of The Illustrator’s Wife
Blog: The Illustrator’s Wife
B i o g r a p h y :
Give Yourself Permission to Fail
When I was in second grade, my Dad built a stage for me in the backyard. Most kids ask for a tree house, a swing set; I wanted a stage. By fourth grade, I had landed my first starring role – the title character of Alice in “Alice in Wonderland” at the local community children’s theater.
And being the sort of over-achieving, perfectionist, (bossy) child that I was, I took it upon myself to learn not only my own lines – oh no – but the lines of every character in the play. My Mom still can’t bring it up without bursting into laughter. I barely remember it, but apparently, whenever any of my (ahem…lesser) fellow child actors forgot their lines during a performance, I reached for a sizeable lock of my shimmery blond Alice wig, covered my mouth with the strand of hair, and whispered their lines to them.
It was bad.
But I kept acting, and I started getting better. I went to college as a theater performance major, and immediately, from my very first semester freshman year, I was getting cast in shows.
Most of my friends were actors, too. And we were all in the process of being good and getting better, together.
When we weren’t rehearsing a show, we were out eating together at the local, somewhat sketchy Mexican place, staying out late, seeing films, talking shop. We were cool, and I felt crazily happy to be counted among them – we were The Actors.
Meagan Page as Emily Webb in Our Town
But there was this one girl – I’ll call her “Missy”. I didn’t really notice her until my sophomore year, and even then, it was because we had a class together and the professor paired us for an assignment. She was a year ahead of me, and she was tall and mostly pretty, but Missy, bless her heart (that’s a phrase we southern women use to absolve ourselves when we’re about to speak ill of someone), Missy couldn’t act to save her life.
She couldn’t help it, but she had a southern accent thick as molasses, which made it difficult for her to get roles, and I remember thinking when I watched her in class that she always bulldozed through her lines – she never gave them space, never let them open up naturally from inside of her.
(I should stop and say, just so it is said, that none of us ever made fun of Missy. We actors, for all our vices, are at least a sensitive bunch, and her accent was so redneck, her acting was so terrible – and she really did try so desperately; she ever so willingly took our critiques, even sought us out for them – it would’ve been cruel to laugh at her.)
Well, I graduated. I did some acting here and there, some plays, some commercials and industrials, had a short stint on One Tree Hill. Just did my thing; didn’t think again about Missy.
And then one day, I’m talking with one of my college roommates, and she tells me, remember Missy? Yeah, that Missy. She’s living in New York City now, making a career of acting. She got a speech therapist or something and the accent’s gone. She’s off-broadway. She’s getting rave reviews from the critics.
WHAT? Missy? Missy! Our MISSY?
Yep, sure enough, it was true. Our very own horribly southern, what-do-I-do-with-my-hands-when-I’m-on-stage awkward Missy. Playing to sell-out crowds in the Big Apple.
Funny how the world works. And yet, why am I so surprised? Missy is a great example of a common fact: Most successful artists don’t immediately start out as successful artists. Most people don’t create beautiful, interesting, layered works of extreme creative genius until they have been sucking for a few years, maybe a decade.
You have to be willing to put some bad art out there with your name on it before you get to make the good art.
This is a lesson of which my husband and I constantly have to remind one another. I’ve found so often that when I sit down to write (I’ve taken up writing a lot more than acting these days), the first question that comes to my mind is, “How dare you think you have anything worthwhile to say?” The little voice in my head starts taking on the flesh of all those people I most want to impress in my life, and they’re all looking down their noses at my writing, mocking it, or shaking their heads in pity at my utter lack of talent.
Jake tells me he deals with something similar. If he’s not careful, the monster of perfectionism will grab him by the throat as soon as he sits at his drawing table and he’ll spend hours theorizing on the perfect illustration instead of just drawing.
And it’s going to happen to you, too. You have to accept that you’re going to fail some. I’ve had to accept that all my writing (or acting, or cooking, or painting, or sewing, or dancing, or crafting, or violin playing, or whatever other creative endeavors I may try) – it’s not all going to be a home run every time. But you know what? That is okay.
I really want to encourage all of you who want to be creative, who desperately want to turn something invisible into something visible, those of you who deeply want to play and be original and experiment, but you don’t try because every time you have it’s turned out badly. You don’t have “the gift”, you say.
Typewriter by Madelyn Mulvaney
Well now, it’s true of course that we aren’t all born with the ability to paint like Picasso or sing like Andrea Bocelli or sculpt like Henry Moore. I will never, ever be able to draw like my husband does.
|Illustration by Jake Page|
But nevertheless, if we are human, than we have the ability, the potential, to be creative. It’s intrinsic to our nature. We all have imaginations, don’t we? And we’re all alive, we all experience things and want to respond, want to grapple and discover and express. So do it.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish philosopher and rabbi, once said, “Start working on the great work of art called your own existence.” None of us are productivity machines; we were meant to enjoy our lives, enjoy each other, and, I believe, enjoy God. And creativity is about just that. It’s about being fully alive, living courageously, or, as the painter Joan Miró says, “Expressing with precision all the gold sparks the soul gives off.”
Photograph from Sakura Love’s Photostream
So don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to fail.
And don’t be ashamed if your stuff really, really sucks at first.
You’ll get there.
Just keep swimming… Just keep swimming…
I happen to believe there’s a little bit of an artist in all of us. And artists are not of the stock who shrink back. So be bold. Be courageous. Take every major disaster and every tiny error, every wrong turn, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat, and tears – and let it have meaning. Reuse, reshape, learn, grow. Recast all that goes wrong so that in the end none of your failings are wasted and nothing is without significance and everything, everything is precious to you.