his new restaurant is going to be called NEXT and it is a place where they will be inventing and serving new menus every few months. They are serving futuristic menus, classic menus—but the heart of it is that they will be birthing new things every three months: a creative rebirth in the true sense of the word. It struck me as amazing. Such a simple idea, and yet one that will keep clients coming back for more new dishes. Recreating an entire menu every three months is not for everyone, but therein is the point: it is for those of us whose professions are built on being creative.
As a writer, I’ve found myself wondering if I have already told all the stories I need to tell, if I will ever have new ideas come to me, if I have already tapped out my memory bank. It has been difficult to navigate these feelings. But now I look at it differently: I have had to reinvent myself since the first year that I started writing. At first, I was writing online about food, then I was writing in print about food, then I began to write about travel, and then someone suggested I start a blog, and then came the baby carriage and stories of kids . . . Then came radio where I was talking about my writing, and then, of course, I was taking pictures of my food for my blog and for magazines. And now it is all about writing apps and more. At first, I was upset: Look at all that is expected of a writer these days! You have to be able to write, photograph, speak on the radio and write for the radio, the blog, and more! I had to constantly reposition myself, grow my skills, present a new front to the world. I had to birth myself again and again to stay competitive.
Slowly, I have begun to apply this “creative rebirth” to those pieces I originally deemed as junk writing. I began to bring out the stories I had tossed aside as failures and began to apply the “eraser method” I had learned from my child. I deleted a lot, edited, rewrote, and reworked my so-called failed pieces. Some pieces benefitted from the work and have now been published in magazines. Some went back into the electronic drawer. But this time, the drawer is labeled “For further review.”
Inherent in the process of being a writer, I have learned, is creative rebirth. This rebirth is what keeps my words fresh and keeps my stories from an early grave. But more important, it keeps the readers coming back for more—and that is what really counts.
And yet, In the process of adding on layers of ‘ things to do’ to our core individual passions..it probably never occurs to us to simply ‘stop’ and resign to a ‘I can’t do it’ sentiment. Like water flowing incessantly around a rock weathering it down, our brains constantly figure out ways to improve!
Great post, Monica. It’s hard, as you grow older, to not worry about how good something is or isn’t. I haven’t written many things because I dismiss them before they even come to life.
I think it’s good to stand back and admire your work on the shelf. I think it’s good to put some things away for “later.” And sometimes the things we write are just an exercise to keep us writing–not necessarily for others. So, even if you’re keeping it in an electronic drawer, it was not pointless–it was an exercise to keep you writing. And revisiting is good–because maybe something else will come of it.
This one is like a little gift from the universe, as I struggle through a personal essay and a cookbook proposal all while watching my daughter get first grasp on her ABCs. Awesome.
this certainly resonated with me–thanks for posting. these reminders of the chimera-like nature of creativity are invaluable to relearn!
Nice post. Writing is an inherent battle with the self, as you’re the critic in a private act. Revisiting quiets these critical voices. Also, I love Legos.
Monica, I can’t stay away! This is another great post that has got me thinking and re-thinking of my own re-birth. Thanks for lighting that spark in me. Now, I’m off to re-invent and re-do. Thanks for sharing!
This is such a reassuring post to me as a new “writer”. I would not call myself that but I do find myself doing those things that you exactly describe: throwing away many paper drafts as a kid and now discarding digital files or at least tossing them in a hideaway place. Thanks for making me feel a little better! I’m glad I finally started tweeting so I could easily find links to great food writers like yourself.
An honest perspective, Monica.
There are so many things we can learn from children. I regret so much that I grew up too fast and starting second-guessing my writing at an early age. Oh, how I wish I had my journals and all those notebooks filled with stories and poems I wrote as a teenager – I know now the were beautifully written for that age, even though they did not pass the scrutiny of my later years:)
I applaud you, Monica, for realizing that new beginnings are refreshing and innovating. Yes, we learn new things and see the world in a different way and that makes us better every day.
Here is to breaking out of the cocoon again and again!
Thank you for sharing this! It rings true for me in so many ways. I’ve been thinking about reworking some essays that I’ve left for electronic junk. I heard Grant Achatz speak at IACP about NEXT and was completely awed by his creative sensibility and vision.
Leaving here, I’m inspired as always.
You are always so kind to me. Thank you.
I must learn to save for later and not delete outright. Thank you! And how fun are legos! love them! my toddler enjoys knocking down his blocks even more than he likes building them. He must get that from me :