I always wanted a hobby—a creative effort that doesn't involve writing.
Other people scrapbook, shoot photographs, knit, bake, build model airplanes, and collect stamps. My best friend Laura cooks, writes, draws, plays violin, learns French on her app, plays word games, tends an herb garden, and crochets. But I only write.
Or I did, until a little over a year ago when I wanted to make Laura a wall hanging that read "Have courage and be kind" to accompany a Cinderella picture in her bedroom. After thinking through my options of people who could draw or carve or paint it for me, I decided to do it myself—by learning how to hand letter.
After some research, I found myself among markers and T-squares, textured papers and pencils in a craft store. As we walked out of the store with a sketchpad and pens, Laura looked at me and said, "Congratulations, Pal. You have a hobby."
In high school, I drew a few sketches for contests—a misshapen horse and asymmetrical sunflower—and have been doodling on napkins and church bulletins for as long as I can remember. Still, I'm no Leonardo da Vinci. So, every time I devise a new design for a lettering, I run up against the boundaries of my creative abilities. Eventually, after scrawling one failed thumbnail after another, I ask Laura for help. She sketches something right away that blows a hole in my artistic barriers, allowing me to crawl through and take my project in a new direction.
But I don't like asking for her help.
It's not that I'm ungrateful for her skill or willingness. It just wasn't my idea, and I feel like a cheater, a lesser artist, for accepting help. It’s as if someone else's idea touching my work disqualifies my own creativity. Like the old myth that a human's touch turns the mother bird against her chick, I recoil at my own project after it's been in someone else's hands.
This weakness goes back to my writing. When I read an insightful essay that someone else wrote or see a metaphor that I wish I had thought of or hear a different perspective that had eluded me, I’m guilty, resentful even, that I hadn't thought of or written it. It feels as if I let myself down—as if the world is tsk tsk-ing me for my incompetency.
In short, I feel bad for not having written everything. You might call it pride.
Back in 1776, the Second Continental Congress assigned a committee of five men to write a document declaring America's independence from Britain. The committee consisted of Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson.
Though the committee wanted Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson voted for John Adams to write it. Adams, however, insisted that Jefferson be the chief author, since, he said, "I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. . . . [And] you can write ten times better than I can.'"
When I read this account, I was struck with John Adam’s humility to forego the honor of drafting one of the country's most important documents by admitting that Jefferson would do a better job. Sure, John Adams came along with the rest of the committee later and gave his input, but I'm glad that he let Jefferson pen the first draft. Otherwise, we might not have some of these transcendent lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Artists are collages of experiences and relationships. A good work of art doesn't merely incubate in the artist but rather flourishes from the encouragement, interaction, criticism, or evaluation of others.
Art of every kind is lonely work—but it's certainly not something we do alone. I think of the fellow writers from my master of fine arts residencies who read my work and challenged me to grow. I think of how dear those writers are to me still, years after we earned our degrees. Their insight and opinions informed my writing and, I hope, mine informed theirs. But it did not happen easily. It took a great deal of humility to delete a paragraph and try someone else's suggestion—and even more humility to admit that her idea was better.
Art takes a sort of submission to community. It is an act of minimizing ourselves to accept the world’s gifts, for art at its finest is greater than the artist.
When I ask for Laura’s help on my lettering projects, I cringe as she adds a swirl or shading or color change. But my work always turns out better for her touch.
Her contribution doesn't make me a weaker artist; it just makes me a humbler one. And I'd like to think I can only get better from there.
Sarah Eshleman lives with her best friend, Laura, and her rotten dachshund, Dudley, in Northern Kentucky where she works as a content editor. Read more of her writing at The View from Goose Hill blog (theviewfromgoosehill.wordpress.com). You can also find her short piece in the 2017 fall issue of Ruminate Magazine. She believes that between the lines, life is poetry, tragic and beautiful, and at the places where life gets knotted up, you’ll find the most beauty and grace.
Psst, more on writing here.
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