We were encouraged to revisit the joy of climbing trees, of playing, of freedom from others' opinions and ideas. "Become your eight-year-old self," the teacher crooned, "and let that self guide you to unfettered creative delight."
Look: My eight-year-old self had an ulcer. My eight-year-old self carried a little bottle of mint-flavored Mylanta in her backpack to take before every meal. My eight-year-old self was seriously stressed out.
I did not climb trees. I was afraid to hang upside down on the monkey bars. I was a clumsy, shy kid who started reading at age three and from then on preferred reading to most human company. I had a few close friends, and enough social skill to avoid being much picked on, but I was not exactly what you'd call unfettered.
My childhood wasn't unhappy; don't get me wrong. I remember lunch hours filled with elaborate and wonderful make-believe--underwater explorers, settlers on the prairie, or Native Americans, the perennial favorite, always preparing for an impending winter--and I read a lot of books and loved them. Like I said, I wasn't picked on, though I certainly felt well outside the realm of cool even then. Thinking back, I have no idea what my classmates thought of me. I can remember no particular cruelties paid me, with the exception of a pair of boys who used to hassle my best friend and I, and trapped us once behind the obstacle course wall for a kiss.
In Opening the Creative Mind, I recall nothing said of work or habit. We spoke of flow and inspiration and how the great masters thought that God worked through them; we did not talk about how hard they worked.
So I started reading early. Started talking earlier still--before I could walk--started counting and multiplying and writing long before those things were taught in school. Before I was in school. In first grade we had a number of the day, and we sat in a circle and tried to think of ways to make that number: 4-1=3. 2+1=3. 1+2=3. And I said: 6÷2=3. -2+5=3. In second grade we each had a bookworm, a segmented insect made of construction paper, and for each book you read, you got another colored circle to add to the body of the worm. Books over a certain length garnered two circles. They hung on the back wall by the cubbies. Mine reached the floor early in the year, full of segments for the Lord of the Rings and Anne of Green Gables.
So people told me I was smart. People were proud of me because I was smart. I could barely ride a bike, I couldn't catch a ball, I wasn't pretty, but I was smart.
(Mom, I know you think I was pretty.)
At eight, I wasn't doing poorly in school, but I was worried. I was worried because for the first time, some things I was being asked to do required effort. I remember the first word I got wrong on a spelling quiz. (It was "probably" which I spelled "probly" because I that's what people actually say.) I had long ago conflated my grades with my intelligence and my intelligence with at least a portion of my worth; at eight, or maybe a little before, those grades no longer always came effortlessly. Smart meant effortless. I hadn't had to work to be smart before--do you see?--and now I did. So maybe I wasn't smart after all.
I recently read a great article about praise and self-esteem. The article claims that a child praised for her intelligence will tend to have a lower self-esteem and a lower chance of future success than one praised for her hard work. Because you can't control smart. And once you've been seen to have such a prized and elusive quality, you are constantly in danger of losing it. Any failure negates it.
So at eight, I self-identified as a smart kid. I was in the special after-school program for smart kids, in the advanced math class. But I felt--not consciously, but quite clearly just the same--that a) smart meant effortless and b) that I was going to be found out. Sure, homework often was easy, but not always. And sometimes I failed. (Failure meant anything other than an A.) Deep down I knew I was just masquerading as a smart kid, and that eventually I would encounter a problem that couldn't be solved easily, and I would have to work at it, and everyone would see that I had to work at it, and they would know I wasn't really smart. (And then no one would love me.)
Until I read that article, I had never really identified those feelings. Or that the whole thing plays out over again with the idea of creativity. I used to write and paint and draw, and people said I was creative, and I thought that creativity came from some magical source and that if I had to work at it, I wasn't really creative. So I would sit with paint and pencils and wait for inspiration to strike, for creativity to descend. Which sometimes worked, but mostly did not. And I began to feel that maybe I wasn't so creative after all. I stopped painting, stopped drawing. Stopped writing stories. Stopped writing mostly altogether.
Occasionally, I took an art class, and always I surprised myself with the work I produced, even without that evasive muse. Not phenomenal, but consistent, and pretty good. But then the class would end, and without the pressure of having to create, I would slip back into passive mode, waiting.
In my writing group last night, we briefly discussed Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers, and the now-mildly-famous idea of 10,000 hours: that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Or, put differently, that 10,000 hours will make you an expert at anything.
Someone in the group asked if it was a self-help book, and I scoffed. A self-help book would tell you that it takes ten minutes a day for six months. 10,000 hours is two hours a day for thirteen years; nobody's got time for that kind of commitment. But think about it: no mention made of talent, or inspiration, or intelligence. Nothing innate or elusive, nothing handed down from God. Just work. Just lots and lots of practice, lots and lots and lots of work. The only popular cultural affirmation of that idea I can think of is Edison's quote about genius and the ratios of perspiration to inspiration. But still: the lightbulb did not become a symbol of a strong work ethic.
Much can be (and is) made of special formulae and materials for successful writing. A room of one's own and a Moleskine and a MacBook, all of that. But I think that all successful writers share only one common habit: They write. They put their hours in.
I still self-identify as smart and creative, and I still have that slippery feeling that eventually I'll be found out as fraud in both arenas. What I am only beginning to believe about myself is that I am a hard worker. And that hard work suggests growth, not defeat.