I’m currently reading On Writing, by Stephen King and I just finished his anecdote about how his teacher Miss Hisler (am personally thinking it’s not such a coincidence that her name is one letter in the word and alphabet away from Miss Hitler) made him, as an eighth grader, give back all the money he made by selling his version of a movie he turned into a story because it was “trash” and how she didn’t understand “‘why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?'” She made him ashamed of what he liked to write and he says, “in my heart I stayed ashamed.” Even 40 years later he kept being ashamed of his work, his art, what he found joy, and an immense amount of money by the way, in writing.
I’ve also been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic podcast this week and she has an episode where she, and I believe it’s Martha Beck, speak about the immense harm done by so many teachers, parents, adults, bullying kids, basically anyone in a position of power, who make kids feel ashamed about their art. It’s this kind of scar that wounds so deeply precisely because art comes from a place of vulnerability and openness. Art is an extension of ourselves and so especially when we are young criticism about our art, or the things we find joy in doing and making, can hurt more deeply than many other criticisms. Most people who have experienced this kind of trauma can pinpoint the very moment that it happened. And years later, just like Stephen King, are still thinking about it, still feeling the hurt that it caused them, and in many cases still letting it hold them back from doing that thing which brought them incredible joy.
In the podcast they also talk about how unused creativity, especially that which has been blocked through hurtful criticism, can begin to fester. It can completely destroy people’s lives to be told that they are doing their art “wrong”, or what they enjoy is “trash” or that they aren’t using their talents toward someone else’s idea of worthy ends. Stephen King didn’t let this teacher’s criticism (disguised as a complement I might add) stop him from writing. He didn’t let it fester, but it has made him feel ashamed for much of his life despite unparalleled success.
I think that one of the reasons it’s taken me so long to realize my interest in writing, in being a writer, to accept that I too can do this art, is because of the way I was taught in school. I am someone who loves science fiction and fantasy books. I love YA books, Agatha Christie mysteries, and some thrillers, and occasionally “Literature” with a capitol L. English class, however, is never built upon reading Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or The Lord of the Rings or Ender’s Game, or any of Margaret Atwood (at least not when I was in school). It’s always Cormac McCarthy or Kafka or Didion or Hemingway or any other typical high school English Literature with a capitol L. Those authors who are deemed “worthy.” I’m not saying that they aren’t great authors, that their prose aren’t amazingly constructed or beautiful or deeply thought provoking. We all know they are. But what they’re not, at least for me, is fun.
They. Are. Not. Fun.
Reading them did not bring me joy, deconstructing them did not entice me to learn more about how to structure a story. I was not taught (that I remember) the elements of style, or the three or five act structure, or that compelling story telling is an innately human need, which when done right can move people in their soul, give others courage, and impact the world in ways which most people can never hope to do in any other profession. Reading them did tell me, covertly, that if I wanted to be a Writer with a capitol W then I needed to write like these people. I needed to think like those authors, I must find pleasure in reading their work. There was no thought about the fact that every one of the books I loved to read (and let me tell you I read a lot) was written by an author too. I actually took my AP English course specifically to take the exam so that I WOULD NEVER HAVE TO TAKE ANOTHER ENGLISH CLASS EVER AGAIN!
How crazy is that?! I like writing! I always have. Even when I was little I liked to write (though never felt confident about it -that’s another post I think), but that is how much I disliked English and what we were forced to read. I thought if I had to write one more essay on syntax, diction and imagery, I might actually have a mental break. It’s really just the most annoying thing to realize in your 30s that the way you were taught in high school (any school really) may have stopped you from doing something that brought you joy for close to 20 years. Imagine how it might feel for someone who let those ideas or the cruel opinion of others stop them from painting or writing or dancing for their whole life! Ahh it just makes me want to scream with frustration!!
Ok, calming down, having some wine… anyway…
So now, with that revelation in hand, I am setting out to write the stories that I want to write. The books I would love to read. The things that I think are FUN and bring me joy, and tears, and laughs and all of the things that I couldn’t find in “All The Pretty Horses” because man that guy is just dark! In the end it is only what YOU deem worthy that matters (as long as you’re not hurting anyone else -let’s be clear this doesn’t apply to sadistic torture or terrorism etc, please don’t be an a-hole to other people because you think it’s your art, got to have some basic standards of humanity here).
So if you ever got shut down by someone in “power” (bigger/older/bossier etc) who told you that your art was done “wrong,” or if you ever hear someone else being like that to a kid, and definitely if god forbid your own kid comes to you and says that someone told them that, please tell them to FUCK. OFF*. If not from you then definitely from me. You’re welcome in advance. No one, not Stephen King, not anyone, should have to feel ashamed for any amount of time for loving the art they love.
* actually I’m going to update this because while it would be really cathartic to say fuck off to that jerk of a person I think probably the right course of action would be to show compassion. So tell them to fuck off in your head, and then explain to them just how damaging their words can be. Especially to a child who is just beginning on this journey of life and is truly open and vulnerable and needing that adult to encourage them with love rather than shutting them down with criticism. I bet whomever it is that needs this talking to can also pinpoint that moment (maybe more than one) where their hopes and dreams and creativity was shut down, and it hurt them just as much.
Also, please be careful with your own words to make sure that you don’t accidentally shut someone else down. Language has power my friends. So much power. Whomever made up that stupid rhyme “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”…. boy did they get it backwards!
Here’s the truth:
Sticks and stones can ONLY break my bones, but your words can break my soul.