Or: superstitions, stars, and stories.
Once upon a time, I was a writer.
When I started at Wossamatta U., I majored in creative writing, a degree in reading all sorts of writing, talking about writing, and learning how to do all sorts of writing myself. This is deceptively harder than it seems. After years of reading the canon of Western literature; arguing at length over signifiers and the signified; writing reams of erotic poetry to get dates, and enough term papers to fell a decent-sized forest; swearing to my advisor that really, I would never need to write a villanelle outside the confines of ENG 506; being the featured reader at local poetry readings -- after all that, I was given a very nice piece of paper with assorted colored decals stuck to it. The piece of paper vouched that I could be trusted to write competently enough to avoid my alma mater pretending it'd never heard of me, the way one might pretend to not know a drunken friend who's pissing on a car at the moment. The awards I’d won and the paper I’d presented at a national conference attested that on a good day, I could set my small corner of the academic world to smoldering, if not actually on fire.
After that, I worked as an editor, then as a designer, and also: Cajoler of the Server, Fetcher of Caffeine, and Maker of Pretty Trash. For the first few years I was working, I went to grad school, mainly because it was not only free, but I’d been accepted to the MFA program in under eight minutes, a record time in the 140-year history of the university.
All this is to say that I once was quite good at writing, before I started on the slippery path to becoming an art director.
But in the time before I was a writer, I was an artist.
A very bad one, but still known mostly for that talent. I wrote just as badly as I painted and drew, but the art was more impressive (not in the way I’d hoped to impress boys, irritatingly). Art didn't make me cool, but it bestowed on me a certain tolerance of my eccentricities from my peers, which was a priceless thing to have as a geeky teenager. When it came time to think about college, I didn't have the money to go to Europe, or even an art school, so I gave up on art. Instead I accepted a full scholarship to Wossamatta U., where the art program was dreadful, but the creative writing program was quickly growing into one of the best on the west coast.
Once I went off to college, I rarely picked up a brush or pencil, except for drawing quick birthday presents for friends, or doing 10 quick watercolor illustrations at three in the morning, to go with my 50-page paper on the temples of Karnack, due five hours later. (Mania is a fearsome thing.) At some point during my first year, a friend loaned me their copies of the Sandman comics, thinking I would like the story and the art. I did like both, very much, but the amazing covers and the interior art from other artists only reminded me that I wasn't drawing at all, and the wonderful stories Neil Gaiman told were rather wasted on me in the resultant flood of bitterness and guilt.
Once I graduated, I did even fewer illustrations, except for the occasional retouching of bald spots and wrinkles in trustees' photos. I focused on becoming a designer, learning by that great teacher, Deadlines. I managed to win some national awards in my admittedly very small field, and eventually became a decent designer, though not very spectacular, and definitely not a cool designer, like the ones that worked for agencies. During that twelve years, my art remained in the same portfolio I’d made out of corrugated cardboard in high school, collecting dust until curious friends would notice it, and ask to see what it was. Then I’d have to answer uncomfortable questions about why I never drew anymore, could I please draw something for them, could I draw them right that very minute, and could I please give them one of my old drawings if I didn't feel like drawing right now? I got very good at hiding the portfolio. I thought about just pitching it all in the trash to avoid the whole scene, more than a few times.
It wasn't until an art classmate from high school found me in the fall of 2002, and proceeded to bludgeon me into agreeing to pick art up again, that I gave much thought to art as a feasible profession. My friend's career had none of my detours into other professions, and now he had major motion picture credits to his name. Knowing that he and I had started in the same place, with the same amount of skill, and seeing the current chasm between our artistic careers, I was envious of his developed skill, resentful of the opportunities he'd had, and furious with myself for having become a writer and designer instead.
I have a fierce competitive streak, which makes my personal life problematic, but it's served me well in my academic and professional lives. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be terrible at anything I try my hand at, and I certainly will not be the worst of anyone I know. So my streak got the better of me, and I swallowed my pride and enrolled in classes at the closer of the two small art schools my friend recommended.
I discovered that I was, in fact, one of the worst students in the quick sketch class I was taking, and it infuriated me. All the artistic skill I once possessed deserted me the instant I picked up the conte 2B charcoal pencil. I would intend for my hand to go from the upper right to the lower left of the newsprint page, and instead it would skid and fork at a haphazard angle. I filled pages and pages of the smooth newsprint pad with practice circles and straight lines, and still somehow managed to not render anything remotely as good as my classmates' work. I would drive the 65 miles home, charcoal-smeared, exhausted, and on the verge of tears; come home, pull out my old portfolio, and wonder what happened to the talent I used to have.
One day in class, as I sat on my hard wooden saddle in the back of the room, wondering if it wouldn't be better to just set my entire pad on fire, a voice said from behind my right shoulder, "Hold your pencil like this." The voice belonged to a small man with bloodshot eyes and two silver earrings. I’d seen him before, tearing through the classroom to pick up a plaster cast of a foot or an armful of fabric from the prop room; so I guessed he was another instructor. As the man with two silver earrings patiently explained how to move my arm from the shoulder and use the entire side of the charcoal pencil, I thought Why is he being so kind to me? As quickly as he'd appeared, he left. On the way home that day, I decided I would take his classes.
For the next five years, I stubbornly continued trying to become an artist.
