Last week, my writing group discussed how long we’d been working at the craft, what got us started, and what keeps us going. The stories ranged from silly to serious, but there were a few things we all shared. For example, we all love reading and do so voraciously. We also started penning stories, poems, and essays at a very young age. Each one of fell in love with words, and there were moments and people who helped us discover just how winsome they truly are.
I think the same is true of other creative efforts like dance, art, music, cooking, and design. We each have a certain amount of natural talent in one or more of these areas, and it can always be developed through disciplined practice and the help of experts.
I wish my first grade teacher, Mrs. Davis, had thought about this fact. One week, she gave our class an assignment: draw a character and write a story featuring him/her. I’m sad to say I don’t have the original drawing, so I tried to re-create it using the crude art supplies in my office. Ladies and gents, I give you Miranda…
First off, I apologize for the uber creepy Jack Nicholson Joker lips, but it did the best I could. I remember her story was a simple one. She was ten years old (the age I so desperately wanted to be at the time because it had two numbers in it instead of one). She had curly brown hair and green eyes. She was a singer who loved animals and the color purple. I believe she rescued a fluffy gray and white kitten and gave it to a lonely old lady named Mrs. Kimberly who lived down the street. Yeah, she was pretty boss.
Well, when it came to drawing her, I was a little perplexed. I was the kid who liked to paint a picture with words rather than shapes and colors. But the assignment required both parts, so I–ever the diligent student–set out to complete the second part.
When we’d finished our work, we sat around Mrs. Davis in a circle, and she held our drawings up for everyone to see. She asked us questions about them, especially what we saw and liked. Finally, it was my turn, and she held up my drawing of Miranda. I held by breath, wondering what everyone would say about my magnum opus. But all she said was, “What’s wrong with this picture, class?”
Wrong? What’s wrong? I asked myself. What could possibly be wrong with it?
My classmates threw in suggestions until Mrs. Davis finally gave up and answered her own question, “It’s wrong because she doesn’t have any ears.” Everyone snickered, and she moved on to the next victim.
I wanted to defend my artistic choice, to scream, “Of course she has ears, you ninny! They’re under her hair!” But I didn’t because I was mortified.
When I saw the assignment the next day, I saw a huge red “B” etched in one corner and the same assessment scribbled in another. For an entire week, the drawing was pinned to the bulletin board at the front of our classroom—mocking me. And I think that was the moment I gave up any and all thoughts of trying my hand at art.
Granted, I never would have been naturally gifted at it. You can tell that I have no eye for proportion or form. Unlike my friend Jeff Gregory, whose doodles are works of brillance, I could never labor over something made of acrylic, pencil, or charcoal and make it beautiful. But I always wonder if Mrs. Davis’ appraisal of my drawing forever altered some part of me that was willing to take a risk with something new, something that I wasn’t necessarily skilled at but could have gotten better with over time. Horses were only things I ever practiced drawing from that point on because, like all girls, I was obsessed with them. I doodled in notebooks, but I showed what I’d drawn to no one. And no matter how much I tried, they never got better than this…
My writing, however, fared far better. Granted, I’m still far from perfect (and famous…and rich…and critically acclaimed), but I enjoy scribbling words on paper as much now as I did at the tender age of seven. More so, in fact. And while I know this mostly due to my own desire, I can’t help but think Mrs. Davis played a role in it as well.
She caught me staring at that scarlet B one day in class. She said nothing at the time, but before I left for home that afternoon, she pulled me aside and admitted, “Your story was very well done, Jamie. I liked Miranda.”
It was the first compliment for my writing I’d received from someone who was not related to me. I suddenly discovered something very interesting on one of my shoes and mumbled, “Thank you” in reply. I was embarrassed, but it wasn’t just because of the praise. All I could think was that I wished she had given it sooner.
Why? Well, that’s the what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”
The day my drawing met with criticism and laughter, I did something I’d regretted ever since. I went back to the art corner to sharpen my pencil using the silver hand crank unit we all remember so well. When I went to wedge my good old number two in the slot, I realized I’d also carried a blue crayon back there with me. Camouflaged by a half wall stacks of paper, and jars of tempura paint, I had a “wonderful, awful idea.”
In a moment of impish inspiration, I decided I would show her the extent of my ire by sharpening it too. Yeah, I went there.
I gummed up the works of that machine with my aqua-tinted rage and felt somewhat justified for having done so. But when we left for music class, I saw her carrying the sharpener to the bathroom and felt triumphant for another 2.7 seconds until I realized she’d spend most of her planning period cleaning up the mess. Then I felt putrid about it. And the compliment she gave me only made it worse.
I learned several valuable lessons from the entire experience, the most important of which is this: Words matter. Kind ones are worth the time it takes to say them. Unkind ones wound. They can change someone’s opinion about an issue or a moment in time or even make a person love or hate herself. They can inspire people to greatness or leave them defeated before they begin. Words are powerful in a way few things will ever be, and they’re ours for the using. So that means we should always use them well.
How about you all? Is there a talent you always wanted to explore but didn’t? A person you’d like to thank for encouraging you to pursue one? What do you think about words, both kind and cruel? Give me your thoughts in the comments section below.