When it hits you, it hits you like a ton of bricks and a freight train.
I was such a rebel for such a long time. In AP art class in high school I butted heads with a teacher who wouldn’t accept fantasy-inspired artwork. She had several good reasons for this, including pushing me to learn techniques and getting me to create something that the AP board would like.
But she didn’t realize–or didn’t care about–the long term ramifications. I couldn’t feel something for a still life. I started a bunch of self portraits and got sick of my face so fast I nearly burned some. Fantasy images made me feel something, let me tell a story, transported me. They were beautiful.
It was drilled into me that this was my dysfunction–that the rest of the world was moved by normal things like bowls of apples and I was the freak for thinking forest-dwelling spellcasters and blind oracles mattered. In a fit of rebellion, I decided I would go with my heart and fill my portfolio with images from my stories. I came up with dozens of sketches and finished a huge watercolor in one night. For the first time in that class, I was happy.
Then I brought the first painting I’d ever felt proud of into critique…and I was shut down so hard it’s a wonder I was ever able to draw again.
After that, I tried to inject myself into my work in little ways, but I never recovered. I drew portraits. Adequate. Nothing special. I passed the AP.
Even in college, when I clarified with the teacher multiple times that I could draw whatever I wanted, I still stuck largely to safe, adequate images for a long time before I could create things I cared about again.
I ran into something similar with my writing program at college. Every class had a strict requirement: no genre fiction, so no fantasy, no sci-fi, no mystery suspense thrillers. It made me a better writer. I couldn’t hide behind a high concept, I had to actually focus on plot and characters. It worked wonders for me, and I managed to sneak a little bit of my style sometimes. And I still wrote fantasy on the side.
I needed that limitation. I did. But after four years of “Literary Fiction,” after hearing an English major disavow Odd Thomas because Dean Koontz was “the poor man’s Stephen King,” after smothering the urge to give someone in a story super powers, and after reading acres of literature when all I wanted to do was get the newest Mortal Instruments book, it started to sink in.
When I try to hold onto my identity as a writer, there’s a little voice in the back of my head (that sounds remarkably like my AP art teacher) that checks my enthusiasm: because if I feel something about it, it’s probably not high art. If it matters to me, no one else will care. For years I’ve been told not to trust my own perceptions, and I’m starting to internalize that.
To clarify, I can handle critique. I love critique. I learn more interesting things from people who don’t like my creations than those who do.
I’m talking not about criticism but about a steady broadcast into my brain over the years that says “What you make isn’t good enough. Dumb, normal people will like it but real artists with taste will know better. If you’re not alienating everyone, you’re doing it wrong. If they feel swept along by the story, you’re doing it wrong. If that book you loved was an easy and fun read, you shouldn’t love it.”
I used to be so good at tuning that out. I used to be so sure of my own perceptions, so sure I was right, but at some point I stopped trusting myself. Maybe after a while you’re still fighting on the outside but losing on the inside.
I’m trying to get my confidence back so I can figure out what I should be writing. But it’s hard. If anyone has any words of wisdom, I’d appreciate it. These words from Dean Koontz’s io9 interview have been comforting:
There’s all these rules of publishing that I don’t think anybody’s ever thought through. And I just started, many years ago, saying, “I don’t care. I have to entertain me first, and I have a low boredom threshold.” I write what I want to write, and I hope the public goes along with it, because I cannot do anything else. I couldn’t do plumbing, for instance, because I am totally incompetent at anything requiring tools. You do what you’re really enthusiastic about doing. And readers react to it, if they know your heart’s in it.
But then again, he’s just the poor man’s Stephen King, so if I was a true artist and knew better I wouldn’t be looking to him for advice.