I took classes from the man with two silver earrings and learned his name: Ron. I kept on, in spite of wanting to throw my computer, my brush, my pencil, or my pen across the room, depending on the class. In spite of my divorce and other upheavals in my personal life, I continued to show up. My first attempts at illustration looked remarkably like Dave McKean's, I was told; though I had no idea who that was, until Ron showed me a book of McKean's work, and I recognized the Sandman covers. My irritation at inadvertently mimicking another artist was mingled with pride that at least I had imitated an artist I was jealous of.
I kept my full-time job as a designer, and changed jobs to become an art director. In five years, I grew from being the absolute worst student in the class, to being in the bottom third; and through a combination of my competitive streak and unwillingness to admit defeat, I improved slightly and could maybe be trusted on my own with paint for ten minutes at a stretch before I irreparably damaged my canvases. Over time, the man with two silver earrings and I became friendly; I followed him to the studio he opened; we weathered being annoyed with each other; and so became friends.
When I started art classes, I had made the mistake of mentioning I had been a writer.
I’d brought it up in moments of insecurity, to prove I was, contrary to my classmates' opinion, competent at something, even if it certainly wasn't art. However, I felt a familiar embarrassment every time someone asked me about writing, as I felt my writing skills backsliding, just as my art skills had. I hadn't been writing much, and so my writing worsened as my art improved, and annoyingly I became mediocre at both, instead of good at one and bad at the other. Instead of writing more, I just read authors I admired, and even came to include Neil Gaiman in that group after I had American Gods pressed into my hands. (It helped that there was no art to be jealous of in either American Gods or its sequel, Anansi Boys. definitely cut down on the temptation to throw the books across the room in jealous fits.) I’ve been limping along in this state for the last few years: wondering where my own voice went, and if I would ever get good at anything again, or at least good enough to haul myself out of the Pit of Absolutely Crap. Terrified is not too strong a word.
Last Friday, having taken my day off to be in the studio to copy drawings of the hand, the man with two silver earrings stopped me, mid-thumb. I inwardly sighed and wondered what new way I’d landed upon to ruin my drawing; surely in five years, I had found them all by now.
"When you were learning writing," he asked, "did you ever just copy someone's writing?"
I thought for a second, and said, "Um, well. We would write in their style to imitate their voice, learn why they chose the words they did, pick up their style; but we never just copied what someone had written. You learn nothing that way."
After some confusion and talking past each other, we arrived at the conclusion that in art, blindly copying someone else's work was equivalent to writing in an author's style, and I should draw these hands as if I were trying to imitate an author's diction. For the rest of class, I carried on making the artistic equivalent of mangling Dryden into Dick and Jane, but I thought about that idea for the rest of the day and the day after, when I drove the 65 miles home. I wondered where my own art had gone, where my writing had buggered off to, and if I could ever manage to find my creativity again, or if I would be stuck copying hands and writing emails for work, or worse, blog entries, for the rest of my creative life. Or maybe copying hands and imitating writing was the secret, after all.
The day after that, walking from my office to lunch, I noticed a great gray polystyrene monstrosity, and a horde of people with walkie-talkies, some laying cable and some shouting, trying very hard to look important and impress passersby. It was a crew, setting up for a movie premiere, and it was not exciting at all to me, as there seemed to be movies premiered at this theater with such frequency that I often wondered how any movies managed to get made, given all the time the crews spent yards away from my office and not in film studios. I was extremely annoyed to discover the next morning that this particular premiere was for the version of Beowulf that Neil Gaiman had written; I checked his blog, and sure enough, he'd been there, at the theater, under the great gray monstrosity. A writer I admired enormously had come within yards of me, and I missed it entirely. A friend I mentioned this to laughed and said to me, "What, did you think if you met him, his creativity would rub off on you?"
"Of course not," I said. "I’m not that stupid. No, I just want to tell him how his work used to make me feel guilty for not drawing, and now it doesn't." My friend looked at me. "Okay, on second thought, maybe it's better I didn't actually meet him."
Early the next morning, I had to walk past the same theater to get to a meeting, and as I walked by the posters for coming attractions, I thought, I wonder if Neil’s creativity would rub off on me, actually, but dismissed it as stupid superstition. On the way back from the meeting, I walked toward the theater again, and thought, This is stupid… but nothing else is working.
Under the awning of the theater, there was a six-pointed star made of brick.
I stood in the center of the star, ignoring the strange looks I was getting from the nearby Starbucks patrons, and closed my eyes, and wondered if there was really such a thing as residual creativity, and how stupid did I look standing in front of a closed theatre by myself, and would this actually even work?
I had no great revelations standing in the star. I walked over to the Beowulf movie poster and took a picture of myself with it, so that the curious onlookers would think me a fan instead of a lunatic. I had no revelations that afternoon, or that evening.
I woke up this morning with the thought that since I’d done one stupid thing, I might as well do another -- to try the writing equivalent of copying hands: imitating a voice, and why not Neil’s? Standing in the star and telling myself his creativity rubbed off on me was definitely stupid, but many other exercises I have done in the past to jar myself into being creative have also been quite stupid, so why stop the trend?
So here we are, at the end of my longest blog post in ages. I haven't become a better writer since yesterday, or a better artist, or a better designer, or art director. For one thing, I’m still not good at using capital letters in informal writing. But I am quite good at stubbornly doing stupid things.
And also, superstitious things.
And maybe someday, again being able to tell stories, especially the ones that begin, "once upon a time…"